Modern management’s angelic legacy is stuck in the past

Francesco Botticini’s The Assumption of the Virgin shows the heavenly hierarchies at play.

One of the oldest assumptions about organising comes directly from the angels. In the 5th century, the mysterious theologian Pseudo-Dionysius wrote the definitive book on angelic hierarchies, Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. He asserted that there were nine orders of hierarchy, ranging from the most humble messenger angels to the most elevated archangels. At the top, obviously, was God. And this analysis has filtered down to the way that management structures and their hierarchies exist today.

According to Pseudo-Dionysius, God’s light was so bright that only the topmost angels would not shrivel in it. Hence the angels acted as relays, each order taking brightness off with each step, until the lower angels could talk to the highest human beings. “Hark”, they would say, “Fear not!”. And the recipient of the message would, of course, quake with wonder and terror.

Pseudo-Dionysius then proceeded to describe the necessary existence of hierarchies on earth; 15 stages in all, from the most elevated bishop down to the lowest peasants. Hierarchy was a principle of nature, and so all parts of nature must be organised vertically. The rich man in his castle, and the poor man at his gate.

Pseudo-Dionysius.

Five centuries later these writings became a central part of scholarly debate in the emerging universities of the time. A central part of the curriculum in, for example, the medieval University of Paris, was angelic. Angels allowed people to discuss philosophical and social questions, without stepping too far away from the authority of the church. So divine rights, feudal authority and free will could all be debated, without too much danger of excommunication and heresy.

The children of the new mercantile classes could be educated, but know their place in earth and heaven. Ideas about social order became explained with reference to theological order. Obedience to authority was the key, and ideas about social organisation gradually became inseparable from ideas of hierarchy.

Today’s management schools

Fast forward a millennium and we now have management schools in universities across the world which teach the modern version of hierarchy – but Pseudo-Dionysius has been forgotten. Nowadays, ideas about social order no longer begin with God, at least not explicitly, but they certainly trade on the same ideas about where authority comes from: the top.

The teachings of these schools echo the medieval kind in many ways, in that it is safe to discuss empowerment, flat organisations and 360° appraisal, as long as the structures of power are not actually challenged. Rather like discussing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, students of management discuss “case studies” that present various fictions about the world of work, but rarely question the status quo.

In fact, according to the modern day business school, management is no longer bureaucratic, hierarchical or exploitative, and modern managers require the enthusiasm and consent of their employees. But in case you assume the lessons of the archangels have been forgotten, just think about what else business schools do. As necessarily profitable parts of universities, they sell themselves as guaranteeing that you will become one of the higher angels. After all, students don’t pay huge fees in order to become members of the peasantry.

Despite all this talk of empowerment, the very idea of management is necessarily about hierarchy. It proposes that there are some who organise, and that there are others who get organised. And, just in case you can’t tell the difference, the ones who organise get paid more.

Worrying legacy

The legacy of Pseudo-Dionysius that worries me most is not simply the stupidity of taking a 5th-century theologian as a model for 21st-century organising, but the political consequences of it. Just as medieval academics echoed the sorts of things that medieval kings and princes wanted to hear, so do those providing advice to the new princes flatter them with terms such as “leadership”, “charisma” and “inspiration”.

Management theory here echoes an ancient theology, borrowing its language to sell books, fund generous research programmes and celebrate the idea that some people lead, and others follow. The characteristics of the leader are listed, and testaments to their radiance act as a sort of revealed truth.

It doesn’t have to be like this, any more than universities have to teach that for journalists and academics. In case you’re wondering, their angel is Raphael, who represents communication and science. In fact, there are plenty of alternatives to hierarchical organisation – communes, co-operatives, networks and communities to name a few.

Within all of these alternative forms there may well be different distributions of power, and influence, so that hierarchy actually ends up being one form of organisation among others. In other words, we can all be organisers in different ways, at different times. We don’t need to wait for others to do it for us, whether they have MBAs or wings. But to claim this too loudly would be heresy. It would suggest that we could all be angels.