The greatest Briton: Lord Reith

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Lord Reith

By Will Hutton, chief executive of The Work Foundation

Successful leaders create successful organisations, and the greatest litmus
test of success is the organisation’s ability to prosper over time.

It isn’t difficult to create short-term success – any fool can squeeze
profits out of a company to reward the shareholders today at tomorrow’s
expense. And equally, it isn’t difficult to take the money from taxpayers or
shareholders, and start up an organisation.

The real issue is whether the leader can build foundations secure enough for
the organisation to endure.

I believe that the necessary condition for organisational success is the
creation of a sense of purpose at its core which everyone – customers,
suppliers and above all, employees – understands. The books have to balance, of
course, and there must be a franchise that produces a flow of income in excess
of costs. But the genius is to line up the organisation’s values with what it
is doing, so that everybody knows what they are about.

This is much more than a mission and values statement. It offers everyone in
the corporation a sense of direction which transcends the daily grind and gives
their work meaning. They are there to serve a genuine economic and social need,
and are both necessary parts of society and the economy. Work matters to
people, and successful organisations are those which manage to convince their
workers that because their organisation stands for something, they too stand
for something.

Once established, the benefits are profound. Everybody has an idea of what
the organisation should be doing. Power can be delegated to individual
managers, administrators and team leaders, because they know the broad
parameters that inform their decisions. The organisation can concentrate its
efforts in areas that are in line with its long-term aims, from research and
development to marketing. There is a shared culture that permits everybody to
participate in company-wide conversation – the origin of shared values, aims
and effort. This is how trust, commitment and creativity are developed.

A unique organisation

Every organisation seeks this alchemy, but few achieve it. Which is why my
choice for the Greatest Briton in Management and Leadership is Lord Reith, the
first director-general of the BBC (1927-1938).

Britain does not have many great organisations in either the public or
private sector – indeed, they can be counted on one hand. One reason that so
many services are poor and goods second rate in the private and public sector
alike, is that we do not organise ourselves well. Our organisations are second
rate because nobody has taken the care to think through their purpose and

But the BBC is an organisation that works. It has an international
reputation for integrity that most employers would die for, and is renowned for
consistent creativity, which generates extraordinary loyalty – and we have Lord
John Reith to thank for that.

In many respects, this Scotsman was a thoroughly inadequate human being:
vain, self-centred, prudish and, by the end of his life, self-pitying.

But he did something unique. He did not just assemble the first engineers,
producers and presenters in the mid-1920s who were to be the core of the
fledgling BBC. He gave the infant organisation a sense of purpose which has
guided it to this very day, which new entrants – whatever their politics,
values or previous career – cannot escape from, be they a sound engineer, a
young producer or the new director general.

The BBC’s job is to inform, educate and entertain at the highest quality as
part of its duty to the public who watch and listen to its output. As a public
service broadcaster, it is obliged to earn its licence fee by appealing to the
public and acknowledging all their disparate interests. Just look at the
contrasts between Songs of Praise and The League of Gentlemen, or Radio One and
Radio Four.

It was Reith who unwaveringly insisted on this ethic and the BBC’s purpose.
Any manager could have started a national broadcasting organisation, but it
took a genius to build an organisation around a public service broadcasting
ethic – and one that continues to defy efforts to privatise it to this day.

Nobody has come up with a substitute for the licence fee, and nobody – not
even Lady Thatcher in her heyday – has ever dared to privatise it.

It beats its rivals in the private sector because of its dedication to
excellence, creativity and impartiality. Of course, it does occasionally fall
from grace, but in the round Britain would not be without the BBC.

Reith was its director general for little more than the first decade of its
life, and he left it more than 50 years ago. Yet, it still bears his imprint
and continues to prosper. Some leader; some legacy.

Reith’s CV

1889 John Charles Walsham Reith born
in Stonehaven, Scotland

1922 After fighting in the First World War, he was appointed as
the first general manager of the BBC

1927 Knighted. Became director general for next 11 years

1940 MP for Southampton

1942 Minister of works and buildings

1948 Annual Reith Lectures established in his honour

1971 Died

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