‘You get what you settle for.’ Such advice could come from almost any twenty-first century boardroom, office or business school. In fact Appius Caecus – he of the Appian Wall, north of Hadrian’s Wall – wrote his sales and marketing advice in 300BC.

Fictional works are filled with such business tips. Take, for example, the comment made by Loodun Antyok in Isaac Asimov’s Blind Alley: ‘a capable administrator can work through red tape and still get what he wants.’ Or how about Dickens? Even Scrooge, the miserable curmudgeon in A Christmas Carol, speaks in defence of his former employer, Mr Fezziwig: ‘he had the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.’ Unlike Dickens, many managers seem unaware of the influence they have over the lives of the people who work for them. Or perhaps they simply don’t care. Staff expect to have to work hard, particularly in today’s business climate, but a boss who’s pleasant, who gives praise where it’s due, and who’s ready to encourage and explain, finds that contented employees make for profitable business.

How not to be a good boss – at least for muggles – is epitomised by Mr Dursley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: ‘he yelled at five different people. He made several important phone calls and shouted a bit more.’ Contrast this with the attitude of supervisor Haresh Khanna, the ‘suitable boy’ of Vikram Seth’s book of the same title: ‘He had no airs of superiority when he talked to them [machinists in a shoe factory] and this pleased them. Through their pleasure in exchanging the expertise of their trade, Haresh himself got interested in the mechanics of machines… how he might be able to make small innovations to improve their performance.’ Although in a position of responsibility, Haresh feels no need to pretend that he knows everything and is not afraid to learn from the people who work for him. His willingness to talk and listen reassures his colleagues, avoids the pitfalls of diffidence and resentment, and fosters good communication. His staff begin to demonstrate their pride and skill in their work; their boss gains an appreciation of what they do. Both learn to work together more productively.

As Hanesh shows, the best staff development isn’t always through formal training courses. Making successful use of in-house skills is a skill in itself and good managers recognise that their staff often have knowledge or experience which could valuably be shared with colleagues. Shaw touches on skill-sharing in his stage directions to Act III of Arms and the Man: ‘At the head of [the table] sits Sergius, who is supposed to be also at work, but is actually gnawing the feather of a pen and contemplating Bluntschli’s quick, sure, businesslike progress with a mixture of envious irritation at his own incapacity and awestruck wonder at an ability which seems to him almost miraculous.’

Training a successor is sometimes viewed suspiciously, as though the trainer is in danger of doing herself out of a job. Yet who wants to be irreplaceable if promotion, more interesting work, greater challenges, or simply more time, is attainable by making sure that someone else can take over current duties? Ellis Peters in The Sanctuary Sparrow comments on the abilities of a journeyman locksmith and the flair for delegation of his boss: ‘John Boneth knew everything his skilled but idle tutor could teach him, and was quite capable of running the business single handed.’ The master locksmith, meanwhile, was sunning himself in his garden.

Of course, works of fiction also include wonderful and occasionally comic examples of how the perception of business has changed over the years. Take for example Miss Matty in Elizabeth Gaskill’s Cranford, a gentlewoman who is ruined when her bank ceases to trade. She resorts to supporting herself by selling tea, once she can ‘get over the degradation of condescending to anything like trade…’! Similar snobbishness, although in this case tinged with irony, is shown towards Elizabeth Bennett’s uncle in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘Mr Gardiner was a sensible, gentlemanlike man… the Netherfield ladies would have had difficulty in believing that a man who lived by trade, and within view of his own warehouses, could have been so well bred and agreeable.’ Gaskill explores the question more fully in North and South where Mr Thornton, mill owner, explains to critic Margaret Hale: ‘The rapid development of what might be called a new trade, gave those early masters enormous power of wealth and command. I don’t mean merely over the workmen; I mean over purchasers – over the whole world’s market… Fancy a man dictating in this manner the time when he would sell and when he would not sell. Now, I believe, if a good customer chose to come at midnight, I should get up, and stand hat in hand to receive his orders.’

No-one would want to return to a time when birth and appearance mattered more than skill, knowledge, qualification and ability, yet dated works of fiction can still speak relevant truths across the years. Making allowances for the chauvinistic language – and bear in mind that very few women held other than menial posts in 1938 when the book was written – the philosophy of work spoken by Henry Warren in Nevil Shute’s Ruined City holds just as true for today: ‘jobs that men can work at, and be proud of, and make money by their work.’ We all moan about our jobs from time to time. We become fed up with commuting, frustrated by changing priorities and annoyed when interrupted. At the same time work fills a need to be useful and valued, quite apart from it being a means of paying the bills. Without it we lose something of our self-respect. As the quotation continues: ‘there’s no dignity, no decency, or health for men that haven’t got a job. All other things depend on work today: without work men are utterly undone.’

With such business advice scattered throughout fiction, commuters who prefer to dive into a novel rather than wade through the latest managerial Newspeak, as George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four would say, have little to feel guilty about. There is a value in a good tale beyond entertainment. As the seventeenth century poet and divine George Herbert says in The Church-porch:
‘Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance Ryme thee to good and make a bait of pleasure. A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies…’

* From John Betjeman’s poem Executive.