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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2009: Management

Managers Can Be Leaders

Although managers can help lead change, they cannot bring it about alone, according to Henry Mintzberg in his new book, simply called Managing. The Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University and author of more than 15 books, Mintzberg continues to promote his belief that management is not merely a science encompassed in a set of analytical skills taught in a classroom, but also an art that depends on imagination and creative insight, and a craft that is learned on the job through apprenticeship, mentorship, and direct experience.

Mintzberg researched this book by spending a day each with 29 managers and watching them work. The managers were employed in a variety of industries, government, and nonprofit organizations, in settings as disparate as offices, refugee camps, and symphony orchestras. Watching these managers balance thinking and acting, as well as dealing with multiple activities, frequent interruptions, and a pace that never let up, inspired Mintzberg to propose both a model and a set of concrete skills for managerial effectiveness.

The model seeks to erase the arbitrary line between managers and leaders — “we should be seeing managers as leaders and leadership as management practiced well,” he writes. He thinks of both functions in terms of the “communityship” inherent in them. The effective manager, he says, is one who “leverages the natural propensity of people to cooperate in communities.”

Management books often make me feel like I should head back to boot camp. But reading Managing, which is written in a breezy and accessible style, I found my own managerial insecurities melting away. Mintzberg reminds us that most managers are prey to events and demands they do not control, and that a wide range of styles can work well for a boss. Balance is the key: keeping up with the hectic pace of business yet making time for reflection; driving change yet maintaining stability; leading and collaborating; leavening analysis with judgment.

Further, all these skills must function within the larger context of a worldly mind-set — an attitude that Mintzberg distinguishes from the common mandate for companies to be global. “All managers function on a set of edges between their own world and those of other people,” he writes. “To be worldly means to get over these edges from time to time, into those worlds — other cultures, other organizations, other functions in their own organization, above all the thinking of other people — so as to understand their own world more deeply.”

For Mintzberg, management is not confined to the inner workings of an organization, but takes into account the larger landscape in which a business functions. “Is there an economist prepared to argue that social decisions have no economic consequences?” he asks. “Not likely: everything costs something. Well, then, can any economist argue that there are economic decisions that have no social consequences? And what happens when managers ignore them, beyond remaining within the limits of the law?”

Mintzberg finds the answer in a quote from Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who, describing his life under a Communist regime, said: “A society that is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial effect on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”

How do we develop managers who can lead businesses in a more sustainable direction? Mintzberg, a reliable critic of business schools, challenges them to go beyond the usual fare of courses organized by business functions — marketing, finance, and accounting. That approach “amounts to a focus on analysis,” he says. Instead of “calculating managers,” he wants managers “who can deal with the calculated chaos of managing — its art and craft — which highlights the importance of reflection, worldliness, collaboration and action.”

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