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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2004: Management

Doing the Right Thing

Management is the practice of getting the right things done, individually and collectively: It may use a little bit of science, but mostly it’s an art and a craft. Management competence, as a practice rather than a profession, is not easily taught in the abstract, but is best learned in context through a combination of action and reflection. Thus in management, unlike engineering or medicine, a skilled “layperson” can often outperform a university-trained expert.

Seven of the dozens of management books published over the past year have special merit for that skilled layperson or for those studying management formally. They deal with diverse subjects, from the importance of willpower for managers to the lessons taught by the rise and fall of leaders at the venerable Coca-Cola Company. The authors include such practitioners as Ricardo Semler — the outspoken South American “antimanager” CEO of Semco — and such academics as Henry Mintzberg, the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at Canada’s McGill University. Each is a practical addition to the management bookshelf.

Will to Manage
If you agree that skilled amateurs often make better business leaders than trained professionals, Mintzberg’s comprehensive assault on the MBA degree and the institutions that grant it is a good place to start. In Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), he supports his attack with sound argument and solid evidence.

His book is divided into halves. The overall theme of the first part, titled “Not MBAs,” will be familiar to readers of Mintzberg’s previous books. Like the author, you will wonder how management education, at least in the Western world, has become dominated by self-perpetuating programs that often select cognitively gifted but emotionally blind, self-centered individualists and then train them, not to act, but to control the actions of others. The MBA encourages abstraction and detachment; it favors the hard and the analytical. But management practice itself is soft and social. In the second part of the book, titled “Developing Managers,” Mintzberg provides a comprehensive framework for producing what he calls “engaged” managers who have a “will to manage” rather than just an interest in business.

Mintzberg’s prescriptions are based on his pioneering International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM), a joint venture among five international business schools, each of which supplies the context for an action/reflection module of the program. (See “Reality Programming for MBAs,” s+b, First Quarter 2002.) The objective of the IMPM is to develop the right people (practicing managers), at the right time (mid-career), with the right outcome (engagement). With management or leadership (Mintzberg uses the terms interchangeably) seen as something to be fostered and evoked rather than injected — to be “pulled” rather than “pushed” — the author describes how the IMPM looks for people who demonstrate the will to manage and who have sufficient experience upon which to reflect.

The course of learning is built around five modules or “mind-sets”: reflection, analysis, worldliness, collaboration, and action. Each is taught at a different university in a different part of the world. Mintzberg does not pretend to have all the answers to what business education should be, but he is asking all the right questions and providing helpful advice on how to develop engaged managers.

Acts of Volition
The concept of will, or volition, to give it its technical name, fell out of favor in the social sciences in the aftermath of World War II because of the close association of the language of volition with the brutal regimes of both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. It was replaced by the more abstract concept of motivation. The result was a loss in descriptive power, because the idea of will carries connotations of visceral, personal commitment that motivation lacks. More recently, several prominent social scientists have called for the restoration of the concept of volition to respectability.

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