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Managing Naturally

Walter Kiechel III, author of The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World (forthcoming, March 2010), introduces an excerpt from Managing by Henry Mintzberg that proposes a more organic view of managers and their work.

One yearns to believe in the world implicit in Henry Mintzberg’s view of what managing ought to be. One really does. It is, apparently, a place where people of generally good intentions work more or less cooperatively in organizations-cum-communities: no need for particular skills on the part of those keeping the trains running, certainly no call to believe all the pernicious tosh published about leaders and how special they are. Hearts are light, including those of the men and women responsible for coordinating the efforts of others.

If I could find such an organization, I would rush to join it. I would put behind me memories of places I have worked — many of them smart, “well run,” and of noble purpose — where colleagues jockeyed for power and position, the fearful resisted even conspicuously necessary change, and turf concerns always seemed to get in the way of collective endeavor.

We need visions of cities on the hill to fuel our aspirations and kindle the better angels of our nature, even if we can’t move into those cities tomorrow. Think of the ideal, deftly portrayed in this excerpt from Mintzberg’s new book, titled simply Managing, as a natural way of life: a sort of human beehive on the hill, humming with what management, at its best, might be.

— Walter Kiechel III


Excerpted from chapter 6 of Managing


Isn’t it time to wake up to our humanity and get past our childish obsession with leadership? Can’t we just be as sensible as bees in a hive? What could be more natural than to see our organizations not as mystical hierarchies of authority so much as communities of engagement, where every member is respected and so returns that respect? Sure, we need people to coordinate some of our efforts, provide some sense of direction in complex social systems, and support those who just want to get useful work done. But these are managers who work with us, not rule us.

Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University has written, “There appears to be no images, metaphors, or models for management from natural life,” and so “management is an unnatural act, or at least there is no guidance for being a manager.” I have agreed from the outset that there is no guidance for being a manager, and certainly managing is an awful lot more complicated — intellectually and socially if not physically — than leading a pack of geese or emitting a chemical substance to hold together a beehive.

But I believe that managing is a perfectly natural act that we make unnatural by disconnecting it from its natural context, and then not seeing it for what it is.

If management and leadership are natural acts, then are we wasting our time trying to find, let alone create, great managers and leaders? Perhaps we should instead be appreciating that reasonably normal people, flawed but not fatally so in their positions, can simply get on with their managing and leading, and so be rather successful. To express this more forcefully, to be a successful manager, let alone — dare I say — a great leader, maybe you don’t have to be wonderful so much as more or less emotionally healthy and clearheaded. That, at least, is what I saw in many of the twenty-nine managers I observed.

Sure, there are some rather different kinds of people — narcissists, for example — who succeed for a time, particularly under difficult circumstances. But show me one of these and I’ll show you many others who failed miserably, while creating those difficult circumstances in the first place.

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This Reviewer

  1. Walter Kiechel III has served as the managing editor of Fortune and editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing. He is the author of Office Hours: A Guide to the Managerial Life (Little, Brown, 1988) and is currently at work on a new book titled The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, scheduled for publication in March 2010 by Harvard Business Press.

This Excerpt

  1. Managing by Henry Mintzberg (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
  2. Henry Mintzberg is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. A leading expert in management education and development, he has been named an Officer of the Order of Canada and of the National Order of Quebec, and was named distinguished scholar for the year 2000 by the Academy of Management. Mintzberg has written 15 books, including Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development (Berrett-Koehler, 2004) and Mintzberg on Management: Inside Our Strange World of Organizations (Free Press, 1989).
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