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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.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

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.

Imagine if we simply recognized good managers to be ordinary, natural leaders, in the right place, uncontaminated by MBA training and all that “leadership” hype. [Peter Drucker, the] man who put management on the map, said simply, “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

Consider that little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story who announced that the emperor wore no clothes. He could have been proclaimed a great leader. Was he? Was he even particularly insightful? Or especially courageous? Maybe he just did the most natural thing of all, unlike all those people around him (including the emperor).

How to get to such natural leadership? As Peter Drucker noted, we can start by stopping to build organizations that are dependent on heroic leadership. No wonder we can’t get past them: when one hero fails, we search frantically for another. Meanwhile, the organization — school, hospital, government, business — flounders. By the excessive promotion of leadership, we demote everyone else. We create clusters of followers who have to be driven to perform, instead of leveraging the natural propensity of people to cooperate in communities. In this light, effective managing can be seen as engaging and engaged, connecting and connected, supporting and supported.

— Henry Mintzberg

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