Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, author and coauthor of 20 books, and co-author of three leadership development programs has made a career of challenging pre-conceived notions about successful leadership. And he has no intention of stopping yet—his latest book Bedtime Stories for Managers hit the shelves in February 2019, and he is already working on a new project.
In Bedtime Stories for Managers, Mintzberg collected 42 of his blog posts into a single volume of short and insightful reflections that argue for the end of lofty leadership. Instead, he proposes that we make more room for engaging managers who are truly in touch with those whom they oversee.
“Managing is rolling up your sleeves and finding out what’s going on,” Mintzberg recently explained in a guest lecture to my undergraduate strategy class. “Leadership is sitting up on a platform and waving your arms like an orchestra conductor, who doesn’t really lead the orchestra. The musicians are much more influenced by the composer. During a performance they often don’t even look at the conductor.”
Mintzberg was inspired to adopt this easily digestible structure after reading Pat Hickey’s 100 Things Canadiens Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, itself a compilation of illuminating anecdotes. The playful tone and form help Mintzberg’s vision of grounded management reach even the busiest of managers by providing them with an amusing and accessible learning tool that they can pick up in a spare instant.
“I found Hickey’s book to be such a delightful format for reading,” he said. “You can read a handful of pages a night and get through one or two stories. I thought it would be a nice format to capture things that I have on my blog for instance and disseminate them to a wider audience.”
Much of his work is intended for the broader business community that his latest book targets, rather than just other thinkers in the field. According to Mintzberg our collective infatuation with the isolated figurehead is ultimately bad for business. In fact, he asserts that MBA-holders, particularly Ivy League educated graduates, often receive higher compensation but fare worse as chief executive than their counterparts who do not have an MBA—all because we prioritise the image of the leader above their managerial competencies.
“We treat CEOs like the be-all and end-all at a company as if nothing else mattered,” Mintzberg said. “And we pay them accordingly, which results in their being focussed solely on short term gains which in turn hurts the company.”
Mintzberg isn’t ruling out the value of leadership altogether. However, he feels that it is only one of the many instruments that a manager can mobilize to encourage a business’ success.
“I prefer to think of leadership as the engaging and motivational part of management,” he developed. “It’s a key part of management: you’re dealing with people, you have to build teams, you have to build culture, you have to listen to people when they’ve got problems. In a lot of those actions there’s leadership, but there’s more to management that leadership.”
To illustrate his argument for the necessity of an engaged manager, Mintzberg likes to cite Steve Jobs. Jobs was personally involved in product development at Apple and would spend countless hours in the laboratory making sure that he and his staff got it just right. Mintzberg deplores that some strategy literature fails to outline the necessity for a manager’s engagement with their business and personnel.
The seasoned professor argues that our idolization of elite but disengaged leaders has consequences far greater than we comprehend. The power imbalance stacked in the favour of lofty leadership feeds a number of today’s crises—including climate change.
“I think it’s much more dire than most people realize or experience,” he reasoned. “There’s the occasional storm but we treat it with a ‘this too shall pass’ attitude. But it won’t pass. It’s going to get worse and worse as will the distortions of power that feed it, and people will get angrier and angrier. We’re in for either devastation or reformation. Either we watch the world and the environment deteriorate to the point where it affects each and every one of us personally or we engage in a change to our behaviour and institutions.”
Mintzberg’s radical approach to management makes him something of a rebel in the field. He doesn’t mind taking on that role as long as he finds support from others who want to fight alongside to upend an unsatisfactory status quo.
“I don’t mind having to be the guy who fights back,” Mintzberg said. “I do mind the established powers grabbing power that they shouldn’t have. I’ve always felt that way. Even as a kid, I was always outraged with people abusing their power.”
Marie Labrosse a master’s student in English Literature at McGill University contributed to this story.