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Are You a Manager or a Leader? Making Sense of It with Henry Mintzberg’s Help

August 19, 2022

One of the brighter lights in the management/leadership literature is Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal since 1968. Mintzberg, age 82, is one of my top favourite thinkers and writers in this field. His grounded approach to the practice of management, based on four decades of empirical research, combined with his teaching and the authoring of 15 books, make him one of the world’s leading authorities. His book Managing is a cogent examination of the management and leadership fields. It’s a must-read by any serious student of leader.

Mintzberg has railed against MBA programs for the past 30 years, noting the technicians that are produced, capable of the analytics but sadly lacking in the experience-required aspects of people leadership. The good news is that MBA programs in North America have been steadily revamping their course content. An added benefit is that MBA students are increasingly people with some measure of real world work experience.

In the late nineties, Mintzberg and some of his McGill colleagues formed a partnership with like-minded individuals from around the world (England, France, India, Japan and Canada). The result was the International Master’s in Practicing Management. A number of initiatives followed, each based on the following five “premises.” For Mintzberg and his colleagues, they see this as “natural development.” Here’s a quick summary of the five premises:

1. Managers and leaders cannot be created in the classroom.
If one agrees that management is a practice, then it can’t be taught as a science. Mintzberg argues that it can’t “…be taught at all.” Too much hubris has been generated in the past with “destructive consequences.” Many great corporate leaders never even went to graduate business school, yet some of the worse corporate leaders in recent history did their obligatory two years.

2. Managing is learned on the job, strengthened by varied work experiences.
As opposed to the need for some professions requiring extensive training before being unleashed onto the labor market (e.g., surgeons, accountants, dentists), management is the polar opposite. Management comprises too many nuances, intricacies and unknowns. The “logical starting point,” therefore, is acquiring experience through challenging assignments.

3. Development programs help managers make meaning of their experiences.
Classroom training has its place in helping those already practicing management to make sense of their world. As Mintzberg puts it: “It has been said of bacon and eggs that while the chicken is involved, the pig is committed. Management development has to be about commitment: to the job, the people, and the purpose…and to the organization…and society.”

4. Learning must be transferred back to the workplace if it is to have impact.
Management development has typically occurred in isolation. Even if the manager has begun a personal change process, he or she returns to an unchanged workplace. If it is to have impact, management development must be integrated with organizational development, in which managers throughout the organization help drive the necessary change.

5. The above needs to be organized, based on the nature of managing.
Instead of management development being structured around the organization’s functions, which in effect is about analysis, it should be focused on human dynamics.

As Mintzberg bluntly puts it: “…marketing + finance + accounting, etc. does not = management….We have more than enough calculating managers….We need ones who can deal with the calculated chaos of management–its art and craft–which highlights the importance of reflection, worldliness, collaboration, action.”

So there you have it: a few words of wisdom from one of the world’s leading management experts.

Take some time to reflect on Mintzberg’s messages. They’re deep and profound. In a time when predictions are increasingly meaningless and chaos appears to be king, effective managing becomes an even greater challenge. However, acquiring a strong grasp on knowing oneself and showing a sustained commitment to lifelong learning through periodic self-reflection, accompanied by a good dose of curiosity, will make the management journey that more enjoyable.

Managers who don’t lead are quite discouraging, but leaders who don’t manage don’t know what’s going on. It’s a phoney separation that people are making between the two.
— Henry Mintzberg

Connect with Jim on Twitter @jlctaggart and LinkedIn

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