Leadership v communityship

Henry Mintzberg is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading management thinkers. As he publishes his latest unfussily titled book Managing, he speaks to Irish Director magazine.

Described by Tom Peters no less as “perhaps the world’s premier management thinker”, we were delighted to catch up with Henry Mintzberg (pictured) on the occasion of the release of his latest book, which is rather unpretentiously entitled Managing.

Well known for his forthright and often irreverent take on all things management, Mintzberg is quick to dismiss the current trend to separate ‘leadership’ from ‘management’. “You can’t separate those two,” he tells me. “Nobody wants to have a manager who is not a leader. Leaders who aren’t managers don’t know what is going on, and management is about getting your ear to ground and finding out what is happening. Disconnected leadership is dangerous.

“I think the other side of that is we have created this cult of leaders where we have narcissists running companies. I touch on it in the book, but I am also sketching out an article at the moment that basically says anyone who demands or negotiates big bonuses should be dismissed out of hand as not suitable for the job of chief executive because they are not showing any real leadership. They are more worried about what they are going to make in the short term. I mean who knows how to measure performance in the long term? How can we say that all improvements in a company’s performance is because of the one person?”


It is in this context that Mintzberg is “promoting enthusiastically” the notion of what he calls ‘communityship’. “The idea is that organisations are communities and that is the way they have got to be run, and the kind of leadership you need is one that respects and enhances and encourages that kind of communityship.”

I ask him if he can think of examples he has seen in recent years of just such a style of leadership. “People get very enthusiastic about young start-ups and entrepreneurial firms because they almost always have those characteristics when they are young. They kind of grow out of them – I think Google is probably growing out of them now – but there is that kind of enthusiasm early on. That’s why I’m a fan of indigenous enterprise because you get all that. You don’t get the sense of communityship when a company kind of drops a parachute in, which amounts to a plant that will be gone as quickly as it came if the conditions aren’t right.”

In these more entrepreneurial firms, is there sometimes a danger that the ideas person, the founder might not be great management material, I ask Mintzberg? “Yes, they may not be wonderful managers, but usually they are just so engaged and so involved that there is just a lot of energy.  One of the things I find about Ikea is that it is often out of stock – well, that certainly used to be the case. I once chatted with someone at Ikea and they said: ‘Well, of course. The founder hates planning.’ So in a sense that is bad managing, but the concept and the whole vision of Ikea is so powerful, that who cares if they are out of stock? You can’t go anywhere else to get that kind of stuff anyway, so you wait. So it’s not great management in that respect, but if you’ve got a terrific strategy it’s not bad.”

Varieties of manager

In Managing, Mintzberg bases his findings on close observations of 29 managers. “These included the head of a refugee camp, the manager of a surgical ward in a hospital, the head of Greenpeace, the head of Doctors Without Borders and an orchestra conductor. If you add all of that up, a huge variety of people are practicing management, which is as varied as life itself because these days most things in life are managed.”

So does Mintzberg think that there is a misperception that management is only about business and about government? “Well the real misperception is that business has it right, and everybody else should copy business and I think that’s dead wrong. I think frankly that not only does a lot of what business does not apply to government or healthcare or NGOs, but the prevalent approaches in business itself are dysfunctional.” As a result, he believes that the current trend for non-profits to look to businesspeople to strengthen their boards is “wrong”.

“It is dangerous. Everyone can learn from business just as business can learn from government, so it is not a question of a one-way flow. Businesspeople typically don’t have a deep appreciation of the political pressures in NGOs, for example, or of the fact that many things are difficult to measure in NGOs and in government. You have the Labour government in England, for example, going nuts with measurement in healthcare and education. Some measurement is obviously necessary, but I think this obsession with measuring is destroying a lot of professional practice.”

And Mintzberg believes the obsession with measurement is also doing great harm in business. “Executive bonuses are a prime example of this.  I defy anybody to measure the long-term impact of any chief executive, and so bonuses should be eliminated, period. The only solution for bonuses is to get rid of them totally. I mean who do you reward? The closest thing I have seen to a fair bonus system is where everyone in the company receives the bonus. But that wouldn’t have stopped the situation in AIG or the US Banks – everybody gets paid off and three years later the company is bankrupt. How do you know that the people who are performing wonderfully today are not destroying the company in the long run?”

Non-fatal flaws

So what constitutes good effective management, in Mintzberg’s view? “Well you can get a list of the qualities of effective managers, but if you put all of these together you get about 50 items and superman wouldn’t even do it!  So I think an effective manager is someone whose flaws are not fatal in the job because everybody is flawed. When you are picking people, you should pick them as much for their flaws as for their good qualities.  Obviously you want to match their good qualities with the job, but you also want to match their flaws with the needs of the job.  Because that’s what undermines people – that their flaws are not right for what they are doing. You know, George Bush might have been a wonderful person to run a baseball team (although actually he wasn’t), but he’s the worst possible person you could have as president.

“No, that’s not true,” Mintzberg laughs. “There are probably a lot worse, but he was certainly terrible.

“Look at Obama, he is flawed. We don’t quite know how yet, and the question is whether his flaws will be a problem for that job. Tony Blair is an interesting case, because his flaws eventually undermined him. He sucked up to Bush and made a fool out of himself. I think that was a character flaw essentially, and it ultimately proved fatal for him.”

Adds Mintzberg: “Of course, if you want to find out somebody’s flaws, the best way to do it is to either work for them or marry them. So we should be consulting the people who know the candidates best, namely the ones who worked for them, but we almost never ask those people for inputs when we are choosing a chief executive or any other manager.”

He is loathe to give examples of companies that do this well. “I’m not in those companies so I can only look at them from the outside, but you know if you walk into a store or a company and they are really enthusiastically serving you, and they mean it, you can see the difference and you think: ‘this is a good place, someone is doing something right here’. But, if you walk into a place where people sort of ignore you, or just give you the Walmart-type mechanical greeting at the door, it has a different feeling.

“It is so easy to give people managerial jobs because they impress people more senior than them and I think this whole ‘young leaders’ trend is an aberration. People aren’t young leaders because senior people designate them that way. People prove their leadership. Young leaders is an oxymoron because they haven’t had the chance to prove it yet.”

Having already authored a book entitled Managers not MBAs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Mintzberg doesn’t believe the big business schools have got it right. “They have a responsibility to look a lot closer at this. They are part of the problem,” he says. “Managers not MBAs is a severe criticism of MBAs, which I argue are training the wrong people in the wrong way, with the wrong consequences because they take people that are too young and they give them the impression they know how to manage!

“You don’t create managers in a classroom, you take people who are managers and you give them a chance to learn from their own experiences with each other. The key is you learn best from your own experience, not other people’s cases, and you learn best by sharing it with colleagues.”

Management is not a science

“Management is not a science nor a profession,” continues Mintzberg. “There are no qualifications to be a manager.  It is not a science because you don’t learn it the way you learn medicine.  You wouldn’t let a surgeon near you if he wasn’t trained, but you might be happy to have the head of your own company not having done an MBA – in fact, personally I’d be happier they didn’t.

“Of course there are lots of people with MBAs who are perfectly fine, you can’t say it about everybody, but it can be problematic. I think management is mostly craft, based on experience and good practice, and has a lot of art to it ­– imagination, vision, insight. Sure, you can’t forget the science in the sense that you’ve got to be organised.”

For young enthusiastic managers hoping to take their companies forward and practise ‘communityship’, does Mintzberg have any advice? “You need to get to know your business to get to know your situation. You’re not going to be a really good manager unless you stop and take the time to get to know a business deeply, and in my view you really have to know it from the ground up. So get on the ground and start selling and start going into the factories and really knowing what is going on. That’s what you need to do if you want to manage.”

This article first appeared in Irish Director Magazine