Overrated Leaders


Henry Mintzberg’s latest book is titled “Simply Managing.”  “Leaders who separate leadership from management are a danger to the organization,” he said in an interview. “Too many leaders are disconnected from what is going on in their organization.”

One of the key principles of lean flow is that those running and managing a process must see the process. But it is difficult to see the process is you are removed from that process (in another building, in meetings etc.).

In his review of the book, Harvey Schachter wrote:

[Mintzberg] points to the late Steve Jobs, celebrated as a leader and visionary, who changed the world with his innovations. Mr. Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc., was hailed as the ultimate leader. And his lack of people skills has been viewed as evidence he was a terrible manager. His success seems to prove the point that strong leadership trumps management: If you’re a great leader, you can be a crappy manager.

But Prof. Mintzberg has a different view: “Steve Jobs was truly extraordinary. I am not sure that you would call him a leader, other than perhaps in a tech sense. He was not a natural leader of men or people. That happened through his intricate knowledge and management of the product of the organization.”

He said Jack Welch, who has been called the best chief executive officer of the past century, didn’t leave any legacy other than a better-managed corporation than the one he inherited when he took the helm at General Electric. There are no special products that he developed, no new industries or even segments of industries he created. He was a manager – a highly gifted one – and because of that, successful.

Mr. Jobs did create new industries and products; the iPhone, Prof. Mintzberg believes, is a product that changed what we do on more fronts than any other product ever created. Mr. Jobs “must have eaten and breathed and slept that product, he was so intricately involved with the conception and execution of it.”

That phrase about eating, breathing, and sleeping the product comes up repeatedly as Prof. Mintzberg talks. It’s his breezy, informal definition of the ideal, successful manager – one who is not in an office tower, apart from his or her minions, disconnected, but in the trenches, knowledgeable and connected. Managing.

One thing he doubts Mr. Jobs spent much time on was worrying about shareholder value. These days, leaders fret about their share price. Strategies emanate for ways to boost – or goose – the share price. But Mr. Jobs focused on providing people with tech gems rather than shareholders with profit. And by focusing on the product – managing the innovation and execution process – he created more shareholder value than any other CEO.

Why are so many executives disconnected? Prof. Mintzberg argues it’s because they bought into the notion they must be leaders rather than managers, and thus need not know about the nuts and bolts of their organization.

But he also pins the blame on the training schools for these leaders: “MBA programs have done enormous harm by giving know-nothings the impression they can manage anything when they can’t manage a thing.”

Going to MBA school and working your way through case studies from Harvard Business School does not make you capable of managing, he argues. You must be deeply immersed in an organization – eating, breathing, and sleeping it – to be a good manager. And the pastiches in case studies don’t encourage that process. Not that most MBA students care, he stresses. They don’t want to learn; they want to get rich.

The third reason for disconnected leaders running organizations, he feels, is the frenzy about shareholder value. The fourth is the focus on making the numbers or, if not, firing thousands of people. “That’s just madness,” he said.

People create companies to explore a new idea, he said, citing Facebook. The founders are not quite sure where they are going, but some find a successful path and are convinced to cash in through an initial public offering. At that point, however, exploration begins to flag because they can’t take as many risks – they must meet the numbers.

“So maybe you run out of your chance to explore. So you exploit, which is exactly what Facebook is doing and Twitter will do. Wikipedia doesn’t because it’s a non-profit,” he said.

In 1979, Prof. Mintzberg published The Structuring of Organizations. That was too detailed for most managers to wade through, so four years later he came out with what he calls an expurgated version, Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations. His latest work whittles down his 2009 book, Managing, which was written more for scholars than on-the-line managers. “I try to get to the essence. As I went through Managing, I wondered why I put this in or that in. Just get to the point.”

And a key point is you should be proud to be a manager. Focus on that, rather than share price.

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