Debunking Management Myths

Henry Mintzberg questions some of the conventional wisdom about managerial work.

Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University

Management, according to Henry Mintzberg, is often misunderstood. Mintzberg, the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, sees a number of ways the managerial role is often mischaracterized. Sometimes it is idealized as work that should primarily involve detached planning and strategizing — but, Mintzberg says, many of the most interesting strategies emerge as managers deal with small actions day to day. Moreover, the nature of managerial work is action oriented and full of interruptions. Mintzberg also thinks that management’s importance is often underemphasized, when it is seen as the less-glamorous administrative counterpart to leadership.

In his new book, Managing (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), Mintzberg seeks to correct the misperceptions. He offers a picture of management as a job that, of necessity, involves a wide range of roles and actions — and one where linking to counterparts elsewhere within the organization and associates outside it is often almost as big a part of the job as managing subordinates. Mintzberg sees managers getting things done via three planes — action, people and information — and holding jobs that vary greatly, depending on the kind of organization in which a manager works.

MIT Sloan Management Review senior editor Martha E. Mangelsdorf recently spoke with Mintzberg about the nature of managerial work. Here are a few excerpts from that interview, edited for clarity.

SMR: You’re of the opinion that contemporary American business is overly obsessed with leadership. Why is that?

MINTZBERG: Well, ever since the distinction was made between leadership and management — leadership somehow being the important stuff and management being what surgeons call the scut work — attention focused on leadership. My view is that management without leadership is disheartening or discouraging. And leadership without management is disconnected, because if you lead without managing, you don’t know what’s going on. It’s management that connects you to what’s going on. We can make the distinction between leadership and management conceptually, but in practice I don’t think we should.

SMR: In other words, you’re saying that management and leadership are really two sides of the same coin.

MINTZBERG: Yes, certainly when it comes to organizations. Even in the political sphere, I suspect — but let’s not get into that.

SMR: And executed by the same people.

MINTZBERG: Yes, absolutely.

SMR: One of the things you mention in your new book is your belief that at this point we are often, in the business world, overled and undermanaged. What can happen when a company is overled and undermanaged?

MINTZBERG: What you get is a real disconnect between senior and middle management. Senior management is supposedly seeing the big picture but, in dysfunctional cases, is not in touch with the details.

Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic Corp., said “Big things and little things are my job. Middle level arrangements can be delegated.” In other words, you construct the big picture out of the little details. It’s like painting a painting; you paint it one brush stroke at a time.

I think with all the number pressure and all the financial pressure and the quarterly reports in public companies, very senior management can be disconnected from the specifics. Middle management can be more in touch with the details, but, with a disconnected senior management, middle managers get pressures from the hierarchy that make it very hard for them to manage at their own level. And with all the downsizing and firing among middle managers, they’re under much more pressure because there are fewer of them, and they’re scared.

For middle managers in that situation, the object is not to do your job well; the object is to make sure that when the next round of downsizing comes, you won’t be on the list. That means don’t stick your neck out; don’t come to anybody’s attention. Just do your job, put your head down and hope for the best.

3 Comments On: Debunking Management Myths

  • dunn | October 14, 2009

    Henry, so leadership resembles a symbol, management the substance – not so outrightly of course but kind of?

  • dfwitt | November 18, 2009

    Thank you for reconnecting leadership and management. It seems that so many people have been going out of their way to distinguish the differences between leaders and managers (with managers generally looked down upon). Their main distinction? Leaders do the right thing, while managers do things right. Thank you for the reminder that both are important.

  • Sam Borletti | October 10, 2011

    There have been so many myths involved with management in general. I have always defaulted to Peter Drucker on these matters – by re-reading his books on management. And they usually provide knowledge and clarity on what to do.

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