Henry Mintzberg on heroic managers

The notion that “change comes from the top,” Mintzberg declares, is a fallacy “driven by ego,” the “cult of heroic management,” and the peculiarly American overemphasis on taking action. If companies in fact depended on dramatic, top-down change, few would survive. Instead, most organizations succeed because of the small change efforts that begin at the middle or bottom of the company and are only belatedly recognized as successful by senior management.

[missing paragraph is copied below]

Mintzberg argues that the best kind of leader doesn’t try to effect much change. Rather, she functions like a queen bee, which “does nothing but make babies and exude a chemical that keeps everything together.” It is the other bees that busy themselves in going out to sense the environment, find sources of sustenance for the hive, and make the changes necessary to keep the hive alive in the face of an evolving environment. [via HBS Working Knowledge]

In his book “Managers, not MBAs” Mintzberg suggests that

business schools should produce not heroic managers but “engaging managers.” These are leaders who assist those under them, seek input from everyone when forming strategy, and reward everyone when the organization succeeds. [via]

From an interview with Mintzberg:

We’ve long been dominated by calculating managers, right back to Robert McNamara, ex-Ford president and Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam war, and his obsession with numbers. Then there was ITT and Harold Geneen with all his numbers. Now it’s in the form of shareholder value. Everybody is looking at the stock price every few hours. It is like playing tennis and watching the scoreboard instead of the ball. That is the calculating manager.

Heroic managers are ultimately not much different but they think they are artists, they think they are very creative. So they come out with these strategies like at Vivendi, AOL Time Warner, or AT&T. They come out with all these lovely looking strategies, which ultimately are not that interesting. I call them pretend artists. These are the heroic managers, engaging in the great massive mergers, with all the drama that entails.

Finally we have the style I prefer, which I call engaging. This is where managers and chief executives first go about engaging themselves. They know the industry. They know the people. They are committed to the company. They are not there for a few years just to drive up stock prices and run off with their bonuses. And by engaging themselves, they engage other people.

So how do you recognize a heroic manager?

Mintzberg says that they tend to:

  • Ignore the existing business because anything established takes time to fix.
  • Be dramatic, striking deals and merging like mad.
  • Focus on the present, and do the dramatic deal now!
  • Favour outsiders over insiders; rely on consultants as they appreciate heroic leaders.
  • Use numbers to assess insiders. That way you do not have to manage performance so much as deem it.
  • Promote the changing of everything all the time.
  • Re-organise constantly.
  • Be a risk taker.
  • Get the stock price up.
  • Cash in and run — heroes are in great demand.

For a long while, the embodiment of the heroic manager was Jack Welch and I documented elsewhere in this blog how his management rules are no longer followed in industry.

And just to show that management gurus do not know it all, here is (in Mintzberg’s own words) the missing paragraph that I announced at the top of this post:

Enron, with its “loose-tight” management policy, is an example of an organization that has figured out how to effect change without the usual pitfalls, says Mintzberg. The Houston-based energy company manages only two corporate processes very tightly: performance evaluation and risk management. Everything else is managed loosely, and local leaders get an enormous amount of discretion in figuring out how to get things done.

Henry Mintzberg’s website is here.

4 thoughts on “Henry Mintzberg on heroic managers

  1. Nice blog on Mintzberg’s theories, in particular this interesting topic, heroic manager. We are used to say Montreal, McGill and Mintzberg as 3 M gang (management) or 3M school.

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