In recent years, leadership has been pronounced more important than mere management – the key to personal and organizational success. In his latest book, McGill University Professor and provocateur Henry Mintzberg takes issue, calling it a “fable” that has been bad for management and worse for leadership.

“The fashionable depiction sees leaders as doing the right things while managers do things right. This may sound right, until you try to do the right things without doing them right,” he notes in Bedtime Stories for Managers.

Mintzberg has always celebrated good managers, people who know what’s happening in their organization. Here he points to John Cleghorn, who, when CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, was known for calling to the office when he stumbled on an ATM that wasn’t working well. It might be considered by some micromanagement. But Mintzberg calls it leading by example – engaged management practised well.

“So let’s get past leadership dissociated from management, to recognize these are two sides of the same job. Haven’t we had enough of leading by remote control, disconnected from everything except the ‘big picture’? In truth, the big picture had to be painted with the little brushstrokes of grounded experience,” he says.

“You may have heard that we are over-managed and under-led. Now it’s the opposite; we have too much lofty leadership and not enough management.”

This is Mintzberg’s twentieth book. He has the same number of honorary degrees and for many years was touted as Canada’s management guru, although in recent years Roger Martin, ex-dean of the Rotman School of Management, tends to join him on such lists. His books vary – some are highly academic; others are more accessible. He even wrote Simply Managing to spread more widely the more theoretical ideas in a previous book, Managing. Unlike management experts who focus intently on business, Mintzberg from the days of his 1960s PhD thesis – turned into his first book, The Nature of Management – has included public managers in his studies, and one book was exclusively on them, Managing Publicly.

The latest is highly accessible, quite pungent and funny – although he says it may be his most serious. It’s a collection of short blog posts on important themes he has covered over the years.

He compares what he calls “lofty leadership” with “engaging management.” Lofty leaders tend to be treated as more important than folks who develop products and deliver services, send strategy down the hierarchy, and allocate resources. “Leadership is thrust upon those who thrust their will on others,” he notes about that model.

By contrast, the five elements of engaging management are:

  • Managers are important to the extent that they help other people be important.
  • An effective organization is an interacting network, not a vertical hierarchy. Effective managers work throughout; they don’t sit at the top.
  • Out of the network emerges strategies, as engaged people solve little problems that can grow into big strategies.
  • To manage is to connect naturally with human beings. Managing thus means engaging, based on judgment, rooted in context.
  • Leadership is a sacred trust earned from the respect of others.

He warns us to beware of the romance of leadership – putting ordinary mortals on a pedestal. “Beware of metaphors that glorify,” he adds, such as the comparison to orchestra conductors bringing everyone into harmony. Managers are regular human beings. “Successful managers are flawed – everyone is flawed – but their particular flaws are not fatal under the circumstances. Reasonable human beings find ways to live with one another’s reasonable flaws,” he observes.

But the lists we see of the attributes of managers are fatally flawed, he insists. They are never complete, and if they were, it would be impossible to be that person. He studied many lists and came up with 52 qualities. But the attributes can be wrong or be carried out in bad ways. For example, nobody would argue against the notion that managers need to be “fearlessly decisive,” he says, until they studied George W. Bush’s disastrous foray into Iraq.

If everyone’s flaws come out sooner than later, he figures sooner is better. He adds that there are only two ways to know a person’s flaws: marry them or work for them. Unfortunately, the people who select managers – hiring them, or promoting them –have never worked for them, let alone been married to them.

“As a consequence, too many of their choices end up being ‘kiss up and kick down’ people, smooth-talking and overconfident, great at impressing ‘superiors’ but nasty at managing ‘subordinates,’” he says.

“People who select managers have to hear from the people who know the candidates best. Now, they can’t exactly ask the candidates’ spouses because the current ones will be biased and the former ones will be more biased. But they can certainly get the opinions of the people who have been managed by these candidates.”

In that PhD research, Mintzberg followed five CEOs for a week and found the pace unrelenting, the pressure intense. One said management is “one damn thing after another.” The job was largely oral, communicating laterally as much as hierarchically, inside and outside their unit. That was three decades before the Internet became commonplace – before we all started complaining about how intense and unrelenting our jobs are, and started communicating, increasingly, by emails. His thoughts on our era:

  • The capacity to communicate instantly with people everywhere increases the pace and pressure of managing – and likely interruptions as well. But even before the Internet, there was evidence that managers chose to be interrupted. Now more do so by checking messages at every ping. But Mintzberg takes issue with a CEO who recently told an interviewer: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate and think.” In fact, he insists you can go anywhere you please.
  • The internet has intensified managers’ orientation to action. Everything is expected to be fast, immediate. He finds it ironic that computer screens, which remove people from the actual action of mixing face-to-face with others has exacerbated the action orientation of managing.
  • There are only so many hours in a day and the more time you spend at a screen, the less you spend talking and listening to people face-to-face.
  • Email is limited to words, with no gestures or tone of voice. Yet managing depends on that information as well. “On the telephone, people laugh or grunt; in meetings, they nod in agreement or nod off in distraction. Astute managers pick up on these signals,” he says.
  • Of course, email makes it easier to keep in touch with people from around the world. But what about the people down the hall, he asks? When you’re sitting at the screen, are you putting yourself out of touch with them?

When hectic turns to frenetic, he says managers can lose control of their job and become a menace to the organization. “The Internet, by giving the illusion of control, may in fact be robbing many managers of control over their own work. Thus this digital age may be driving much management practice over the edge, making it too remote and superficial. So don’t let the new technologies manage you. Don’t allow yourself to be mesmerized by them. Understand their dangers as well as their delights so that you can manage them. Turn them off,” he says.

To see other books on leadership, go here.

He adds that we have become myopically obsessed with all the changes occurring in society. But we are missing what doesn’t change. Most cars use technology that dates back to Henry Ford. We still button our buttons when we get dressed. He says we notice only what is changing while most things are not. And that’s important to recognize. “To manage change without managing continuity is anarchy,” he says.

They may be bedtime stories, but in some cases, the ideas may keep you up at night.