Bedtime Stories for Managers: A book review by Bob Morris

Bedtime Stories for Managers: Farewell to Lofty Leadership…Welcome Engaging Management
Henry Mintzberg
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (February 2019)

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” Peter Drucker

I agree with Peter Drucker’s assertion as well as with this observation by Henry Mintzberg: “management has to come down from lofty leadership to grounded engagement.” He has selected 42 of his blog posts, those that seem to speak most meaningfully to managers. Some will welcome them as a reassurance; others will (he hopes) react to them as a reality check. He marinates his reader in metaphors — “cows and gardens, cutting cookies and scrambling eggs, get ready for the maestro myth of managing, the soft underbelly of hard data, the board as bee, and downsizing as bloodletting.”

Gathered together, these are indeed unorthodox opinions, hunches, insights, outsights, puns, and paradoxes plus a kitchen sink…or three. This is is a “playful book,” but one that delivers a “serous message.” Offering no introductions or annotations (that usually function as training wheels), Mintzberg prefers that you “discover these stories for yourself, in whatever order you prefer. I do ask that you read the first story first and the last story last, but otherwise feel free to peruse at random — as good managers sometimes do.”

In or near the downtown areas of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market where a few merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts (from Part One, “Simply Managing,” Pages 7-34) that suggest the thrust and flavor of Mintzberg’s thinking.

o One of rank’s privileges is — or should be —  to be of service to others: “managing is not about sitting where you have become accustomed. It’s about eating the scrambled eggs.”

o Beware of metaphors that glorify: “Maybe all the world really is a stage, with all the composers, conductors, managers, and players merely players. If so, no manager belongs on the podium of lofty leadership” during a performance.

o Mintzberg contrasts two forms of management: “Lofty” and “Engaged.”  (Re-read the Drucker quotation.) He asserts that those who are engaged managers “are important to the extent they help other people be [or at least feel] important.”

o Mintzberg offers a “Composite List of Basic Qualities for Assured Managerial Success.” Be all 52 and you are bound to be a terribly effective manager — even if not a human one.” All managers — indeed all leaders — are inevitably flawed because all of them are human beings.

o What to do? When hiring, “give voice in selection processes to people who have been managed by the candidates. Please sleep on this bedtime story.”

o How to manage without a soul? Many (if not most) managers do that with apparent ease. Mintzberg offers five easy steps. The fifth tells you all you need to know about people who should never be allowed anything: “Do everything in five easy steps.”

o He suggests an “often sensible way to make decisions. I call it doing first…You try something, in a limited way, to see if it might work; if it doesn’t, you try something else, until you find something that works, and then do more of it. Start small to learn big… So, do you have an important decision to make? Good. Hold those thoughts. Tomorrow, look around! Do something! You may find yourself thinking differently.”

o “Strategies grow initially like weeds in a garden; no need to cultivate them like tomatoes in a hothouse.” I agree. Over time, all over the place, some strategies become weeds and need to be removed; others can become ideas that pervade the organization. Keep a close eye on fertile ground. “Hence, to manage the process is not to plan or plant strategies but to recognize their emergence and intervene when appropriate.” Keep and, if necessary, protect what can bear fruit; eliminate whatever could prevent that.

To those who stop reading this book or who, having read it, dismiss Henry Mintzberg as having the brain of a hamster, he suggests: “Just try not to be outraged by anything you read, because some of my most outrageous ideas turn put to be my best. They just take a while to become obvious.” Point taken.



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