Henry Mintzberg on “Some Myths of the Conductor as Leader”

Here is a brief excerpt from one of Henry Mintzberg’s most valuable books, Managing (2009), in which he comments on the metaphor of leader as conductor, on the platform, fully in control. Does that actually constitute the exercise of leadership? Here’s what Henry thinks.

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In the conductor of the symphony orchestra, we have leadership captured perfectly in caricature. The great chief stands on the podium, with the followers arranged nearly around, ready to respond to every command. The maestro raises the baton, and they all play in perfect unison. Another motion and they all stop. Absolutely in charge – a manager’s dream. Yet all of it is a perfect myth.

For one thing, as Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony, was quick to point out, this is an organization of subordination, and that includes the conductor. [See appendix for a full description of Bramwell’s day, including his comments.] Mozart pulls the strings. Even that great maestro, Toscanini, was quoted as saying, “I am no genius. I have created nothing. I play the music of other men” [Lebrecht 1991: Chapter 4, p 1]. How else to explain the phenomenon of the “guest conductor”? Try to imagine a “guest manager” in almost any other organization.

Watching rehearsals reinforced this message. I saw a lot more action than affect. Bramwell Tovey was [begin italics] doing [end italics]. Rehearsing is the work of the organization, and he was managing it directly, like the project it really is. He was managing it for results: about pace, pattern, temp, sound – smoothing it, harmonizing it, perfecting it. [Bramwell wrote to me later, in response to these comments: “In the traditional sense, I do most of my leading during performance, when, by means of physical gesture, I completely control the orchestra’s timing – and timing is everything.” For him, perhaps, but hardly for most managers.] Here, if you like, he was orchestra operating, not orchestra leading, not even orchestra [directing].

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Obviously, Henry Mintzberg has never conducted a symphony orchestra.

For a different perspective, read Roger Nierenberg’s Maestro: Surprising Story About Leading by Listening, published by Portfolio/Penguin (2009).

Henry’s other works include The Nature of Managerial Work (1973), Mintzberg on Management: Inside Our Strange World of Organizations (1989), Strategy Safari, co-authored with Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel (1998), Tracking Strategies: Towards a General Theory of Strategy Formation (2007), and Management? It’s Not What you Think! co-authored with Ahlstrand and Lampel (2009).

In his own words….

“I have been an academic most of my working life, after receiving my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering from McGill University in Montreal, and working in Operational Research at the Canadian National Railways. I am Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill, where I now have been since graduating with a doctorate from MIT in 1968, with stints at other universities in the U.S., France, and England. For the past 27 years, I have been half time at McGill. I am also a founding partner of CoachingOurselves.com.

“I have worked for much of the past twenty years, in collaboration with colleagues from Canada, England, France, India, and Japan, and now China and Brazil, on developing new approaches to management education and development. The International Masters in Practicing Management has been running since 1996; the Advanced Leadership Program since 2006; the International Masters for Health Leadership since 2006. All are rather novel ways to help managers learn from their own experience. I teach in these programs and otherwise supervise doctoral students, restricting my public speeches mostly to conveying a particular message or visit a place I wish to see. In 2007, four of us developed CoachingOurselves.com, which brings all these efforts to natural fruition, enabling practicing managers to develop themselves in small groups.”

To visit Henry’s website, please click here.

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