Management theory: Troublemaker

Henry Mintzberg has made a career out of tearing down stale business ideas.

Most academics lead relatively quiet lives. They toil away on their research, do some teaching, hopefully publish something that garners a bit of attention. If they’re really successful, maybe their ideas will have an impact on an obscure corner of the world. But that life was never quite what Henry Mintzberg had in mind.

For the past 40 years, Mintzberg’s base has been the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, where he co-founded the International Masters Program in Practicing Management as an alternative to MBA programs. His trademark has been his steady assault on the conventional wisdom and lazy thinking among executives and business theorists — always delivered with blunt frankness and an utter disregard for whom he might offend.

That approach was on full display in August, while Jack Welch was on a break from writing his column for BusinessWeek. The magazine turned to Mintzberg, who delivered a rant about how bad management led to the current financial crisis. To those who have followed Mintzberg’s career closely, he was a natural choice to fill in for the legendary CEO who shook up General Electric Co. years ago by annually firing the bottom 10% of his managers. “I doubt that Jack Welch read Henry before he radically changed strategic planning at GE,” says Joseph Lampel, one of Mintzberg’s former PhD students, who is now a strategy professor at Cass Business School at City University London in the U.K. and worked on three books with Mintzberg. “But it is striking the degree to which Welch’s reform — which was widely emulated — and Henry’s [ideas] dovetail.”

Mintzberg’s latest book, Managing, published this month, just a day before his 70th birthday, promises to be as divisive as ever. It argues that companies are over-led and under-managed; it calls for the elimination of leadership as a separate discipline since good leadership is part of good management; and it says middle managers should help hire top execs. It was a failure to grasp some of these fundamentals that helped trigger the global banking crisis. “How could anyone buy those mortgages? That stuff was obviously junk,” he says. As such, the path to economic recovery won’t be achieved through top-down or bottom-up management strategies, but by middle managers — the very level that has long been gutted by companies struggling to cut costs.

While Managing is sure to grab interest, it likely won’t top the outrage that greeted one of Mintzberg’s previous books. Managers Not MBAs, published in 2004, was a blistering attack on MBA programs in general, implicitly including the one that employs him at McGill. “MBA programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences,” Mintzberg wrote. “No one can create a manager in a classroom.” Nor can you create one by leading them through an endless series of case studies — the preferred method of teaching at renowned schools like Harvard. Business schools, he says, need to teach MBAs to be introspective.

Even fellow academics have come in for harsh criticism. Harvard’s Michael Porter, widely considered the greatest living management guru, has long argued that creating a strategy means analyzing market forces. But Mintzberg insists too many top-down deliberate strategies fail and that “no one has ever developed a strategy through an analytical technique.” Even though Porter’s approach is still taught at most business schools, the Wall Street Journal named Mintzberg to its 2008 list of the top business thinkers, and noted that “many large companies subsequently disbanded their strategic planning departments” as a result of Mintzberg’s warning.

This controversial streak didn’t develop late in life. Mintzberg has been challenging popular management theories since he was a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. “Mintzberg’s first dissertation, right from the get-go, had provocation,” says Gareth Morgan, a contemporary of Mintzberg, who teaches leadership and management at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “All of the books were saying managers plan, organize, control, and here’s Henry saying, ‘Oh, they’re not. They’re on the phone, they’re in meetings.’ Keep in mind, Mintzberg was just a young unproven kid.”

Not surprisingly, that approach has earned Mintzberg his share of critics. One of them is Lex Donaldson, professor of management in organizational design at the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales. “Mintzberg goes from a descriptive study to making statements about what effectivemanagers and organizations should do,” says Donaldson, who has been critical of Mintzberg since his first book. “That is worrying to me and a number of social scientists who work in business schools.” Donaldson says that you need to study whether what’s being recommended has actually been shown to improve performance.

Still, his many admirers say his work exemplifies precisely what academia is supposed to be about, and it takes a lot of courage to lob grenades with such abandon. “Provoking is what good academics do,” says Morgan. “But academia rewards you for fitting in versus challenging. Academics, particularly young ones, don’t get encouraged for shaking the world but for taking a small problem and writing technical [analysis]. He grew up in a different era. One where tenure didn’t have such a tight hold on scholarship as it does now.”

Indeed, Mintzberg seems totally uninterested in playing the game of career advancement and self-promotion. He’s turned down lucrative offers at prestigious U.S. colleges. His boss, Desautels’s dean Peter Todd, says Mintzberg is the cheapest professor in his faculty since he draws a half-time salary despite carrying a significant teaching schedule. Moreover, Mintzberg routinely turns down speaking engagements and high-priced corporate consulting gigs. He wasn’t even aware that he was being considered for tenure until he got it.

“He upholds the view that academia is not just about the highest return on investment and trying to belong to the in group and doing opportunistic publishing,” says Lampel.

That might be further proof that Mintzberg’s success was bred in a long-gone era, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s lost touch with the times. He uses Skype and has launched a company and website called, which offers activities for small groups of managers to hone their skills. He still writes from nine to two most weekdays, and has no plans to retire.

Management books tell leaders to show humility, but there again he rejects convention. Mintzberg prefers thoughtfulness and honesty. “I didn’t set out to be the best, it’s too low a standard,” he says. “It sounds horribly arrogant, but it’s not. I set out to be good. I compete with myself. I set out to do my best. Presumably that’s what they will put on my tombstone.”