Book review: Managing, by Henry Mintzberg

Mintzberg's colourful cavalcade spotlights the paradoxes of daily managerial life, says LBS's Nigel Nicholson.

by Nigel Nicholson
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

This wonderful book has been a long time coming. I remember Henry Mintzberg sketching out the central model some nine years ago in the pub next door to London Business School. We had a great discussion at the time, but this is way richer than can be captured in a conversation, not least because the model turned out not to be the fulcrum of the book.

Mintzberg has been telling it like it is ever since his ground-breaking doctoral ethnography of the working week of five CEOs - the classic Nature of Managerial Work, published 36 years ago. Other great books and articles have flowed since, and this latest shows that the more mature he gets, the more trenchant, impish, irreverent, generous and smart his writing becomes. Managing is a delight to read on a number of levels.

First, it tells the truth. He has gathered a super assembly of 29 'managers' and shadowed each for a day, with much insightful backfilling about their lives. They are a terrific array (though too few women) and include a head nurse, orchestral conductor, bank CEO, environmentalist chief, sales manager and national park superintendant. Mintzberg climbs right into their space to give lucid, sympathetic and nuanced portraits. It's great to see a social science writer so fearlessly close to his data.

Second, the book is full of small and large a-ha!s about the paradoxes, pressures and principles of managers' daily lives, expressed with inventive metaphor, example and framework. It brings clarity to the blooming, buzzing confusion that typifies their experience. The writer has done homage to his subject matter with respect, sensitivity and understanding.

Third is the entertainment value of his aphorisms, thoughts and borrowed stories, plus a reverence in acknowledging sources. It's a pleasure to be reminded of the insights of Leonard Sayles, William H Whyte, Mary Parker Follett and many more thinkers.

Of the book's five main chapters, only the central model doesn't seem to work - a disappointment in so important a book. But first, let's celebrate its achievements, one of which, early on, is his determination to demolish the manager/leader distinction. Quite right, for this ridiculously overdrawn dichotomy mythologises the latter and degrades the former. Then, echoing the truths of Managerial Work, Mintzberg calls his cast of characters on stage to tell the truth about their tangled work lives.

This includes the apparent late addition of pungent observations on the role of the internet and e-mail on managers' lives. More of this would have been welcome, for they should be no afterthought. These technologies bring profound positives as well as disturbing negatives into managers' lives.

Mintzberg does a great job with what he admits is his toughest challenge: finding common threads through the diversity. This he achieves effectively in setting out 'patterns' and 'postures' as thematic taxonomies that unite the individual, the purposive and the circumstantial. There are especially powerful and heartfelt passages on the role of so-called middle-managers, and more arguable thoughts about managerial style.

He admits to having most fun writing about the conundrums of managerial life. Here, Mintzberg revels in the paradoxes of managing. In proffering advice for Managing Effectively, he dallies a bit half-heartedly with an almost obligatory to-do list of required qualities for success, before recovering a more sceptical stance and a helpful schematic process framework.

The bottom line seems to be to manage 'naturally' in a state of emotional health and clear-headedness, a position with which, as a Darwinian, I heartily agree.

The weakness is the central model I saw in the pub nine years ago, a schematic typology around information, people and action. It is hard to see how it works in conventional terms of inputs-processes-outcomes. That would require a much stronger analysis of the interplay between the two major forces that determine managers' experience, both understated throughout the book. One is strong and enduring individual differentiation; the other is situational forces, such as power, change, stakeholders, visions, structures.

But let's not cavil. This is a great read: a work of rich description and insight rather than a theory of managing, and it will stand the test of time. Perhaps my opinion will not bother Mintzberg much. My hunch is that it will please him far more to pass the reality test with business people than please academic theoreticians. I'll give at least two cheers to that.


Managing

Henry Mintzberg
FT Prentice Hall
£19.99

Nigel Nicholson is professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School and author of Family Wars (Kogan Page, 2008)

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