Editor's Choice

Bedtime Stories for Managers: Farewell, Lofty Leadership...Welcome, Engaging Management

February 15, 2019


Henry Mintzberg offers 42 stories that will challenge and change the conventional wisdom we too often accept about the business world and its role in the society that it's supposed to serve.

Bedtime Stories for Managers: Farewell, Lofty Leadership… Welcome, Engaging Management by Henry Mintzberg, Berrett-Koehler, 192 pages, Paperback Original, February 2019, ISBN 9781523098781

Bedtime Stories for Managers is Henry Mintzberg’s twentieth book. He is Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal, and has had taught at INSEAD in France and the London Business School in England. He also co-founded the International Masters Program for Managers and the International Masters for Health Leadership. So, if there’s one person who might be able to reasonably claim to have unlocked the secrets of effective management, Mintzberg could. Yet, he makes no such claims. In fact, he lets us know early on in Bedtime Stories for Managers:


This may be a book about managing, but don’t expect any magic bullets. I leave those to the books that compound the problem.


That is both refreshingly humble, and some wonderfully subtle and funny shade on those that would act superior—a distinctly Canadian combination that prevails throughout the book. He even provides his bonafides in a profoundly Canadian way, telling us how he enjoys escaping the world of organizations in nature and how much he cherishes his canoe before adding, “I guess I should tell you that I have 20 honorary degrees and am an Officer of the Order of Canada.” (He also uses his bio to direct you to pictures of his collection of Beaver Sculptures on his website.)

In place of silver bullets, Mintzberg offers Imagination, applied in the most pragmatic and pointed of ways to issues of the workplace, the marketplace, and the precarious place we find ourselves in today as a society. He questions and takes apart much of the conventional wisdom in business culture and business thought to show how high it is on convention and how lacking it is in wisdom. And, when you remove the clutter of conventional wisdom, what you’re left with is very clear, sober thinking and simple solutions.

For example, there is one practice he offers that believes will help “improve the practice of managing monumentally,” and it’s not a managing practice, but a hiring one: interviewing employees who have been managed by the candidates you’re considering. Why? Well, because Mintzberg believes “There are really only two ways to know a person’s flaws: marry them or work for them.” And why would you want to know their flaws rather than their strengths?


The answer is simple: 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.


And those with ambition to climb the proverbial corporate ladder have a tendency to act one way to their “superiors” and another to their “subordinates,”  


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 in managing “subordinates.”


As Mintzberg points out, “superiors” and “subordinates” are awful terms to use for people in the first place. But, by interviewing those they have managed, you can screen out the truly awful candidates. That is all contained in just one of the 42 succinct stories Mintzberg tells us in the book.

In another, he suggests the job of a manager ought not to be to ideate and implement strategies, but to “recognize their emergence” from those on the ground in touch with customers and everyday operations, and to “intervene when appropriate” to elevate the strategies they’ve developed. He believes the best way to set strategy is “by forgetting the word and doing a lot more learning than planning.” In this way and so many others, he shows how communityship, a word he himself coined, is a more important trait to foster than leadership. It can and should, in fact, put leadership in its proper place. Leadership is needed, and does have a proper, crucially important role, the most important of which is to establish communityship.

I like the word, and the idea of, communityship a lot. But my favorite turn of phrase in the book is when he is talking about the danger of “slabs”—the horizontal barriers to communication between different levels of leadership, similar to the “silos” that act as vertical barriers between different departments—and various strategies he has for removing them. Here he writes:


It’s easy to bust the slabs when you realize that they are mere figments of our lack of imagination.


These “figments of our lack of imagination” run much deeper, and reach much higher, than the ways we structure our companies and communication. The thread he pulls with regards to how we think about and manage individual organizations unravels questions about how we structure our economy and society, and for whose benefit. He wonders what would happen if business analysts honestly analyzed themselves, how we gather and measure data, and for what outcomes. “Indeed,” he ponders, “who has even tried to measure the performance of measurement.”

He imagines an MBA student analyzing the efficiency of an orchestra, in which four oboe players sit idle for much of the performance, 20 violins perform identical tasks simultaneously, and much of the equipment is at least a century old, yet not subject to widely accepted depreciation schedules. He posits that, by avoiding the repetition of tasks and passages present in most musical programs, the concert could be wrapped up more efficiently in 20 minutes rather than spread over the course of many hours. It’s a funny anecdote, until he reminds us that:


If this student had instead chosen to study a factory, nobody would be laughing, least of all the people in that factory. In other words, this is no laughing matter.


He then discusses how a focus on hard data and efficiency can easily erode not only the quality of the products and services we offer, but our quality of life—and undermine the social good.


Because economic benefits are typically easier to measure than social costs, efficiency can result in an escalation of social costs. … Because economic benefits are typically easier to measure than social costs, efficiency drives us toward an economic morality that can amount to a social immorality.


Most economists, Mintzberg points our, still dismiss the social costs of supposed economic benefits as “externalities.” But “Beware,” he warns, “of efficient education, health care, and music.”  


Making a factory or school more efficient is easy, so long as you don’t care about the polluted air or the stifled learning.


This is the kind of economic morality that believes it is too costly to tax billionaires, while allowing the social immorality of wild disparities in access to health care and other basic necessities. It is the kind of economic morality that justifies the richest 1 percent of Americans owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent because… they worked harder than the person who hauls away your trash? Because they provide more value to society than a schoolteacher? (They don't.) It is the kind of economic morality that drives politicians to push legislation to cut Medicare and Social Security (programs working men and women have been paying into for our entire lives) to pay for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy so that their wealth can “trickle down,” though it never has, so that they can create jobs in what we’ve already been told too many times is a jobless future. That is not capitalism—even if we choose to call it “late capitalism.” That is a plutocracy, and it is harmful to humans, and to most of our own business interests.

“Too often,” he believes, “Shareholder Value has become the only value.” And that is not just a problem of our current form of capitalism, but of our society. And, while movements in the business world toward more sustainable, responsible, and ethical practices are welcome, they are not enough:


No doubt “doing well by doing good” can be beneficial … The trouble is that too many companies are doing well by doing bad or doing nothing. There is no win-win wonderland out there.

Capitalism certainly needs some fixing, but it is society that needs fixing: to restore balance by returning capitalism to its rightful place, namely the marketplace, and out of the public space.


As I do every week, I wish I could go on and on about this book. There is so much I haven’t touched on, like how companies should proceed as he was told groups of people should cross the street while working at a training seminar in India—like a cow crosses the street, as a mass of people advancing steadily and cooperatively through what looks like chaos. I wish I could tell you more about how he skewers the language of the modern corporate world, wondering why we say top management and middle management, but never bottom management, and his suggestions for a more holistic, rather than a hierarchical, understanding of how organizations operate and communicate. I want to tell you how he differentiates between four different “species” of organizations that not only “have different cultures,” but “are different cultures.” I want to relay his questions—echoing the book we covered last week, Digital Minimalism—about how our social media networks can undermine our personal relationships, his question of we maintain time for “meeting and musing” when we’re so busy “texting and tweeting.” I want to share his examination of why MBAs usually make horrible managers, and why they’re better suited to roles in finance and marketing. I want to tell you why he believes that it “bears repeating, the big picture need not be set from on high; it can be constructed from experience on the ground.”

But most of all, I just want everyone to read this book. You’ll laugh as much as you think you might, and with a new way of looking at the world and some new ideas about what you can do to begin changing it when you wake up tomorrow, I think you’ll sleep just fine after reading Henry Mintzberg’s Bedtime Stories for Managers.

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