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Mintzberg: Blame MBAs for the Crisis of Management

The MBA bashers are out in force this week. The current crisis is not a financial one, it's a crisis of management, says Henry Mintzberg in the Globe and Mail.

Short-termism and ignorance among executives and employees contributed to what Mintzberg calls a "monumental failure of management", and management education has been a "significant part of the problem".

Mintzberg believes business schools have promoted "an excessively analytical, detached style of management" and graduated overconfident, underqualified MBAs with no practical experience of how to run a company.

He is, of course, a well known sceptic of the traditional MBA and co-founded the International Masters Program in Practicing Management (IMPM) as an antidote to the abstract and theoretical MBA.

But he's now joined by a growing chorus of MBA detractors who blame top schools for hot-housing greedy, self-serving individuals and pushing a "leader as hero" agenda. Harvard's been singled out for special scorn by Mintzberg, who, like Philip Delves Broughton last year, takes issue with the calibre of 'business leader' it graduates and the case study approach it so values.

Mintzberg and and Joseph Lampel even tracked the performance of 19 corporate chief execs from a list of Harvard Business School's "superstars" for over 10 years to prove a point:

"Ten were outright failures (the company went bankrupt, the CEO was fired, a major merger backfired etc.); another four had questionable records at best. Five out of the 19 seemed to do fine. These figures, limited as they were, sounded pretty damning. (When we published our results, there was nary a peep. No one really cared.)
It's possible to pick holes in these criticisms, or course. How often, for example, do campus stars (in any subject, vocational or theoretical) fail to light up their chosen field when they go out into the real world?

Is it really possible that MBA grads are so indoctrinated by their courses that all of their subsequent business decisions can be traced back to what they learned at b-school?

And while it may be true that business courses are too apt to promulgate conventional business practices, where else should they start? Business is a relatively new discipline and its teaching will evolve along with business itself.

So while Mintzberg's diatribe could be more tempered, he's right to pick holes in institutions that perpetuate the cult of the charismatic, untouchable leader. (Isn't the 'inspirational leader' a construct of the business school, and a cruel one at that for all but the very, very few who achieve cult status?)

As one anonymous blogger on Movement observes, in the real world of organisational leadership, "well run companies usually add a layer of competent managers" to look after the practicalities of running the business. Maybe we need to base our case studies on them.

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