Blog: Simply Nonsense

The sins of a president

7 December 2019

On the Day of Atonement, practicing Jews ask forgiveness for their sins. The president of the United States may not be Jewish, but looking over this list of sins from a Jewish prayer book1—nothing has been added, deleted, or shifted, I swear—for how many of these sins would he not ask forgiveness?

On the Day of Atonement, practicing Jews ask forgiveness for their sins. The president of the United States may not be Jewish, but looking over this list of sins from a Jewish prayer book1—nothing has been added, deleted, or shifted, I swear—for how many of these sins would he not ask forgiveness?

For the sins of our failures of truth
For pretending to emotions we do not feel;
for using the sins of others to excuse our own;
for denying our responsibility for our own misfortunes;
for refusing to admit our share in the troubles of others;
for condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves;
for condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves;
for passing judgement without knowledge of the facts;
for remembering the price of things but forgetting their value;
for teaching our children everything but the meaning of life;
for loving our egos better than the truth.
 
For the sins of our failures of love
For using people as stepping stones to advancement;
for confusing love and lust;
for withholding love to control those we claim to love;
for hiding from others behind an armor of mistrust;
for treating with arrogance people weaker than ourselves;
for condescending towards those whom we regard as inferiors;
for shunting aside those whose age is an embarrassment to us;
for giving ourselves the fleeting pleasure of inflicting lasting hurts;
for cynicism which eats away our faith in the possibility of love.
 
For the sins of our failures of justice
For the sin of false and deceptive advertising;
for the sin of keeping the poor in the chains of poverty;
for the sin of withholding justice from the world;
for the sin of racial hatred and prejudice;
for the sin of denying its existence;
for the sin of using violence to maintain our powers;
for the sin of using violence to bring about change;
for the sin of separating ends from means;
for the sin of threatening the survival of life on this planet;
for the sin of filling the common air with poisons;
for the sin of making our waters unfit to drink and unsafe for fish;
for the sin of pouring noxious chemicals upon trees and soil;
for the sin of war;
for the sin of aggressive war;
for the sin of appeasing aggressors;
for the sin of building weapons of mass destruction;
for the sin of obeying criminal orders;
for the sin of lacking civic courage;
for the sin of silence and indifference;
for running to do evil but limping to do good.

Is it really possible for any human being, let alone a president of the United States, to exhibit so many of these sins?

(Disclosure: Please forgive me the sin of using the sins of another to excuse my own.)

© Henry Mintzberg 2019.

1Renew Our Days, prayer book for Reconstructionist Judaism (2001, pages 504-505), edited and translated by Rabbi Ronald Aigen.
 

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Not noble: the fake fact of economics

22 October 2019

Six Nobel Prizes for 2019 have just been widely reported, five of them real.

In his will of 1896, Alfred Nobel created prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Why, then, does nobelprize.org list a sixth one, in “economic sciences”, and then bury deep in its site the heading “Not a Nobel Prize”? And why do so many of its recipients, presumably selected for the integrity of their scholarship, claim to have won a Nobel Prize? Is this just another fake fact, too good to pass up? No, this one has serious consequences, that’s why I harp on it.

Six Nobel Prizes for 2019 have just been widely reported, five of them real.

In his will of 1896, Alfred Nobel created prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. Why, then, does nobelprize.org list a sixth one, in “economic sciences”, and then bury deep in its site the heading “Not a Nobel Prize”? And why do so many of its recipients, presumably selected for the integrity of their scholarship, claim to have won a Nobel Prize? Is this just another fake fact, too good to pass up? No, this one has serious consequences, that’s why I harp on it.

In 1968, the Bank of Sweden created a prize in its own name for the “economic sciences“ and added “in memory of Alfred Nobel.” With these superfluous words, the prize that economists created for themselves has come to be called “Nobel”, or sometimes “The Nobel Memorial Prize” (see even Wikipedia), as if the extra word is any less of a violation of Alfred Nobel’s will. Imagine if political scientists or anthropologists tried to get away with this.

Each of the social sciences has its central concept, for example power in political science, culture in anthropology, and markets in economics. Considered together, in balance, they provide a range of perspectives on human behavior. Considered alone, each narrows our perspective, at the limit into a dogma. Should we see our behavior primarily through the lens of power, or of culture?

Well, mainstream economics has convinced too many of us to see our behavior primarily through the lens of markets, in the form of a dogma that greed is good, markets are sufficient, and governments are suspect. As one view of the human condition, this makes some sense. As the view, it is nonsense. Yet this nonsense, in an unholy alliance with the private forces of greed, has been throwing much of the world dangerously out of balance. (When John Maynard Keynes declared famously that “In the long run we are all dead”, he meant each of us, not all of us. There is no collective “we” in economics, no sense of community. Thanks to the state of the world today, we could all be dead in the short run.)

A healthy society sustains balance across its three sectors: respected governments in the public sector, responsible businesses in the private sector, and robust communities in what should be called the plural sector. Thanks to this alliance, many ostensibly democratic societies have become unhealthy, not least the U.S. and U.K. Their private sectors dominate, coopting their governments, diminishing their communities, and undermining their democracy. On the international stage, economic globalization has become the new hegemony. Facing no countervailing power, it plays governments off against each other, driving down taxes at the expense of public services. 

The consequences of this imbalance are all too evident, for example in the income disparities that are driving many frustrated people to vote for the likes of Trump and Brexit; in levels of production and consumption that exacerbate climate change; even in our everyday vocabulary that regards human beings as “human resources“ and citizens as “customers“ of governments. These days, every organization is supposed to act like a business, with every chief a CEO.

Where to begin the restoration of balance? We can hardly expect corporations to cede the power that they have amassed. And fixing capitalism, however necessary, will not fix democracies that are broken, any more than fixing communism would have fixed the broken societies of Eastern Europe (which were out of balance on the side of their public sectors). And how can we expect balance to be restored by governments that have been coopted by private interests.

This leaves the plural sector, were culture matters more than markets. If we are to stop our descent into self-destruction, a form of reformation will have to begin here. Some of us may work in the private sector and many of us may vote in the public sector but all of us live our social lives in the plural sector—for example, when volunteering for a cause, donating to an NGO, joining a protest, or just plain working out at the Y.

Our economically developed world is in dire need of social redevelopment. The restoration of balance will take a lot more than putting this economics prize in its place, namely as The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences. But doing so could be a good place to start—even better if it’s name was changed to the Bank of Sweden Prize in the Social Sciences—by sending a message that private sector interests have to refocus their attention back in their place, namely the marketplace, so that our public sector governments and plural sector communities can get on with serving our collective and social needs.

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. See Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center

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The Maestro Myth of Managing

28 January 2019

This TWOG is from my new book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, modified from the original posting on 28 April 2016.

Picture the managerial maestro on the podium: a flick of the baton and marketing opens; a wave of the wand and sales chimes in; a grand sweep of the arms and HR, PR, and IT harmonize. It’s a manager’s dream—you can even attend leadership workshops orchestrated by conductors.

Here are three quotes about this metaphor. As you read them, we’ll play a little game. Please vote for which quote best captures your understanding of managing. But there’s a trick: you must vote after you read each, before you have read any other. There is, however, a compensating trick: you can vote up to three times!

From Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru:

This TWOG is from my new book, Bedtime Stories for Managers, modified from the original posting on 28 April 2016.

Picture the managerial maestro on the podium: a flick of the baton and marketing opens; a wave of the wand and sales chimes in; a grand sweep of the arms and HR, PR, and IT harmonize. It’s a manager’s dream—you can even attend leadership workshops orchestrated by conductors.

Here are three quotes about this metaphor. As you read them, we’ll play a little game. Please vote for which quote best captures your understanding of managing. But there’s a trick: you must vote after you read each, before you have read any other. There is, however, a compensating trick: you can vote up to three times!

From Peter Drucker, the guru’s guru:

One analogy [for the manager] is the conductor of a symphony orchestra, through whose effort, vision and leadership, individual instrumental parts that are so much noise by themselves, become the living whole of music. But the conductor has the composer’s score: he is only interpreter. The manager is both composer and conductor.   

Your vote for the manager as composer and conductor?

From Sune Carlson, a Swedish economist who carried out the first serious study of managerial work, of Swedish CEOs:

Before we made the study, I always thought of a chief executive as the conductor of an orchestra, standing aloof on his platform. Now I am in some respects inclined to see him as the puppet in the puppet-show with hundreds of people pulling the strings and forcing him to act in one way or another.

Your vote for the manager as puppet?

From Leonard Sayles, who studied middle managers in the United States:

The manager is like a symphony orchestra conductor, endeavoring to maintain a melodious performance… while the orchestra members are having various personal difficulties, stage hands are moving music stands, alternating excessive heat and cold are creating audience and instrumental problems, and the sponsor of the concert is insisting on irrational changes in the program.

Your vote for the manager in rehearsal?

Which did you choose? I have used this game with many groups of managers. The results are always the same. A few hands might go up for the first and a few more for the second, but when I read the third, all the hands go up! Managers are like orchestra conductors, all right, but away from performance, to the everyday grind. Beware of metaphors that glorify.

As for orchestra conductors, are they managers at all, even leaders? Outside of performance, certainly both, together. They select the musicians and the music and, during rehearsals, blend them into a coherent whole. But watch a conductor in performance: it is mostly that—performance. Better still, watch the musicians during performance: they barely look at the conductor—who, by the way, may be a guest conductor. Can you imagine a guest manager anywhere else? 

Who is pulling the strings: Toscanini or Tchaikovsky? Actually, the musicians do that, but each plays the notes written for his or her instrument by the composer, all together. So it is the composer who is both composer and conductor. But since the composers are dead, the conductors get the acclaim.

Maybe all the world really is a stage, with all the composers, conductors, managers, and players merely players. If so, no one manager belongs on the podium of lofty leadership.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016, 2019. For more on Bedtime Stories for Managers, or to order it, click here.

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Happy Anniversary fellow prostitutes

3 January 2019

It’s 2019, which seems innocuous enough—not a prime number, not even a leap year (i.e., divisible by 3 but not 4). In actual fact, however, 2019 is a banner year: the 25th anniversary of the declaration that we are all prostitutes. I refer to the publication in 1994 of the pivotal article “The Nature of Man”, by Michael Jensen and William Meckling, in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance. Here is a story they told:

George Bernard Shaw, the famous playwright and social thinker, reportedly once claimed that while on an ocean voyage he asked a celebrated actress on deck one evening whether she would be willing to sleep with him for a million dollars. She was agreeable. He followed with a counterproposal: “What about ten dollars?” “What do you think I am?” she responded indignantly. He replied, “We’ve already established that—now we’re just haggling over price.”

It’s 2019, which seems innocuous enough—not a prime number, not even a leap year (i.e., divisible by 3 but not 4). In actual fact, however, 2019 is a banner year: the 25th anniversary of the declaration that we are all prostitutes. I refer to the publication in 1994 of the pivotal article “The Nature of Man”, by Michael Jensen and William Meckling, in the Journal of Applied Corporate Finance. Here is a story they told:

George Bernard Shaw, the famous playwright and social thinker, reportedly once claimed that while on an ocean voyage he asked a celebrated actress on deck one evening whether she would be willing to sleep with him for a million dollars. She was agreeable. He followed with a counterproposal: “What about ten dollars?” “What do you think I am?” she responded indignantly. He replied, “We’ve already established that—now we’re just haggling over price.”

Cute. Not so cute is the declaration that follows: “Like it or not, individuals are willing to sacrifice a little of almost anything we care to name, even reputation or morality, for a sufficiently large quantity of other desired things…” In other words, deep in our souls, or in the absence of them, we are all prostitutes.

Jensen and Meckling used the term “Shareholder Value” in the article, which has everything to do with maximizing personal wealth and nothing to do with enhancing human values. (Notice their use of the term “large quantity”. These two professors were trained in economics, a field that teaches a lot more about quantities than qualities. Oscar Wilde wrote about a cynic as ''a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.'')

Shareholder Value went on to become a celebrated orthodoxy, at least in stock markets, executive suites, and business schools. Jensen himself went on to the Harvard Business School, to teach his value of Value to many of the future captains of business, in what became the most popular elective course in the place. Many of these captains, however, went on to fail. Excessive Value and inadequate values?

A prostitute can be defined as anyone who sells a cherished resource indiscriminately. Thus, a poor woman who sells her body to feed a starving child is not a prostitute, whereas a rich celebrity who sells his reputation by endorsing a product he cares nothing about is a prostitute. And so too are the beneficiaries of Shareholder Value who have enabled pharmaceutical companies to set prices so that sick people die for want of medicines that could be affordable, and suitably profitable, likewise the university professors who take research grants from such companies to do their bidding. Prostitution is running rampant in this world of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are many decent professors at the Harvard Business School now singing the praises of corporate social responsibility (CSR), just as there are many decent executives in corporations pursuing it. Even Jensen has since offered his share of mea culpa, much as Jack Welch, the exalted CEO of General Electric who championed Shareholder Value, later called it “the dumbest idea in the world.” (What does that make you Jack?) Too late, the damage was done, and continues: corporate social irresponsibility (CSI) runs rampant too. As Tom Lehrer sang in his off-color song about the republicans in the Spanish Civil War: “Though [Franco] may have won all the battles, we had all the good songs.”

Enough of the songs; it’s time for action. How about making 2019 the year that we throw off the yoke of Shareholder Value, for the sake of human values?

© Henry Mintzberg 2019. A few days ago, Federica Mancinelli (@Mancinelli2020) tweeted: “Will 2019 be the year of #communityship?'' Sounds good to me!

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Gambling CEO Style: Always All-In

16 March 2018

Gambling is a popular metaphor among CEOs—"doubling down” and all that stuff. So let’s use it to consider the compensation of those CEOs who gamble with their bonuses.

First, CEOs gamble with other people’s money. This is nice work, if you can get it.

Second, CEO gamblers collect, not when they win, but when they appear to be winning. Since it takes time to know a winning hand, the CEO gamblers usually collect in the midst of the game. This is like taking the pot with a couple of aces on the table, while the rest of the hand remains closed. Poker players call this kind of thing a semi-bluff. No semi for these CEOs! Just make sure that the best cards shown.

Gambling is a popular metaphor among CEOs—"doubling down” and all that stuff. So let’s use it to consider the compensation of those CEOs who gamble with their bonuses.

First, CEOs gamble with other people’s money. This is nice work, if you can get it.

Second, CEO gamblers collect, not when they win, but when they appear to be winning. Since it takes time to know a winning hand, the CEO gamblers usually collect in the midst of the game. This is like taking the pot with a couple of aces on the table, while the rest of the hand remains closed. Poker players call this kind of thing a semi-bluff. No semi for these CEOs! Just make sure that the best cards shown.

Third, CEO gamblers also collect when they lose. This, I assure you, does not happen in real gambling, which has yet to adopt golden parachutes. If it did, the real gamblers would be all-in all the time—every single chip. Just like those CEOs who casually bet their companies.

Fourth, some CEO gamblers collect just for drawing cards. No need even to show those aces. CEOs who are not much good at managing the company can be brilliant at managing the compensation. For example, some get a bonus for signing a big acquisition, long before anyone can have any idea if it will work. (Most, by the way, don’t). Some risk-takers!

Fifth, CEO gamblers can also collect for staying at the table. This is the greatest boondoggle of them all. It’s called a “retention bonus.” Not only do these CEOs get paid for doing the job (so to speak); they also get paid for not leaving the job. Now that is really nice work, if you can get it.

Back at home, check the beds of these CEOs. You will find them rather crowded. Cozying up are the compensation consultants, who join the CEOs in screwing everyone else. And don’t forget the board directors—voyeurs in these beds—who explain that, after all, everyone else is doing the same kind of screwing. This kind of followership they call leadership.

I must add that, in one respect all of this is like real gambling: win or lose, the game is played now while the social consequences trickle in later. So, board directors,  how about this instead, no gambling involved, just a win-win for the society and the economy:

Dismiss out of hand all candidates for the CEO position who seek a compensation package that would set them apart from everyone else in the company. (You can say: “Didn’t you just give us a spiel about ‘teamwork’?”) Indeed, terminate the interview at the mere mention of the word “bonus”, definitive proof that the candidate has no concern for the company, indeed no business running a business of cooperating human beings. (“You just said that ‘Human resources are a company’s greatest asset.’”) Turn the tables upside down and strike a blow for responsible gamesmanship.

© Henry Mintzberg 2018, who gambles with a bit of his own money in www.CoachingOurselves.com. An earlier version of this appeared in the Globe & Mail (3 April 2009). Guess which one in the photo is the CEO.

“Guns don’t kill, people kill.” Sure, but… people with guns kill.

4 October 2017

This blog is updated from one posted on mintzberg.org/blog on 25 October 2015, under the title “Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms?”

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives the people of America “the right to keep and bear arms.” Companies that sell arms thus make a great deal of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people who run the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, say in a shopping bag?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

This blog is updated from one posted on mintzberg.org/blog on 25 October 2015, under the title “Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms?”

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution gives the people of America “the right to keep and bear arms.” Companies that sell arms thus make a great deal of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people who run the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, say in a shopping bag?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

To which I retort: “Not at all. This is the answer I expected. We have now established the basic point: that a line has to be drawn somewhere. Where do you draw it: between nuclear bombs and cluster bombs? cluster bombs and automatic weapons? automatic weapons and handguns?” (A friend who hunts tells me that a one-shot rifle is all he needs. But he hunts deer, not people.)

I draw the line between guns and knives because, with knives in every kitchen, it’s tough to control them. (Handguns account for far more murders in the United States than do knives.) The right to bear arms may have made some sense when muskets were the only arms available, and took time to reload, with no 911 to call. But technology has moved on: now we have arms that can mass kill as fast as anyone can dial 9-1-1.

Here’s another mantra of the gun lobby: “Guns don’t kill; people kill.” Actually, people with guns kill, whether a toddler who mistakenly shoots a sibling or a lunatic in a hotel room who wantonly murders many people. (In total, on average, 93 Americans will die from gun violence today.)

Then there is the mantra that “We need more guns, not less”, presumably so that an innocent bystander can be ready to kill some killer. Can you remember the last time you heard that an innocent bystander killed a killer? In contrast, today may well be the latest time an innocent bystander was killed by a killer.

A young woman, traumatized by witnessing a mass killing, mouthed this mantra to a TV reporter. So why didn’t she have a gun in her pocket, finger on the trigger ready to kill him? After all, she could have bought one just as easily as he did. OK, so she didn’t expect a mass killing in her neighborhood. But fear not (really fear yes): with this attitude, one can’t be far away.

And here is a truly true fact: In the official copy of the Second Amendment, kept in the National Archives, this right to bear arms is qualified: “...a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  Like the Swiss who, in case of hostilities, keep their one rifle in a closet, tightly regulated, Americans were given the right to bear arms for the sake of security, not murder, not even for the profit of private companies. 

So what’s going on here? Can people be that mindless, or that manipulated? It looks to be both. The Tea Party website used to have the following on its list of “Non-negotiable Core Beliefs”: “Gun ownership is sacred” and “Special interests must be eliminated.” The gun lobby is apparently not a special interest! And think about the ability of special interests to use the media to manipulate the minds of millions, including that young woman.

Can’t get rid of guns? How about getting rid of the right to take them anywhere? Better still, how about a constitutional amendment that puts a "not" in there somewhere? Dream on. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. This is not about buying, keeping, or transporting guns. It’s about bribery. When the Supreme Court granted corporations, as “persons” in the law, the right to make political donations to their hearts’ content, it legalized bribery. With these donations came the lop-sided lobbying that now dominates Congress, and is destroying the country’s renowned democracy. Guns are just the most blatant example of how the decent folks of America have lost control of their country.

© Henry Mintzberg 2017, 2015. To go deeper into this world out of whack, see my book Rebalancing Society https://www.amazon.ca/Rebalancing-Society-Radical-Renewal-Beyond/dp/1626....

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In a dangerous world, mine can no longer be bigger than yours

12 August 2017

Why do we have juveniles running the world, obsessed with demonstrating that "mine is bigger than yours"? The president of the country with the largest nuclear arsenal on earth insists that no other country will ever have a bigger one, as if 7000 warheads are insufficient. Why does this country give any single person—let alone this loose cannon—the power to launch that? The only answer I can imagine is that “getting them before they get us” has had higher priority than protecting life on earth from an inadvertent catastrophe.

For his part, Putin insists on making Russia bigger, if not better, at the expense of its neighbors. At the expense of its people too, who pay the price of these leadership ego trips. But more so the people of North Korea, and the American soldiers who fell in Vietnam and Iraq.

Why do we have juveniles running the world, obsessed with demonstrating that "mine is bigger than yours"? The president of the country with the largest nuclear arsenal on earth insists that no other country will ever have a bigger one, as if 7000 warheads are insufficient. Why does this country give any single person—let alone this loose cannon—the power to launch that? The only answer I can imagine is that “getting them before they get us” has had higher priority than protecting life on earth from an inadvertent catastrophe.

For his part, Putin insists on making Russia bigger, if not better, at the expense of its neighbors. At the expense of its people too, who pay the price of these leadership ego trips. But more so the people of North Korea, and the American soldiers who fell in Vietnam and Iraq.

Blame not just Putin, but NATO, because when the Cold War ended, it too decided to get bigger, by taking in nations on Russia’s flanks. With the Cold War gone, NATO had nothing to do. And so it found something to do, namely bring the Cold War back. Putin  was quiet then, not now.Talk about irresponsible posturing.

Meanwhile China sticks it to a weaker neighbor over some irrelevant hunk of rock in the sea This it does to claim--or is it to grow?—its territory. Boys may be boys, but we had better get the juveniles out of the schoolyard before they blow us all to bits.

Russia and China are ruled by power. America is ruled by reverence. Americans revere their president the way Catholics revere the Pope. Now CNN broadcasts its relentless disparagement of the incumbent alongside its mindless deference to the office, as if the two can be separated. Will American children be reciting the name Donald Trump alongside Thomas Jefferson?

Face it: the president of the United States of America is an unscrupulous ignoramus.  Yet almost half the voting population put him into office, and may well do something similar in the future. Accordingly, despite the many thoughtful and concerned people in the United States, can anyone outside the country ever trust it again? Now we have the incumbent facing off on behalf of the “free world” against the devious brute of North Korea. They deserve each other, but no-one else deserves either of them. Hold your breath.

The problem is built into the organization—really the disorganization—of our world. In a village with weak government and no police force, the thugs take over. This is the state of our global village. Three countries have taken over, and vie with each other for power: over who has more nuclear weapons, or greater control of its neighbors, or an additional hunk of rock in the sea. Thanks to “leaders” who never made it past the schoolyard, we may never make it past them.

What's the alternative? To wake up, not such leadership, but all of us who tolerate its nonsense. Thankfully, more and more people across the political spectrum, hitherto passive, are getting the message. Never before have so many concerned people been prepared to vote with their feet, their ballots, and their pocketbooks. They just need some way to channel that energy into constructive change. And that will take some new thinking. So how about this, for starters at least?

There are almost 200 countries in the world, some of whose governments are insufferable, but many others that are quietly democratic. Acting together, as a coalition of concerned democracies, the latter could exert their influence to challenge the bullies who put us at risk.

We need world government with teeth and legitimacy, not a Security Council whose five permanent members all have nuclear weapons, histories of bullying, and rank (with Germany) as the largest exporters of armaments in the world. This is an Insecurity Council, and judging from Syria, a War Council. We need a Peace Council.

Does such change sound utopian? Sure it does. Shall we therefore stick with what we have, and destroy ourselves sooner or later?

© Henry Mintzberg 2017. See Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center.  

Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here. To help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.

Trumped both ways: ‘Snake Oil’ or ‘Business as Usual’

14 September 2016

This week’s TWOG is co-authored with John Breitner, after we realized that our discussions about the U.S. election led us from different political perspectives to the same conclusion.

One of us is American and the other Canadian, one conservative, the other liberal.  We live in Canada, a good vantage whence to watch the U.S. election.  Where, we wish to ask, are the good folks of America, in politics and in the population? In the population they appear to be marginalized by a choice between one politician who is selling snake oil, 21st century style, and another who epitomizes the establishment that many of them abhor—business as usual.

This week’s TWOG is co-authored with John Breitner, after we realized that our discussions about the U.S. election led us from different political perspectives to the same conclusion.

One of us is American and the other Canadian, one conservative, the other liberal.  We live in Canada, a good vantage whence to watch the U.S. election.  Where, we wish to ask, are the good folks of America, in politics and in the population? In the population they appear to be marginalized by a choice between one politician who is selling snake oil, 21st century style, and another who epitomizes the establishment that many of them abhor—business as usual.

Donald Trump gives voice to many Americans who know that they are getting bamboozled. Yet here is the ultimate hustler, the very type who does so much of the bamboozling. Trust me, he says. Hillary Clinton gives voice to many who appreciate how dangerous her opponent could be. Trust me, she too says, while offering a steady stream of reasons why people cannot.  Sure we all have our flaws, but among 320 million Americans, could two not be found with flaws that reveal an underlying integrity? 

How is anyone to believe that either candidate will deal with the deeply-rooted problems of America today: income disparities, the legal corruption of political donations, a warming globe that needs to be cooled, crony capitalism that has harmed so much of the American middle class? Add to this the ultimate problem: an uncanny tendency to deal with all these fires by repeatedly pouring oil on them.

How, exactly, will the hotshot with the checkered background, who promises to “make America great again”, do that?  How will the archetype of the American establishment challenge that establishment?  And how will either of these two, who used to socialize together as members of the 1%, improve the lot of the 99%?

Americans have been hearing the “trust me” line for centuries. Lincoln famously claimed that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  Maybe so, but it appears that you can fool many of the people much of the time because, to quote P.T. Barnum, a sucker is born every minute.  So, evidently, is a shark.  Ask the contractors and workers of Atlantic City who sued the Donald for reneging on his contracts.

Trump, of course, also offers business as usual—in his case, quite literally.  I’m a businessman, he says. I can do it.  We’ve heard that before too.  Even if we leave aside that government is not business, even if we ignore the record of so much of today’s business as usual—all the lobbying, pay-to-play donations, corporate social irresponsibility, and the obscenity of executive compensation—we still have to ask what kind of a businessman is Donald Trump anyway?  Was he serious when he offered to renegotiate the U.S. federal debt to solve the deficit problem?  Or when he asked that an American-born judge of Mexican descent be recused from hearing complaints about his infamous “Trump University”?

What, then, are the good folks of America to do? When two people engage in a battle, both can look bad, even though one may have been worse. They drag each other down. No-one should be fooled by this. We believe that the calculus of the U.S. election is quite simple. The flaws of these two candidates hardly deserve the equal attention they are getting in some of the correct media. One is flawed, but the other could be fatally flawed. Business as usual may be intolerable, but snake oil for the ills of this world is downright hazardous. What Donald Trump would do as president is anyone’s guess; what Hillary Clinton would do is not.

So the American among us will hold his nose and vote Democratic. Then both of us will take a deep breath and contemplate the bigger issue: how can good folks save democracy from itself?  We urge you to do likewise.

© Henry Mintzberg and John Breitner 2016.  John is Director of the Center for Studies on Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease at the Douglas Hospital Research Center in Montreal, and a Professor of Psychiatry in the McGill University Faculty of Medicine. Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.

The lies lobbyists tell us

5 November 2015

1. That lobbying is about free speech. Then why does it take place behind closed doors?

2. That corporations as persons in the law have the right to this free speech. Someone in the United States has brought a suit to have chimpanzees recognized as persons in the law (in order to protect them). Surely chimpanzees, with a genetic difference from humans of only 1.2%, have a more legitimate claim to personhood than do corporations (with 100%).[1]

3. That lobbying is legal. In a manner of speaking, lobbying may be legal. So is bribing, under the label of political donations, which open those back room doors to lobbying. Corruption, you see, can be legal too.

1. That lobbying is about free speech. Then why does it take place behind closed doors?

2. That corporations as persons in the law have the right to this free speech. Someone in the United States has brought a suit to have chimpanzees recognized as persons in the law (in order to protect them). Surely chimpanzees, with a genetic difference from humans of only 1.2%, have a more legitimate claim to personhood than do corporations (with 100%).[1]

3. That lobbying is legal. In a manner of speaking, lobbying may be legal. So is bribing, under the label of political donations, which open those back room doors to lobbying. Corruption, you see, can be legal too.

4. That everyone has access to lobbying. In all manners of speaking, this is not true at all. Lobbying is lop-sided: the formula is one $, one vote. For example, while the vast majority of Americans supported recent legislation to expand background checks for gun buyers, the gun lobby stopped it in the Senate.[2]

5. That lobbying is fundamental to democracy. In fact, lobbying destroys democracy. The self-evident truth today is that only those people who don’t lobby are created equal. The rest are more than equal. Democracy is about more than voting. It is about how fair that voting is in the first place, and how open, accessible, and balanced the expression of interests are after that.


[1] In a column in The New York Times, Anand Giridharadas referred to “three interesting points” made by Sarah Palin in a speech:

First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people. Second that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.” Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private). Palin went on to condemn corporate lobbyists, special interests, and “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest”, and to distinguish good from bad capitalists, meaning small ones that take risks from big ones that live off bailouts and dodge taxes, while not creating jobs.

[2] David Brooks commented in his New York Times column that “President Obama has certainly not shut corporate-types out of the regulatory process. According to data collected by the Center for Progressive Reforms, 62 percent of the people who met with the White House office in charge of reviewing regulations were representatives of industry, while only 16 percent represented activist groups. At these meetings, business representatives outnumbered activists by more than 4 to 1.” Brooks, a normally sensible columnist, looked favorably upon such business as usual.

 

Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms?

29 October 2015

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the people of America  “the right to keep and bear arms.” This has helped those people who make and sell arms to make lots of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people at the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, for example in their shopping bags?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

To which I retort: “Not at all. This is the answer I expected. We have now established the basic point: that the line has to be drawn somewhere. Where do you draw it: between nuclear bombs and cluster bombs? cluster bombs and automatic weapons? automatic weapons and handguns?” (A friend who hunts tells me that a one shot rifle is all he needs—although he does hunt deer, not tigers.)

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives the people of America  “the right to keep and bear arms.” This has helped those people who make and sell arms to make lots of money, the consequences be damned. So here is a conversation I fantasize having with the people at the National Rifle Association.

“Do the people of America have the right to bear nuclear arms, for example in their shopping bags?”

And they reply: “Are you some sort of nut?”

To which I retort: “Not at all. This is the answer I expected. We have now established the basic point: that the line has to be drawn somewhere. Where do you draw it: between nuclear bombs and cluster bombs? cluster bombs and automatic weapons? automatic weapons and handguns?” (A friend who hunts tells me that a one shot rifle is all he needs—although he does hunt deer, not tigers.)

I draw the line between guns and knives, since, with knives in every kitchen, it’s tough to restrict them. You should know that handguns account for at least half of all the murders in the United States, far more than do knives.

Do you get the gist of my argument? The right to bear arms can no longer be absolute. This amendment might have made sense when muskets were the only arms available, and took time to reload. Besides, on the frontier there was no 911 to call. But the technology has moved on: now we have arms designed for mass killing, as fast as anyone can dial 9-1-1.

Here’s another mantra of the gun lobby: “Guns don’t kill; people kill.” Actually, people with guns kill, in great numbers, whether a toddler who mistakenly shoots a sibling or a lunatic who is determined to murder aimlessly.

Finally there is the mantra that “We need more guns, not less.” Presumably this is so that some innocent bystander can be ready to kill some killer. But allowing more guns mostly makes it easier for the killers themselves. When was the last time an innocent bystander killed a killer? In contrast, when was the last time an innocent bystander was killed by a killer? If you answered “yesterday”, you may well be right.

A young women traumatized by a recent mass killing nearby mouthed this mantra to a TV reporter. So why didn’t she have a gun in her pocket, finger on the trigger all ready to shoot him? After all, she could have bought one just as easily as he did. OK, so she didn’t expect a mass killing in her neighborhood. But fear not (really fear yes): With the prevalence of this kind of attitude, it’s just a matter of time.

So what’s going on? Can there be something in the water? If not the water, then what? People can’t just be that dumb. (Included in the “Non-negotiable Core Beliefs” on the Tea Party website are the following, in sequence: “Special interests must be eliminated” and “Gun ownership is sacred.” The gun lobby is apparently not a special interest.)

Maybe the world is so out of whack that self-serving interests can get away with manipulating the minds of millions. In that case, the problem goes far deeper than the right to bear arms—to a right of “free speech” that allows corporate “persons” to lobby and lie for the public bad. Here too a line has to be drawn, between real and fake persons as well as between truth and lies.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015. To go deeper into this world out of whack, see Rebalancing Society and related TWOGS

Next week’s TWOG will be about “The lies lobbyists tell us.”

Today is the day to face the farce

11 June 2015

      Exciting news this week from the Gang of 7 in a Bavarian castle: the world will be freed of fossil fuels by the end of the century! Politicians who can’t keep a promise from one election to the next expect us to believe that they will keep a promise for 2099. (For good measure, they threw in—yet again, if my memory serves me well—an end to extreme poverty and hunger, this by 2030.)

     Do you know how many elections will be held by 2099? 22 in each of the democratic countries. What if some other party comes to power, say in 2049, and decides it prefers 2199? Promises are cheap, you may have noticed, and so are plans. Our future deserves better than that, by what we do today.

 

      Exciting news this week from the Gang of 7 in a Bavarian castle: the world will be freed of fossil fuels by the end of the century! Politicians who can’t keep a promise from one election to the next expect us to believe that they will keep a promise for 2099. (For good measure, they threw in—yet again, if my memory serves me well—an end to extreme poverty and hunger, this by 2030.)

     Do you know how many elections will be held by 2099? 22 in each of the democratic countries. What if some other party comes to power, say in 2049, and decides it prefers 2199? Promises are cheap, you may have noticed, and so are plans. Our future deserves better than that, by what we do today.

 

Breakthrough? Groupthink? or Camouflage?

Some of these G7 people may believe they have orchestrated a breakthrough. I believe they have joined a groupthink. Some are so concerned about global warming—or at least about what they have to tell their children back home—that they must have gone to Germany ready to believe in almost anything that looks good, so long as it inconveniences no-one. Hence they all lined up to save our world by 2099. Will there be anything left to save?

     This really amounts to camouflage. It is not a call to action so much as another excuse for inaction. (The German chancellor’s proposal that her colleagues agree to immediate binding emission targets was turned down. Get serious, they must have told her.)  Can anyone seriously believe that the prime minister of Canada has finally taken his head out of the tar sands—or at least will in 85 years? The original proposal was for 2050; he reportedly pushed for 2099. What’s a half-century between politicians? Just the replacement of two digits on a screen, in fact.

 

Facing the Farce 

It is time to face the farce, beginning with some evidence. Consider the string of conferences on global warming. In 2009, the great governments of the world got together in Copenhagen. Their accomplishment, according to the British minister for climate and energy (note his title), was to “put numbers on the table.”1 In Durban two years later, the two hundred assembled countries “agreed to begin a long-term process of negotiating a new treaty.”2  Then in 2012, the conference in Rio de Janeiro was claimed to have produced “an historic agreement, because it is the start of discussion on sustainable development” (CBC radio, 22 June 2012). Later in that year, lest anyone be left who did not get the point, a U.N. Climate Summit was held in Qatar, the country with the worst environmental footprint on Earth.3 Now, in 2015 we finally have a definitive commitment—for 2099.

     How much more of this will it take to wake us up? All these lofty pronouncements have stopped not a single flood. So please, dear “leaders”, don’t tell us what you plan for 2099, or after the next election, or tomorrow. Tell us what you are doing today. What actions of consequence are you engaging our countries in right now?

     A few governments of the world can provide decent answers. Most cannot. That’s because of the role to which they have allowed themselves to be reduced: making such lofty pronouncements in public forums while negotiating lowly deals in back offices, with those who have the real power. These are the ones who fund their election campaigns. Or else hold the spectre of globalization over their heads. Play our global game, they tell the elected officials, keep our taxes low and our fossils fuelling, and we promise to keep some of our employment in your country. But please, no more legislation that affects our profits, even if it is about pollution, or health, or culture. Otherwise we will have to sue you through the phoney tribunals we wrote into your latest trade pact. We are, you must never forget, the free enterprises of this global world, the key to democratic capitalism. (Note what is the noun.)

     This is the reality today, and a resolution to deal with fossil fuels by 2099 suits it perfectly. Pray for our world. Better still, recognize that it needs to be rebalanced. Wealthy interests that benefit from problems such as global warming have taken significant control, at the expense of common interests. Those of us who care about our progeny and our planet will have to do something about this.

     The G7 believes that we will get to procrastination in due course. Please recognize that tomorrow never comes. Today is the day to challenge this farce.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015  

Pages 47-75 of my book Rebalancing Society (2015) discuss what you and I can do about this. Earlier blogs that discuss aspects of this are listed on this blog site under Rebalancing Society.

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1 Kanter, J. (2009, December 20). An Air of Frustration for Europe at Climate Talks.      New York Times. Retrieved from      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/world/europe/21scene.html

2 Austen, I. (2011, December 12). Canada Announces Exit from Kyoto Climate      Treaty. New York Times. Retrieved from      http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/science/earth/canada-leaving-kyoto-pro...

3 According to the Economist Pocket World in Figures - 2012 Edition.

“Downsizing” as 21st Century Bloodletting

2 April 2015

Until two centuries ago, bloodletting was a common treatment for all sorts of illnesses. Physicians who didn’t know what to do were inclined to draw blood, sometimes killing their patients. We know better now, at last in medicine.

Not in management. Bloodletting has come back, with a vengeance. These days, corporate executives who don’t know what to do are inclined to fire great numbers of workers, and that is killing societies and economies. This goes by the polite name of downsizing, despite the havoc it inflicts on people’s lives. But since so many companies are doing it, surely it must be OK.

Until two centuries ago, bloodletting was a common treatment for all sorts of illnesses. Physicians who didn’t know what to do were inclined to draw blood, sometimes killing their patients. We know better now, at last in medicine.

Not in management. Bloodletting has come back, with a vengeance. These days, corporate executives who don’t know what to do are inclined to fire great numbers of workers, and that is killing societies and economies. This goes by the polite name of downsizing, despite the havoc it inflicts on people’s lives. But since so many companies are doing it, surely it must be OK.

Downsizing is popular because it’s easy. Just sit atop a corporate hierarchy and deem some number that ends in three zeros—say 5000. Leave the messy part, and the guilt, to the middle and bottom managers who have to convert these zeros into human beings. Jack and Jill did nothing wrong, other than working for the wrong company. But out the door they have to go, carrying all the angst for themselves and their families, while the company carries merrily along.

As for the human resources left in the company, they have to pick up the extra work, until they burn out. While so doing, they had better lay low, lest they get downsized next. So much for pride in work, so much for dedication to the enterprise, so much for an enterprising economy.

Sure, a company that is in deep trouble has to save itself, even if that means eliminating some jobs, to preserve others. But most downsizing is not about that at all. It’s about a dip in earning that has to be corrected if the executives are to keep getting their bonuses. The scent of a company missing its numbers brings out the wolves of Wall Street, baying for the bones of thousands of workers. Providing that brings costs down quickly so that profits can go right back up, at least long enough for those in the know to cash in their stock and run.

This doesn’t correct the real problem (unless that is perceived to be protection of the stock price). But it’s a lot easier than, say, improving the quality of the products. So mass firings have become the order of the day.

Think about it: all of a sudden thousands of workers become redundant. Was no-one aware of this a few weeks earlier? Who has been managing the company anyway? It’s quite clear who has been leading it: probably the same person who is now deeming the downsizing. This fact alone is testimonial to his or her incompetence. It’s the downsizer who should be downsized, the executioner who should be executed.

Of course, we all know that most of these downsized workers haven’t been redundant at all, just convenient pawns in the global game of Shareholder Value. They serve a system that is sick, with its use of a practice that is sickening. The treatment has become the illness.

So what’s to be done instead? How about the exercise of some serious leadership, in the form of engaged management? Some years ago, the editor of a division of a major publishing company was told that he, like his colleagues in the other divisions, had to cut 10% of his staff. He protested, pointing out that his division was doing very well, indeed had been promised more staff, not less. He had no redundancies—of that he was well aware, since he was a leader who managed. Nevertheless, he was taken before the boss of all bosses—the CEO of this large company—who told him personally that if he didn’t fire the others, he would be fired instead. He refused, and was fired.

He went on to create a new company, to be run as he thought a publishing house should be. It has become a bit of a legend in this business. The mentality is rather old-fashioned: its people believe in books beyond sales, causes beyond Shareholder Value, the authors’ ideas beyond their reputations. The place is run as a community of engaged human beings--people stay, and are enthusiastic. When the company decided to raise some money, it issued what could be called an IAO—an initial author offering. All the authors were given the chance to buy shares: 60 of them did! No wolves of Wall Street bay at this door. The company is called Berrett-Koehler.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015. HM is the proud author of four Barrett-Koehler books: Managers not MBAs (2004), Managing (2009), a shorter version of this called Simply Managing (2013), and Rebalancing Society (2015).