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Learn from Mintzberg: Make your organization a successful community

Oct 11, 2010 Business Daily, Strategy

“…organizations are communities of human beings, not collections of human resources. As human beings, we engage with our communities. Indeed, we cherish the very sense of community, since it is the social glue that bonds us together for the social good, and so allows us to function energetically. Organizations thus work best when they too are communities, of committed people who work in cooperative relationships, under conditions of trust and respect. Destroy this, and the whole institution of business and other organizations collapses.
Consider the organizations you most admire: is that because of their measures, their rhetoric, their downsizing, their outsourcing? Or do they rate highly in your mind because of their devotion to mission, their culture, the enthusiasm of their people—ultimately their sense of community?”

HENRY MINTZBERG, “Developing Naturally: from Management to Organization to Society to Self” (August 2010)

Professor Henry Mintzberg is in Nairobi this week, and he is well worth listening to. I have long been an admirer of the good professor from McGill University. When so many were trying to turn management into a science and strategy into a plan and leadership into a lesson, Henry Mintzberg was telling us all not to believe it: leading human beings is not done in classrooms; it is done in real time in real places and with real people. It is emotional and unpredictable, and it improves with practice. To do it well, you need to be more a student of human psychology than of methodologies and measurements.

The excerpt shown here captures one of the essential teachings of Prof Mintzberg. Human beings are most energized in the workplace when they feel a sense of community: when they operate as “committed people in co-operative relationships.” Utterly true, and so little understood. What we observe most of the time in organizations is the very opposite: uncommitted people in competitive relationships. In Kenya this is true much of the time: we are leading disloyal, disengaged people who perpetually try to outmanoeuvre their own colleagues. This does not a describe a community that is going to achieve any meaningful mission.

I often wish I could conduct the following experiment: to turn you, the manager, invisible so that you can follow one of your worst employees around for the weekend without being noticed. What would you see? You would observe that disenchanted, disengaged person you have written off in the office as a no-hoper, come to life. You would see a person with passion and energy. This might happen in the home, around children; it might happen in the church choir; it might happen in a bar watching a favourite football team. But rest assured, people do light up – it’s just that they only do it when the community is right.

As the professor points out: successful organizations are successful communities. They have unique connections, strong social glue and special cultures. People feel wanted and needed and can sense their own impact. Take a look at any of our own business success stories: they all build communities first and businesses later. They create a place of unique identity and norms, where people feel a sense of belonging as powerful as in their church or sports team or family unit.

A final word from Henry Mintzberg, from the same paper: “No manager, let alone leader, has ever been created in a classroom. In other words, it is my belief that we don’t teach leadership… Management/leadership is a practice, rooted in experience, not a science or profession, rooted in analysis.”

The professor will be telling us more this week at, somewhat paradoxically, Strathmore Business School. Even if you don’t make it there, do take his central teaching to heart: management and leadership is about trying things out, making mistakes, learning lessons and getting better and better at doing it.

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