Managers Not MBAs | Henry Mintzberg

Summary of: Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development
By: Henry Mintzberg


In ‘Managers Not MBAs,’ Henry Mintzberg critiques the current state of management education and its outcome. Traditionally, MBA programs focus on developing analytical skills and self-promotion rather than the actual practice of managing. Mintzberg argues that the only way to truly learn management is by doing it, and suggests that business schools often attract the wrong candidates and teach them the wrong skills. This book summary explores why MBA programs are detrimental to effective management, looking at the differences between MBAs and leaders, and suggesting ways of improving management education.

The Flaws of Business Schools

Business schools attract the wrong people and teach management in the wrong way. The presumption that management is a science and that an MBA enables one to become a professional manager is flawed. Management has no code of practice, making experience the only way to become a manager. MBA graduates primarily seek personal benefit and success rather than helping others excel. It is time for serious educational institutions to promote better managing.

The Pitfalls of MBA Education

MBA education may not prepare its graduates for real-world scenarios needed to become effective business leaders. Harvard Business School professor, Henry Mintzberg, believes that business schools lack an understanding of essential leadership qualities. The curriculum emphasizes analytical approaches that may not benefit industries such as strategy and management. Mintzberg advocates for an education system that relies on performance and experience rather than standardized testing. Graduates of MBA programs often show high confidence but low competence, leading to arrogance. They tend to avoid selling or operations positions, which require experience and context-specific knowledge, and instead gravitate towards staff positions that rely on abstract knowledge. Mintzberg also believes that bandwagon trends cause a decline in the fields that MBA graduates enter. Mintzberg calls for a shift in focus from theoretical knowledge to practical experience and personal growth, resulting in more humble and effective leaders.

The Pitfall of MBAs

The article sheds light on the tendency of modern management education and its negative impact on the real-world business environment. The pursuit of profit maximization through the lens of MBAs has resulted in a long list of corporate failures. Drawing from historical examples, this article questions the efficacy of the MBA program, suggesting that immediate success is often sustainable only in the short term. The article concludes that the nuanced nature of managing is often overlooked by MBA programs, inevitably leading to a formulaic approach to leadership that lacks empathy, conscience, and creativity, resulting in catastrophic corporate catastrophes.

The modern landscape of the business world is one shaped by the philosophical underpinnings of the MBA. This construct has been a guiding force in the minds of executives for decades. However, a closer look at history reveals that quick success has not proven sustainable in the long term. The MBA concept is a modern phenomenon, yet it has already produced a long list of business failures.

One must consider Robert Strange McNamara, who was a Harvard MBA recipient in 1939. He set a precedent for the collision of MBA ideals with real-world consequences. As a student, McNamara was a member of Harvard’s faculty and served many years in World War II before he emerged as a statistical control officer. Upon leaving the military, McNamara and his war-veteran colleagues dubbed the “Whiz Kids” were hired by Ford Motor Company and rose to the top of the corporate ladder, cementing the perception that MBAs were educated transaction machines. McNamara eventually became Secretary of Defense under President John Kennedy, and he applied his MBA-based principles to the Department of Defense from 1961 to 1968, during the Vietnam War era. McNamara perceived war through the lens of business with an emphasis on body count and quantitative data. Critics condemned it as a lack of nuance, an educated incapacity to see the war’s true nature.

McNamara’s story, however, is not an isolated one. According to Inside the Harvard Business School, a book published by David Ewing in 1990, 19 Harvard MBA alumni had achieved a high level of business success, but a decade later, most of them had experienced significant failures reinforcing an idea that fundamental principles learned in the classroom are simplistic, formulaic, and belong in textbooks. The list included executives who managed high-profile firms like Levi Strauss, Enron, and American Express, but none of them could sustain their firm’s position in the long run.

The question arises – can such failures be attributed to the education these executives received? The MBA approach’s overbearing emphasis on shareholder value over nuanced management may have contributed to these setbacks. The MBA curriculum tends to emphasize equations and formulae with pencil and paper. However, running an operation is more nuanced – it involves bringing a vision to life while understanding that human beings play an important role in any strategy’s success. The MBA curriculum claims to foster these ideas, but there is little evidence to support it.

In conclusion, the article suggests that management is debatably more art than science – it depends on insight beyond formulaic equations. There may be merits to the MBA program, including a certain level of business acumen that could be decisive in achieving quick results. However, it is no substitute for nuance, conscience, and creativity that comes through living life as well as honest trial and error. In short, there is no perfect recipe for managerial success – it is a path that must be tailored to individual requirements. The MBA curriculum imparts theoretical and transactional knowledge, but it lacks the emotional, relational, and adaptive intelligence needed for long-term corporate success.

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