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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