“Where does the buck stop?” A divorce of (mis)management has found a lover in (non)management

This is a bit of a wandering passage. A thought I am working on. If published, it isn’t complete, or at least I’m not perfectly happy with it.

The problem that has been on my mind is not one of over correction (i.e. we “solved” mismanagement issues by creating a new mismanagement issue), but rather of capitulation.

When considering leadership, management, competence, and responsibility, there appears to be a culture-led disarmament. My source for this is years of reading article after article shared on LinkedIn by sources like Forbes, HBR, BI, etc.

Leaders are servants. They are characterized by empathy, listening, inclusion, and warmth, often at the exclusion of all else.

Managers, facing a rapidly evolving and increasingly complex jobs-to-be-done landscape, are coordinators. Semi-elected representatives of agile teams. They are careful to avoid the condemnation of micro-managing by avoiding managing altogether.

Competence is increasingly outsourced. We (America) no longer manage work, but capital and knowledge. Yet work must be done, somewhere. And the principles of management apply universally, the fundamentals of which are learned in work, not in capital or knowledge. We are becoming like a tree with burgeoning fruit and a thin, hollowed-out trunk.

This leads to a deficit in responsibility. A good analogy is health insurance – premiums are rising here, and not enough people are paying into the system.

If leaders are servants, managers are coordinators, and competence is outsourced – who is responsible for things going well?

The popular answer is “everyone.”

If everyone is listening, showing empathy, and making everyone feel included – who is effectively holding standards, maintaining accountability, and efficiently cultivating virtue in individuals, companies, and systems?

How the good is made is a more adequate problem to solve. Who is making it, in what way, for what reasons, with what long term plan, and with what range of skills.

We cannot live by bread alone; neither can we live on empathy.

The following is a sketch on some reasons as to how we got here, some compelling history to begin to re-fortify a foundation, and more analysis of the management-culture problem.

Uncomfortable symmetries

Virtue and vice are not twins, neither are they strangers.

To borrow from Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, the good is oft interred in our bones. Which is to say, development ossifies.

Libraries are filled with reasons why. Libraries (warehouses of knowledge) also ossify.

So, good management practices ossify and thus become bad management practices. What we are left with is a choice, revive the good and patch in some innovations, or replace it with some alternative. My reasons for being an incrementalist and not a revolutionary are grounded in the relative wealth we are drowning in, produced by capitalism (and good management practices), that have seen more people rise out of poverty in the past few decades than all of human history.

I’m reminded of an idea from the historian Will Durant, which went something like a generation, looking upon its forebearers achievements and unable to improve upon them, often decides to turn back, and undo their achievements.

The novel is sexy. So we swarmball around it.

Additional reasons could be jealously, boredom, or Dostoyevsky’s recognition that any human, if put in a perfect environment, would break something just to see something new and interesting… We are far from a perfect environment, if we could even conceptualize what that is and come to an agreement on it democratically, but the data (ala Pinker) is so phenomenally on the side of exuberant wealth and prosperity, globally, that undoing the system that created it is a curious proposition.

What I see is article after article about management as a problem. Ways to do it differently; corrections from the past. These concepts are agreeable, and in many cases praised (how dare one speak against them or inject nuance), but are written as if they are the unpopular opinion. If being unpopular means being shared on every major platform and inscribed in every university program I am aware of, then I would love to be counted among the unpopular.

Because of this, the very idea of management in any of its traditional senses (the fundamentals), has been neglected.

Shall we be laissez faire with our economies, or our academic discipline?

We all bemoan the micromanager, we are coming to understand that inclusion is both valuable and not a given, and therefore must be cultivated (just like competence), as workplaces have come to dominate more and more of the life of a human, empathy and emotional/environmental considerations matter more and more, and as corporations have come to dominate more and more of our political and moral life, the moral scope of the corporation is necessarily adapting based upon this relationship with its stakeholders.

These adaptations/innovations in corporate culture and management in general are, in my view, a good thing. I would at least say that corporations have listened and listened pretty well, and have responded to the needs of their employees and the ethical demands of consumers. Certainly more effectively and quickly than other systems. And indisputably more effectively and quickly than historic comparison.

The issue is not with the expansion of good that corporations can provide. It is with a narrative – and research funding complex – that ignores the fundamentals, not aware that they need development as well, in each generation.

If this is our only message, we will have capitulated the need to develop the fundamental capabilities of managers and business leaders.

A lot has been written about good vs bad management. Management as a formal field of study has only existed since about the early 1900s.


A big 3,000 year preamble

Hammurabi created the first substantive business regulation, which included things like minimum (and maximum) wage, accounting standards, and quality controls. Nebuchadnezzar created the first legislative incentive program, paying weavers with food according to their production. From the Sung to the Han, the Chinese developed managers and leaders on the basis of merit, and oscillated between legalist (structural) and Confucian (virtuous) theories of development. The debate on what makes people good (is it the creation of structures that compel human behavior, or the cultivation of virtue that guides human behavior) continues to this day along these faultlines in Chinese history. The rule of 10 (you can only really keep an eye of 10 people) shows up in Egypt in the management of pyramid construction, in the tribes of Abraham in the management of their judicial system, in Rome in the management of their cohorts and the Mongol Empire in the management of their cavalry. Trade and craft guilds, existing in many civilizations for the past 3,000 years, are an early version of unions.

I could continue for a while. The point is, management is part of our history. Notably, we know about these innovations in management practice and business theory because they were effective. Historically effective.

How you feel about this likely has a lot to do with your disposition. Many regard history as oppression. That the past should be buried by it.

For my part, I revere history, and enjoy the company of the ideas and actions that gradually moved the needle of civilization and human potential from the swamp to the stars. It is a privilege to stand on the shoulders of giants.

But another part of this history was the status of the business owner, trader, craftsman, or merchant. Business people were the dregs of society, in the eyes of society. This was so much so that a business person coming to lead a city (the Medici’s, of Florence) earned the scorn of the Pope, and didn’t occur until relatively recently.

The ablest manager or business mind should not lead a nation, or so was the thinking. It was a violation of a long list of traditions. The mentality here hasn’t really changed (and this is probably a good thing, or at least I generally agree with it, because power is a corrupting influence, and the more capable the person, or family, with power, the more effective they will be with their corruption).

What has changed is the status of businesspeople in society. Seemingly, with the birth of Henry Ford, being a business person was something society could respect you for. Then, the manager, the industrialist, became a type of hero as they were caught on the opposite side of Communist ideology.

In a few decades, the parts of the world that held up the free market and built structures (Bretton Woods) and virtues (good management principles) for businesses saw the largest and fastest rise in human material wellbeing that has ever occurred. The parts of the world ideologically opposed to free market principles created more casualties – mainly through starvation – than all wars of the 20th century combined.

Three reasons why there is a problem in management

First, management is difficult. It is academically a new discipline and one that has undergone serious changes in the past two decades (rise of knowledge-sector economies, agile, servant-managers, big data), and in the two decades preceding (rise of digital technology manufacturing and significant global trade, lean, six sigma, continuous improvement, TPS methodology). Few fields have experienced this much dynamism, ever. Let us not be too hasty to redefine it or negatively judge it. Of course we haven’t figured it out, what sufficiently complex domain has been? We are only afforded one genius, maybe two, per generation. That one or two is not me; they may not even be known yet.

Second, businesses (and governments at all levels) have increasingly outsourced production and other business functions. This includes management, perhaps even the notion of responsibility. Outsourcing, in general, has become a norm. The more we outsource – or siphon off capabilities – the more we lose of competence, both in practice and in knowledge. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that the popular management concepts today, while indicative of the changing scope of economies (production to knowledge), are also indicative of a deficit in fundamental management experiences and capabilities.

And third, our culture has shifted towards a more servant-leader style. This is both due to research (data, agile, etc), economic reality (specialists know technical and knowledge jobs better than managers), and culture writ-large (anything resembling a traditional hierarchy is increasingly unpopular with a growing segment of the population). There are, of course, benefits and reasons for this. There are also drawbacks. “The buck stops here” was a sacred cow of the leader. Now, I’m not so sure.

Because of these aspects, the practice of management is less prevalent and effective.

This is my hypothesis based upon these observations and assumptions.