If you’re a manager looking for advice on how to manage better, there are certainly no shortage of books on the subject. In Search of Excellence, Built to Last, Winning, and Lean In (and let’s not forget Managing for Dummies). Tens of thousands of titles by my count, and more published all the time.
Honestly, I never paid much attention to this sub-genre of the self-help literature myself…until, that is, I became a manager. Then, reading a book or two seemed a relatively easy (and discreet) way to bring myself up to speed on what was to be expected of me.
But I immediately ran into trouble.
Instead of useful advice on how to manage, I couldn’t even find answers to my most basic questions – like how to organize my time, for example. According to Peter Drucker, considered by some to be the greatest management thinker of the 20th Century:
“Even three quarters of the working day are useless [to managers] if it is only available fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.” 
Yet according to the authors of In Search of Excellence (still one of the best-selling management books of all time):
“[Effective managers] don’t regularly block out large chunks of time…the average interval devoted to any one issue being nine minutes.”
As if that weren’t enough, I soon noticed something even more troubling. Most authors and other so-called management experts who pen these books couldn’t seem to keep from contradicting themselves…even in the course of their own texts! For example:
- In Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca growls “talk is cheap” (p. 25). Yet several pages later he’s assuring readers that “words matter” (p. 36), before quoting Winston Churchill on the subject: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.”
- In Sam Walton: Made in America, the Wal-Mart founder reflects on his childhood, and learning “how much hard work it took to get your hands on a dollar, and that when you did it was worth something” (p. 5). Yet only two pages earlier he brags of a response he gave reporters following Wal-Mart’s loss of a half-billion dollars in the 1987 stock market crash: “It’s only paper,” he quipped (p. 3).
- In Winning, Jack Welch describes his meteoric rise to CEO of General Electric:
“…in 1973 it dawned on me that I had a shot at the company’s top job—and that I wanted it too. In an act of complete cockiness, I put that down on my performance evaluation under the question about career goals. Eight years later, I got my wish” (p. 278).
But shortly thereafter he’s advising ambitious managers not to alienate colleagues, and thus undermine their chances for promotion. In particular, he warns against “wearing your career goals on your sleeve” (p. 287).
So what’s going on here?
Do what I say, not what I do
To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the authors of these books disagreeing with each other on occasion.
Sure – it’s annoying to get two different opinions on how to best manage your time. Or whether or not “words matter.” That’s probably to be expected given the apparent complexity of the managerial role. But contradicting your own advice without any apparent awareness of having done so? Is this just bad editing? Or something more?
Maybe you think I’m overstating the problem – focusing on the outlier or two in what are otherwise coherent texts. Well, consider the following:
In Built to Last (1994), Jim Collins and Jerry Porras praise the work ethic of J. Willard Marriott, Jr., executive chairman of Marriott International:
“[Marriot] lived a relatively modest lifestyle guided by what he calls ‘the Mormon work ethic’ (seventy hours per week) that drove him to personally visit up to two hundred Marriott facilities per year—and to expect similar travel schedules from other top managers.”
But in Good to Great (2001), Collins offers a similarly flattering assessment of former Gillette CEO Colman Mockler’s work-life balance:
“Even during the darkest and most intense times of the takeover crisis of the 1980s and despite the increasingly global nature of Gillette’s business, Mockler maintained remarkable balance in his life. He did not significantly reduce the amount of time he spent with his family, rarely working evenings and weekends.”
And then also in Built to Last:
- Collins and Porras praise The Boeing Company’s willingness to cut its staff when needed. “[D]uring the three year period from 1969 to 1971,” they write, “Boeing laid off a total of 80,000 people, roughly 60 percent of its workforce” (p. 100). But on page 104, they speak highly of the “guarantee of steady employment” that Proctor and Gamble offers its employees.
- On page 115, Collins and Porras reprint “the Wal-Mart pledge” as an exemplar of CEO-inspired company loyalty – and which ends with the invocation: “So help me Sam.” But they also attribute Nordstrom’s extraordinary success to creating “a zealous and fanatical reverence for its core values…rather than demanding slavish reverence for an individual leader” (p. 115).
- And on page 10, the authors contend that the idea successful companies “focus primarily on beating the competition” is a “myth.” But on page 95, they applaud GE’s aspirations of becoming “#1 or #2 in every market we serve…”
Nor do I mean to pick on Mr. Collins and Mr. Porras here. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman also repeated contradict themselves, or offer paradoxical arguments:
- In their bestseller, In Search of Excellence(1983), Peters and Waterman argue that “the picture of the thing is not the thing” (p. 3). Except when it comes to the organization chart it seems: “Get the strategic plan down on paper and the right organization structure will pop out with ease…” (p. 4).
- On page 30, they are openly critical of what they call the “numerative, rationalist approach to managing.” This is the “paralysis through analysis” syndrome, they warn(p. 31). Yet they quickly backpedal. “[W]e are not against quantitative analysis per se…”
- And in the book’s final chapter, the authors sum up their findings with the one principle they claim best captures the essence of good management. It is “simultaneous loose-tight properties” – which they define as “firm central control’ while maintaining ‘maximum individual autonomy” (p. 318). It also means being “simultaneously externally focused and internally focused” (p. 323), and adhering to what they call the “smart-dumb rule” (p. 324) which even they confess is a “strange contradiction.”
(Still not convinced this is as widespread a problem as I make it out to be? Please see endnote  for more examples.)
Not so easy
Don’t judge these books—or their authors—too harshly, however.
Coming up with coherent, non-contradictory advice is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Prove it to yourself by trying the following exercise:
Step 1 – Think of something you know to be true about managing – that managers need to be able to do in order to be effective.
You don’t actually have to be a manager yourself. Just come up with of something you know managers have to do, and do well, in order to succeed. Here’s one I thought of:
McGill University’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg would seem to agree. In Managing (2009), he explains: “If managing is about getting things done, then managers have to be decisive…” In fact, so critical is this one skill thought to be that many would prefer a manager who makes an ill-informed, or otherwise bad decision, as opposed to no decision at all.
Step 2 – Think of another principle just as critical, but which obviously contradicts your first.
This may take you a little longer. But again, focus on things managers need to do to be effective. In my case, I realized the paradoxical counterpart to my first principle is:
Good managers don’t do everything for themselves—nor should they try. Turning over certain task to those employees capable enough to handle them is the essence of effective management. And again, Mintzberg would seem to agree. One of absolute best ways for a manager to “get something done,” he writes, is by “delegating.”
But here’s the problem: Delegating requires giving up decision making power to the extent that it allows for the task’s completion.
To do otherwise—that is, to assign a task to someone, and yet insist each and every decision necessary in carrying it out be approved by the delegating manager—cannot truly be considered delegation. As Mintzberg explains:
“In delegating, a manager identifies the need to get something done, but leaves the deciding [my emphasis] and doing to someone else.”
And so this is contradiction.
A manager can choose to make a particular decision. Or choose to delegate it. But they can’t do both. Delegating means not deciding, and vice versa.
So go ahead – try this little exercise for yourself. Maybe you’ll find it easy – or perhaps a little more difficult. Either way, let me know what you come up with (you can contact me at email@example.com). And if you come up with a particularly good one, I’ll post it here.
Next week, what the management academia has to say about all this. (Spoiler alert: not much). In the meantime, my advice to you is simple: Put down that management advice book you’re reading.
It’s just not worth your time.
 Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker (2001). New York: Collins Business, p. 239.
 Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence (1982). New York: Harper Business, p. 7.
 Collins, Jim. Built to Last, (1994). New York: HarperBusiness, p. 197.
 Collins, Jim. Good to Great, (2001). New York: HarperBusiness, p. 61.
 A few more from CEOs:
- In Guts!: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company (1998), former Chrysler President and Vice Chairman Bob Lutz writes ‘while a good leader can and does command a spectrum of styles, he or she should never succumb to consensus-driven management. That to me is a place leaders don’t want to go!’ (p. 170). But in the very next paragraph he admits ‘Sometimes, consensus has its place…’
- In Losing My Virginity (2004), Richard Branson writes ‘Throughout my business life I have always tried to keep on top of costs and to protect the downside risk as much as possible. The Virgin Group has survived only because we have always kept tight control of our cash’ (p. 263). Yet in the very next breath he confesses: ‘But I also know that sometimes it is essential to break these rules and spend lavishly.’
- In Idea Man (2011), Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen insists that the mark of a ‘great innovator’ includes ‘an aura of confidence’ (p. 222). But if you grant that Allen himself is a great innovator (as I would), his recollection of an early demonstration of Microsoft Basic is particularly interesting. His primary thought in that moment? ‘There is just no way this is going to work’ (p. 81).
And a couple from some truly “old school” management advice books:
- In The Art of War (~500 BC), Sun Tzu warns, ’Do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.’ But then later, he list a series of tactics worth adhering to because of their proven reliability: ‘Camp in high places,’ ‘pass quickly over mountains,’ and ‘do not climb heights in order to fight.‘
- In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli singles out the example of Duke Valentino as ‘worthy of being noted and imitated’:
[The Duke] seeing the need for a sound government…appointed for this purpose Messer Remirro de Orca, a cruel and resolute individual, to whom he granted the fullest of powers… Later, judging that such excessive power was no longer necessary and fearing that it would arouse hatred…he then determined to free himself of all popular suspicion…[by having] Remirro’s body, cut in two, placed on view in the public square…with a wooden block and a blood-stained knife resting beside it.
And yet Machiavelli later asserts, ‘…it cannot be called a virtue [for a leader] to slay one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion.’
And a few more from the “new school”:
- In Pour Your Heart Into It (1997), Starbuck CEO Howard Schulz attributes the extraordinary growth of his company to “a team of smart and experienced managers” (p. 5). But on the very next page he credits his frontline employees for this success – many of whom are quite young, and have, in his words, “no more skills than my father [a high school drop-out] had.”
- In Delivering Happiness (2010), late Zappos CEO Tony Hseih describes the beginning of the end for him at LinkExchange (a company he founded and later sold to Microsoft for $265 million) as a personnel problem:
“The bad news was that many of them [new hires] were motivated by the prospect of either making a lot of money or building their careers…”(p. 48)
But Hseih’s own top priority after graduating from college?
“My goal was to find a high-paying job. I really didn’t care what my specific job function was, what company I worked for, what the culture of the company was like, or where I ended up living. I just wanted a job that paid well and didn’t seem like too much work” (p. 29).
And from academia:
- In Managing (2009), McGill University’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg observes that “Organizations need order.” But he immediately adds, “They sometimes need disorder too…” (p. 180)
- In Images of Organization (1998), Distinguished Research Professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, Gareth Morgan, argues that when it comes to managing, it’s helpful to “view organizations as cultures” (p. 111). But later he notes that “culture…cannot really be managed” (p. 145).
And lest you think this is not an equal opportunity phenomena:
- In The Mary Kay Way (2008), Mary Kay Ash insists that “The individual who thinks only What’s in it for me? will never make it in our Company” (p. 116), adding ‘to succeed with her business, she must think in terms of what’s good for her people, not herself’ (p. 119). But she later warns, “I always say that each Beauty Consultant must ensure her own survival” (p. 122).
- In Lean In (2013), Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg describes being impressed by a job applicant who began her interview by asking “What’s your biggest problem, and how can I solve it?” instead of telling Sandberg “all the things I’m good at and all of the things I like to do.” She hired her, effusing “It was a killer approach” (p. 52). But on page 69, Sandberg repeats some “great advice” she got while working at the US Treasury: “He [the chief of staff] told me to figure out what I wanted to do before I went to see people who had the ability to hire me.”
And finally, there’s even one CEO who couldn’t keep from contradicting the title of his own book:
- In Only the Paranoid Survive (1996), Andrew Grove recounts an anecdote from his tenure as the CEO of Intel: “I checked my (e-mail) and found a message from our sales manager in charge of the Asia-Pacific region… He passed on some breaking news…his tone was quite concerned, almost scared…” Grove’s paranoid response? “My immediate reaction was to shrug off his news” (p. 109).
 Mintzberg, Henry. Managing (2009). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., p. 187.
 Ibid., p. 60.
 Ibid., p. 60.
 Mintzberg himself appears to be aware of the paradox these two principles create. In Managing, he calls this the “dilemma of delegation” (p. 173) but doesn’t have much else to say – and he certainly doesn’t explain how to best navigate it. Instead, he simply laments that when it comes to delegating, sometimes you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” (p. 174). Which is true, of course…but it’s still not very helpful advice.