• February 19, 2016

    2 minute read


    Paradox of the week

    Feb 19, 2016

    For those of you who’ve read some of my earlier posts (i.e. “Why you can throw out that management advice book”), you know that I am not above pointing out the contradictory statements, anecdotes, and blatherings that I find in management advice and/or business books.

    So this week I thought I’d throw a couple more on that growing pile. And since I recently wrote a post about Apple and Steve Jobs, a couple from Mr. Jobs, as well as former Apple CEO John Sculley, seemed appropriate:

    [Note: Jobs never wrote a management book himself, so these are excerpted comments from the documentary Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview, produced by Magnolia Pictures]


    • When asked how he learned to run a successful company like Apple at age 23, Jobs gave the following response: “You can learn business pretty fast. … It’s not rocket science.” (19:43) But later, when asked why he brought in John Sculley to be CEO: “I wasn’t at that time capable, I don’t think, of running the company as a whole. You know, I was 30 years old, and I don’t think I had enough experience…” (51:47)
    • And on the secrets of success: “Companies get confused. When they start getting bigger they want to replicate their initial success. And a lot of them think, well, somehow there is some magic in the process [Jobs’ emphasis] of how that success was created…” (30:43). But later, after making the analogy that a great team working together is a lot like rocks polishing each other in rock tumbler, he insists: “It’s that process [my emphasis] that is the magic” (37:01).

    And from Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple (1987) by John Sculley:

    • On page 4, Sculley refers to himself a “perfectionist.” But when the FDA banned Pepsi Cola’s sweetening agent in the 1970s, forcing Pepsi to switch to something else, he offers the following thought: “We (Pepsi) removed the cyclamate, replacing it with a combination of saccharin and sugar. It didn’t taste as good as our banned product, but it was better than nothing” (p. 16).
    • And regarding “product testimonials” and the “Pepsi Challenge” ads from the same era, Sculley has this to say: “In instances where real consumers are shown giving product testimonials, the advertising often seems contrived. …the lack of believability prevents the commercial from having a strong impact on consumers. The [Pepsi] Challenge took a dramatically different approach. It’s inherent strength was that we could show ordinary folk proclaiming Pepsi was the best” (p. 44).
    • And then there’s the contradiction for which he will perhaps be most remembered: “Apple has only one leader: Steve and me” (p. 198).

    Look for more installments of the “Paradox of the Week” in the coming weeks and months…



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    In last week’s post, I’d begun explaining why management advice books are littered with inconsistencies and contradictions – like this one, for instance:

    • In What Really Works (2003), author William Joyce holds Dollar General up as an exemplar of good management, offering this quote from the company’s website: “We [at Dollar General] believe in emphasizing strengths in a positive and blame-free environment [my emphasis], where accountability for mistakes is processed in a personal and team developmental way.”[1] However, when “debt soared and the company foundered badly” following the acquisition of a rival chain—a purchase approved by the former CEO’s own brother—Dollar General’s response was to re-hire Carl Jr. as CEO, who then abruptly “fired his brother”[2] Positive and blame-free indeed.

    The reason this happens is pretty straightforward, as I’d also begun to explain:

    1. Virtually all management advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying assumptions…
    2. …and those assumptions almost exclusively concern what a manager should do as a manager.
    3. Unfortunately, these assumptions also contradict each other…
    4. …and this all but guarantees that any advice based on them will be contradictory/paradoxical as well.

    Last week, I tackled points (1) and (2). I listed what most management advice books assume managers need to do in order to be successful. I called these responsibilities the “Ten Commandments” of good management, and they are again (in no particular order):

    1. To make decisions
    2. To delegate
    3. To hire and fire
    4. To monitor/evaluate subordinates
    5. To motivate subordinates
    6. To instruct/train/provide expertise for subordinates
    7. To mentor subordinates
    8. To communicate
    9. To set goals/lead/provide vision
    10. To ensure team/departmental/organizational success

    This week I’ll show how these “commandments” contradict each other. I’ll demonstrate that each responsibility, while seemingly incontrovertible in its own right, nevertheless argues for engaging in a behavior that one of more of the others argues against. As a result, any book based on them is all but guaranteed to be riddled with contradictions and paradoxes as well.

    The paradoxes

    So what do I mean when I say that these commandments contradict each other?

    Well, consider the first two from the list: (#1) to make decisions, and (#2) to delegate.

    According to Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, both are critical to managing well. “If managing is about getting things done,” he writes in Managing (2009), “then managers have to be decisive…”,[3] and one of the ways to “get something done” is by “delegating.”[4] And virtually every management advice book I’ve ever read expresses something similar.

    But there’s a problem here. Consider that in delegating, a manager must necessarily give up some decision-making power, to the extent that it allows for the task’s completion. To do otherwise—that is, to assign a task to a subordinate, and then insist that each and every decision necessary in carrying it out be approved by the delegating manager—can’t really be considered delegation. As Mintzberg points out: “In delegating, a manager identifies the need to get something done, but leaves the deciding [my emphasis] and doing to someone else…”[5]

    And so this is paradox. A manager can’t adhere to one commandment without breaking another. To make a decision (or set of decisions) for yourself is to obey commandment #1. But it is also to deliberately not delegate them, and therefore to disobey commandment #2. Of course, to obey commandment #2 and delegate those decisions, is to violate commandment #1 because you’re not making them for yourself.

    To be clear, it is not that I disagree with either “commandment,” or believe that these aren’t things managers should be doing. It goes without saying that managers need to make decisions on occasion in order to be effective, and in other circumstances be willing to delegate. But what one commandment argues for, the other argues against – so in the absence of any further information, clarification, or qualification, how is a manager supposed to know when to follow one versus the other?

    It’s not just me here. Mintzberg himself seems to be aware of the problem too. In Managing, he refers to this as the “dilemma of delegation,”[6] but has nothing to say about how to navigate it. Instead, he merely observes that when it comes to delegating, sometimes you’re “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”[7]

    And while that may be true, it’s not very helpful advice, is it?


    An outlier?

    Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to just these two “commandments.” Consider responsibilities #3 (to hire and fire), #5 (to motivate), and #6 (to instruct/train/provide expertise).

    According to Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit (2004), all three are critical to good management. “Your success as a manager will be determined by…your ability to hire and retain good people; to motivate and develop the potential of each member of your team [my emphases],” the authors explain.[8] They furthermore add that if “no amount of coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing can get an employee’s performance up to an acceptable level,” this might mean firing the individual instead.[9]

    Again, every management advice book I’ve ever read expresses something similar – and each responsibility is absolutely critical to managing well. But as they stand, these “commandments” contradict each other; what one argues for, the other two argue against. Faced with an underperforming employee, for instance, should a manager seek to replace him or her outright – that is, obey commandment #3? Or instead go to greater lengths to train that person (commandment #6), and therefore disobey commandment #3? Or, should a manager forgo both of these commandments in favor of commandment #5, and attempt to better motivate the employee?

    Undoubtedly, many managers probably feel comfortable making such judgments for themselves (although maybe they shouldn’t). They may believe, in other words, that they know when they’ve done enough “coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing” as the authors of The HBE Manager’s Toolkit put it, and to instead go ahead and pull the trigger. But that isn’t something that’s explained in any management book that I’ve ever read. Like The HBE Manager’s Toolkit, these texts simply assure managers that whatever they choose to do—train, motivate, or terminate—is consistent with “good management.”

    Let’s take a look at commandments #4 (to monitor employees) and #5 (to motivate employees).

    According to Bob Nelson and Peter Economy, authors of The Management Bible (2005), both are critical to good management. “Motivating employees is what it’s all about…,”[10] they write, while “monitoring employee performance is a critical skill for every manager today.”[11]

    No argument here – both are absolutely crucial to managing effectively. Supervisors who keep a watchful eye on subordinates are better able to determine who to advise, assist, reward, or perhaps reprimand. It’s also one way of “motivating” employees. Observation by a supervisor may discourage any laxness of effort, or slacking off. But acting on commandment #4 can, of course, be taken too far. It is now well established that undue scrutiny can be perceived by subordinates as surveillance, or a lack of trust. And this can have a powerful de-motivating effect.[12] One way to energize employees is therefore to allow them some autonomy. As the authors of The Management Bible observe, “[m]ost employees value being given room to do their work as they best see fit.”[13]

    And so here too is contradiction and paradox.

    To obey commandment #4, and more closely monitor a subordinate is to risk de-motivating him or her, which is to break commandment #5. But to not pay any attention to that individual’s performance is disobey commandment #4, even though that may lead to a more motivated worker. Or it may suggest that a manager doesn’t care about this individual’s work – which may again be demotivating. As a result, any manager hoping to increase the productivity of his or her subordinates might be forgiven for wondering whether this is best accomplished through more observation, or less.

    And Messrs. Nelson and Economy? Well, they only have this to say:

    “…measuring and monitoring the performance of individuals in your organization is a real balancing act: On the one hand you don’t want to overmeasure or overmonitor your employees—detracting from their work. And, on the other hand, you don’t want to undermeasure or undermonitor your employees.”[14]

    Just where the “balance” lies, however—or how to achieve it—is never then directly addressed by their text.

    Next, let’s consider commandments #6 (instructing/training/providing expertise) and #7 (mentoring).

    Again, both are managerial responsibilities that are undeniably important, as the authors of The First-Time Manager (1981) also insist. “Training team members,” Belker, McCormick, and Topchik write, is “your responsibility.”[15] At the same time they also conceive of “the manager as a mentor.”[16]

    But telling a person what to do, how do it, or when to do something—that is, obeying commandment #6—is not always the best approach to mentoring. The frustration of being perceived as some sort of automaton incapable of independent thought can be both frustrating and discouraging (as most people know from firsthand experience), and once disengaged, most employees are far less likely to perform at their full potential, much less grow and develop. In fact, it is now widely understood that workers who are advised at every turn by an over-involved manager not only internalize very little of what they are told, they are at risk of becoming disengaged from their job mentally and emotionally.[17]

    Or, as the authors of The First-Time Manager put it, employees do not always respond well “to being told what to do.”[18]

    So what’s a manager to do? Act on commandment #6 and risk alienating one’s subordinates by micromanaging them? Or act on #7 and risk…well, alienating subordinates by appearing to abandon them? Here again is contradiction and paradox – but don’t look to The First-Time Manager (or any other management advice book, for that matter) for help. This text simply assures their readers that both actions are consistent with “good management,” and its practice.

    Next, consider commandments #8 (to communicate) and #9 (to set goals/lead/provide vision).

    In Manager 3.0 (2013) authors Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin urge managers to “communicate, communicate, communicate,”[19] and to “never underestimate the power of direct and sincere communication.”[20] Equally important in their opinion being “a leader whom people want to follow [author’s emphasis].”[21]

    Clearly they’re right – communicating and leading are both important to managing well. But communication isn’t just about telling someone what to do, and when to do it (no matter how “direct and sincere” you are with them). Genuine communication obviously involves listening as well. So a problem arises should subordinates disagree with their managers, for whatever the reason. Should a manager then revise his or her directives based on employees’ feedback (though that hardly sounds like “leading”)? Or should that manager flex his or her managerial authority and stick to his or her guns, even though that might be perceived as not listening?

    Unfortunately, Karsh and Templin are of little help here. On the one hand, they argue that managers should “trust your decisions and communicate them confidently”[22] and “make a decision and stand by it—even if the going gets tough.”[23] On the other, they advocate for “Listening and acting on feedback.”[24] But beyond that, they simply say that the trick is to “find the balance between power-hungry authoritarian and friendship preserving pushover,” adding “Your goal is to land somewhere in between.”[25]

    And while I can’t argue with that, I know it’s not enough to land just anywhere in between.


    Drucker’s Dilemma

    Which leaves the “commandment” #10: a manager’s responsibility to ensure the success of the department, group, or organizational subsection that reports to him or her.

    Again, virtually every management advice book I’ve ever read stresses the importance of this one responsibility. As renowned management author and guru Peter Drucker once declared, “the manager is duty bound to preserve the performance capacity of the institution in his care,” insisting that “to jeopardize it, no matter how noble the motive, is irresponsibility.”[26] Furthermore:

    “Whenever a business has disregarded the limitation of economic performance and has assumed social responsibilities it could not support economically, it has soon gotten into trouble.”[27]

    Hard to argue with any of that – except it clearly puts managers on a slippery slope. Under the guise of acting on this one responsibility a manager, executive, or CEO might justify compromising any number of legal or ethical principles—such as postponing the replacement of outdated or unsafe equipment, or disposing of hazardous waste inappropriately and therefore more cheaply—all for the sake of maintaining the bottom line. Now even the staunchest free-market advocate would probably hesitate before endorsing such behavior, Drucker included:

    “One is responsible for one’s impacts, whether they are intended or not. This is the first rule. There is no doubt regarding management’s responsibility for the social impacts of its organization. They are management’s business.”[28]

    But this is contradiction. To take responsibility for one’s “social impacts,” as Drucker insists here, is to assume “social responsibilities” of the sort he warned against in his previous statement. And faced with a paradox of his own making, Drucker seems only able to equivocate:

    “Management must resist responsibility for a social problem that would compromise or impair the performance capacity of its business…but then, if the problem is a real one, it better think through and offer an alternative approach. If the problem is serious, something will have to be done about it.”[29]

    Just what constitutes a “real” or “serious” problem, however—not to mention what might qualify as having “done something about it”—is not then discussed in any detail by Mr. Drucker.

    Apparently the reader is simply meant to figure this out for him- or herself.


    That’s not good management

    So there you have it. Each and every “commandment,” responsibility, duty, or whatever you want to call them—while absolutely critical to managing well—argues in favor of doing something that one or more of the others argues against. Therefore, any advice based on that list probably won’t tell you much about how to become a “good” manager.

    But I know what you’re thinking.

    Right now, you’re probably saying to yourself: You know, I never really bought into your “Ten Commandments” of managing to begin with. And I don’t read management advice books because I have a pretty good idea about what it takes to be a good manager already.

    Fair enough; I certainly don’t doubt you.

    I’m sure you have plenty of ideas about what kind of person makes a good manager, or what they need to do.

    For instance, you probably believe that having a clear strategy or “vision” for your team/department/company is important, as well as the charisma, enthusiasm, conviction, and focus to get people behind it, and see it through to completion.

    It’s likely you also believe that working long hours is necessary, and perhaps riding your employees a little. But c’mon, people aren’t going to put in the effort required if left to their own devices, are they? Besides, as their manager, you’ll be right there in the trenches with them, right?

    And finally, while it may be important to listen to your employees on occasion (especially when they agree with you), you probably feel that ultimately it’s a manager’s responsibility to tell their subordinates what’s what. At the end of the day, that’s your job—and it’s your job that’s on the line—right? Your employees are likely to thank you in the end anyway – for providing them with opportunity to be part of a team, and experience all of the satisfaction that comes from contributing to a successful collective effort.

    (Nor should we forget the ample financial rewards—for them and yourself—that are apt to be the result of your managerial prowess.)

    Yep, that all sounds familiar. And I should know, because at one time I bought into this clichéd characterization of the ideal manager as well.

    So for my next post in the series, I’ll examine this “conventional management wisdom” a bit more critically. (It won’t take long this time; only one entry.) But to those of you who still see it as a recipe for good management, I have only one thing to say:

    Prepare to be disappointed.


    Next in the seriesIs nothing sacred?


    Blogger’s note: Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy on July 13, 2011.



    Barlett, Christopher (subject advisor). 2004. Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

    Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. 1981. The First-Time Manager (6th edition). New York: AMACON.

    Drucker, Peter. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: Collins Business (2005 edition).

    Joyce, William. 2003. What Really Works. New York: HarperBusiness.

    Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin. 2013. Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. AMACON: New York.

    Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (2011 edition).

    Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy. 2005. The Management Bible. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



    [1] Joyce, William, What Really Works, p. 33.

    [2] Ibid., p. 32.

    [3] Mintzberg, Henry, Managing, p. 187.

    [4] Ibid., p. 60.

    [5] Ibid., p. 60.

    [6] Ibid., 173.

    [7] Ibid., p. 174.

    [8] Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit, p. xiii.

    [9] Ibid., p. 140.

    [10] Nelson, Bob, and Peter Economy, The Management Bible, p. 61.

    [11] Ibid., p. 145.

    [12] Freeman, R. Edward, and Kirsten Martin. “Some Problems with Employee Monitoring.” Journal of Business Ethics 43 (2003): 353-361; Stanton, Jeffrey M. “Reactions to employee performance monitoring: Framework, review, and research directions.” Human Performance 13.1 (2000): 85-113.

    [13] Nelson and Economy, op. cit., p. 64.

    [14] Ibid. p. 145.

    [15] Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik, The First-Time Manager, p. 66.

    [16] Ibid., p. 133.

    [17] White, Richard D. “The micromanagement disease: Symptoms, diagnosis, and cure.” Public Personnel Management 39.1 (2010): 71-76.

    [18] Belker, McCormick, and Topchik., op. cit., p. 133.

    [19] Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin, Manager 3.0, p. 77.

    [20] Ibid. p. 78.

    [21] Ibid., p. 70.

    [22] Ibid. p. 211.

    [23] Ibid., p. 180.

    [24] Ibid., p. 104.

    [25] Ibid., p. 207.

    [26] Drucker, Peter, The Essential Drucker, p. 59.

    [27] Ibid., p. 59.

    [28] Ibid., p. 52.

    [29] Ibid. p. 62.


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    Last week I argued that you can safely discard that management advice book you may have been reading.

    Why? Because as a rule, these books are so full of inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradox as to render them useless to the critical reader. Like this one, for instance:

    • In Playing To Win (2013), former Proctor & Gamble Chairman and CEO A.G. Lafley writes that during his tenure, P&G’s corporate statement of purpose included producing “products of superior quality and value [my emphasis]” for its customers (p. 19). And yet several pages earlier Lafley describes pricing a skin care product at $18.99 instead of $12.99 because market research showed that “prestige customers would doubt its efficacy” if it were priced “too low.”[1] Savvy marketing certainly, but hardly consistent with a commitment to providing customers with products of “value.”

    So why do the authors of management advice books so frequently—and so blatantly—contradict themselves? Well, the reason is not nearly as complicated as you might think:

    1. Virtually all management-advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying assumptions…
    2. …and those assumptions almost exclusively concern what a manager should do as a manager.
    3. Unfortunately, those assumptions also contradict each other…
    4. …making any advice based on them all but guaranteed to be contradictory/paradoxical as well.

    In other words, given that the common foundation of these books is a series of contradictory propositions, the proffering of paradoxical advice is, in effect, impossible to avoid.

    Blogger’s note: This argument is a bit lengthy to expand upon in a single post, so I’ve split it in two. This week I’ll elaborate on propositions (1) and (2), and list what I’ll call the “Ten Commandments” of good management. Next week I’ll cover (3) and (4), and show how those very same “commandments” contradict each other.


    Actions speak louder?

    Believe it or not, for all their apparent variety, most management advice books subscribe to the same set of underlying propositions and assumptions. (Spoiler alert: they probably won’t come as any surprise to you).

    But before I list them, recall again why I started reading management advice books in the first place: I’d just been promoted to manager, and was looking for some guidance in coping with all my new responsibilities. You see, even back then I realized that good intentions probably weren’t going to be enough – in other words, that my simply wanting to be a “good manager” wouldn’t necessarily make me a good manager. As far as I could tell, plenty of terrible managers seemed to be trying desperately hard to be good at it, while some of the better ones I’d encountered didn’t appear to be trying at all.

    I also realized that I wanted advice that I could immediately put into practice. That is, I sought actions I could take, behaviors that I could imitate, or things I could otherwise do – and that a “bad” manager would not. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it turns out that I was looking for advice that organizational theorist Chris Argyris refers to as “actionable.” In his words:

    “For advice to be helpful, it must specify the intended outcomes or objectives to be produced, the sequence of actions required to produce them, the actions required to test for any errors or mismatches, and the actions required to correct such errors and mismatches.”[2]

    This is a bit wordy for me, so let me re-phrase: Actionable advice, quite simply, are things that one might do, or behaviors one might otherwise engage in or imitate. For example, pretty much every management-advice book I’ve ever read insists that it is important for a manager to “make decisions.” This would qualify as actionable advice because relative to “not making decisions” doing so requires initiative or action to be taken on the part of the manager/person attempting to implement it. On the other hand, making good decisions would not qualify as actionable because it is virtually indistinguishable—in terms of the action itself—from making decisions, or making bad decisions.

    This may seem obvious, or perhaps an unnecessarily specific, but in the world of management advice it’s actually a pretty important distinction to make. That’s because it allows us to rule out much of what passes for management “wisdom” these days – particularly advice or strategies which rely heavily on jargon, or are largely subjective.

    For instance, that a manager must “create a culture of trust” in order to be effective is another pearl of wisdom that many management advice books claim is important to good management.[3] And it’s certainly hard to argue with this assertion. A manager who isn’t trusted by his or her subordinates is not likely to be especially good at managing, to be sure. Nevertheless, “creating a culture of trust” does not qualify as actionable advice because simply telling a manager to create anything, much less something as complex as a “culture,” is a far cry from describing how to go about doing it. Without “the sequence of actions required,” “the actions required to test for any errors,” and “the actions required to correct such errors”—as Argyris contends—this sort of advice is simply just not all that useful.


    Manage anywhere and everywhere

    Just as important to me was identifying principles or advice that I might be able to use no matter where I worked, or what type of company I was employed by. The way I saw it, if I was going to take the trouble to figure out how to be a good manager, I wanted whatever I learned to be something I could take with me wherever I went. What I was really looking for were the “universal principles” of good management – or those concepts that might be of use to all managers, regardless of where they worked, or who they managed.

    To be sure, I figured the best way to do this was to read as many books as I could, and by as many different authors as possible. In the end, I analyzed around 60 of these texts (and counting) which, quite frankly, is more than I’d wish on anyone. This included some of the best-selling books management books of all time (such as In Search of Excellence and Good to Great), and many more penned by actual, practicing managers employed a variety of industries, (for example, Lee Iacocca of the Chrysler Corporation, Howard Schulz of Starbucks, and Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics). Admittedly, however, this is still only a tiny fraction of the available books published on the topic.[4] And yet I’ve been encouraged by the fact that so far, the examination of additional texts has not yielded any new concepts or themes.

    Those “concepts and themes” that I did identify seemed to be best expressed as a list of responsibilities or duties for a manager to follow – and which I’ll describe now. These are things that most any manager would seem to need to be able to do, and do well, in order to succeed. And while each responsibility might not have been specifically articulated in each and every book I read, most could be inferred from context. In that, every text I examined was clearly informed by all ten responsibilities.

    And so, without further ado, I offer for your consideration (in no particular order):

    The “Ten Commandments” of good management

    1. To make decisions

    As mentioned previously, every management-advice book I’ve ever read seems to agree that “making decisions” is absolutely critical to managing well. For instance, in Managing (2009), organizational theorist Henry Mintzberg sums up this widely-held sentiment as follows: “If managing is about getting things done, then managers have to be decisive…”[5] Indeed, so critical is this one responsibility perceived to be that many consider it preferable for a manager to make a bad or ill-informed decision, as opposed to making no decision at all.

    2. To delegate

    The ability to delegate tasks effectively is also considered critical to good management. Again, Mintzberg’s opinion is perhaps representative of the broader management-advice literature. One of the absolute best ways for a manager to “get something done,” he writes, is by “delegating,” which means “the manager assigns a task to someone else.”[6]

    3. To hire and fire

    That hiring and firing is considered especially critical to good management probably doesn’t come as a surprise. According to Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit (2004), “few managerial decisions are as important as hiring”,[7] an opinion that is all but universally shared. No less important, in the minds of many, is terminating the employment contract of unmotivated or otherwise poor-performing individuals. When “no amount of coaching, extra training, feedback or haranguing can get an employee’s performance up to an acceptable level”, these same authors write, dismissal may be the only “feasible course of action,” though it may also be “one of the most difficult and painful tasks in any manager’s life.”[8]

    4. To monitor and evaluate

    Monitoring and evaluating employees is also considered essential to the management function. As Bob Nelson and Peter Economy explain in The Management Bible (2005): “An organization’s overall performance depends on each individual who works within it, so monitoring employee performance is a critical skill for every manager,”[9] an opinion that is perhaps representative. As a consequence, one of the challenges managers face is devising both meaningful and objective criteria with which to do so, and that correlates positively with the organization’s overall performance.

    5. To motivate

    According to the management advice literature, persuading employees to perform at or near their potential is an absolutely essential skill for a manager to possess. This may mean getting employees excited about doing their jobs, or otherwise generating enthusiasm for the work.[10] As the authors of The Management Bible bluntly put it: “Motivating employees is what it’s all about…”[11]

    6. To instruct/train/provide expertise

    Taking responsibility for training one’s subordinates is also seen as singularly critical to good management. As the authors of The First-Time Manager (2003) contend, “even the most experienced person coming into a new situation needs some basic training”[12] and that, they add, is “your responsibility” as a manager.[13] Some would furthermore argue that an individual should not be considered for promotion until he or she has mastered all of the skills, capacities, and techniques required of those they will manage so as to be able to better handle this responsibility. However, as jobs in the modern age become ever more technical and/or specialized, and this expectation becomes increasingly unrealistic, a manager need not be held to such a high standard. Instead, he or she might simply provide access to such training offered by an appropriately qualified surrogate.[14]

    7. To mentor

    Although similar in some respects to instructing or providing expertise, a manager’s responsibility to serve as mentor deserves special distinction. Mentoring, according to most management advice books, has more to do with developing an employee for his or her own sake—as opposed to the organization’s—with the business benefiting indirectly as a result. Indeed, the authors of The First-Time Manager are not alone in conceiving of the “manager as a mentor,” and as the appropriate response to the understandable desire on the part of an employee to “grow professionally.”[15]

    8. To communicate

    The ability to communicate is perhaps singularly important to the management function. In order to delegate, motivate, or execute any of the other commandments/responsibilities on this list, a manager must necessarily be able to communicate, and communicate effectively. This is a skill/trait the authors of Manager 3.0 (2013) can’t seem to emphasize enough. “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” they insist,[16] adding “never underestimate the power of direct and sincere communication.”[17]

    9. To lead/set goals/provide vision

    The importance of leading is again almost universally espoused by the mainstream management advice literature. According to management guru Peter Drucker, “the task,” quite simply, “is to lead people.”[18] And one of the ways to do this seems to be by setting meaningful and achievable organizational goals, the development of which, Drucker maintains, “is part of a manager’s responsibility; indeed, it is his [sic] first responsibility”.[19] The authors of Manager 3.0 agree; they encourage readers to consider their “leadership legacy” and to strive to be “a leader whom people want to follow [author’s emphasis].”[20]

    10. To ensure organizational success

    In the end, managers are responsible for ensuring the success of whatever organizational division or subsection with which they have been charged – a fact that perhaps goes without saying. As Peter Drucker once put it, “…the manager is duty bound to preserve the performance capacity of the institution in his care,” further insisting “To jeopardize it, no matter how noble the motive, is irresponsibility.”[21] Indeed, so important is this one responsibility thought to be that a manager who seems ill-equipped for the position, or otherwise incompetent in some way, may nevertheless be retained based solely on the successes (actual or perceived) that he or she has achieved for the organization.


    And the “Golden Rule”?

    Finally, if these responsibilities may be likened to the “Ten Commandments” of good management, then management’s “Golden Rule” could be considered:

    To solve problems

    It is perhaps obvious that a manager acting on any one of these commandments/responsibilities typically does so in response to a particular organizational problem, dilemma, or impasse. An underperforming employee, for instance, might prompt a manager to attempt to better motivate (#5) or more closely monitor him or her (#4), if not think about replacing that person (#3). Tackling a new project may involve setting new goals for the team (#9), delegating certain tasks to specific individuals (#2), all the while ensuring everything is accomplished within the allotted time frame and budget (#10). And so on. Thus the day-to-day activity of a manager might therefore be accurately reduced to the singular task of problem solving – and it is in part due to their presumptive authority to make decisions (#1) that places problem-solving responsibility squarely on a manager’s shoulders.

    So that’s it. Not surprised by any of this? You shouldn’t be; there’s plenty of precedent for these principles, themes, commandments, or whatever you want to call them – some dating back almost a century.[22]

    And are these the things—or the actions—that you, as a manager, should be doing or engaging in on a regular, or even daily basis?


    Unfortunately, however, being a “good” manager is not quite so easy as all that. Simple checking off the ten duties on this list is hardly the recipe for good management that you might hope it to be. And that’s because these “Ten Commandments” suffer a serious, if not entirely obvious flaw.

    They contradict each other.

    Next week: Throw out that management advice book (Part 3): The paradoxes


    Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy on July 13, 2011.



    Argyris, Chris. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Barlett, Christopher (subject advisor). 2004. Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

    Belker, Loren B., Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. 1981. The First-Time Manager (6th edition). New York: AMACON.

    Berkun, Scott. 2013. The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss.

    Drucker, Peter. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: Collins Business (2005 edition).

    George, Bill, with Peter Sims. 2007. True North. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss.

    Hill, Linda. 2003. Becoming a Manager. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

    Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin. 2013. Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. New York: AMACON.

    Lafley, A.G., and Roger L. Martin. 2013. Playing To Win: How Strategy Really Works. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

    Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. (2011 edition).

    Nelson, Bob, and Peter Economy. 2005. The Management Bible. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


    [1] Lafley, A.G., Playing To Win, p. 12-14.

    [2] Argyris, Chris, Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, p. 9.

    [3] For example, see: Berkun, Scott, The Year Without Pants, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Boss, 2013).

    [4] As noted in a previous post (see post #1 – What is good management?), there may be as few as 10,000 or as many as 80,000 books on managing currently in circulation.

    [5] Mintzberg, Henry. Managing, p. 187.

    [6] Ibid., p. 60.

    [7] Harvard Business Essentials Manager’s Toolkit, p. 18.

    [8] Ibid., p. 140.

    [9] Nelson, Bob and Peter Economy, The Management Bible, p. 145.

    [10] For example, see: Sirota, David, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing, 2005).

    [11] Nelson and Economy, op. cit., p. 61.

    [12] Belker, Loren, Jim McCormick, and Gary S. Topchik. The First-Time Manager, p. 67.

    [13] Ibid., p. 66.

    [14] Hill, Linda, Becoming a Manager, p. 132.

    [15] Belker, McCormick, and Topchik, op. cit., p. 133.

    [16] Karsh, Brad, and Courtney Templin, Manager 3.0, p. 75.

    [17] Ibid., p. 78.

    [18] Drucker, op. cit., p. 81.

    [19] Ibid., p. 118.

    [20] Karsh and Templin, op. cit., p. 70.

    [21] Drucker, op. cit., p. 59.

    [22] In 1937, management theorist Luther Gulick summarized the totality of the management function as planning, organizing, structuring, directing, coordinating, reporting, and budgeting – a set of responsibilities for which he coined the somewhat awkward acronym “POSDCORB.” Source: Gulick, Luther, and Lyndall Urwick, eds., Papers on the Science of Administration (New York: Institute of Public Administration, 1937), p. 3-13. As reprinted in Classics of Organization Theory (5th Ed.), Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, eds., (Philadelphia, PA: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001), p. 79-87.


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  • 13 minute read


    When I was first promoted to manager, which was some years ago now, one of the first things I did was run out and buy a management advice book.


    Because, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t have a clue as to what I’d gotten myself into.

    How can I be a manager, I wondered, if I don’t even know what it is that a manager does besides…well, “manage”? And reading a few books on the topic seemed, to me at least, to be a relatively painless (and discreet) way of bringing myself up to speed as I settled into my new role.

    But I almost immediately ran into trouble.

    Instead of offering useful insights into how I might manage more effectively, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t even get straight answers to my most basic questions.

    Like how I should manage my time, for instance.

    For example, Peter Drucker (management guru extraordinaire and author of 39 books on the subject) was telling me on the one hand that “even three quarters of the working day are useless if it is only available fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.”[1] But on the other, the authors of In Search of Excellence (perhaps the best-selling management advice book of all time) were insisting that effective managers “don’t regularly block out large chunks of time…the average interval devoted to any one issue being nine minutes.”[2] And then there was Kenneth Blanchard and Stephen Johnson’s opinion on the matter to consider – which is perhaps abundantly obvious from title of their best-selling management advice book (The One Minute Manager).

    Even more confounding, however, was the fact that many of these so-called management experts couldn’t seem to avoid contradicting themselves…even in the course of their own texts. For example:

    • In a passage from Where Have All the Leaders Gone? (2007), Lee Iacocca, the former president of the Chrysler Corporation, growls “talk is cheap” (p. 25). Several pages later, however, he assures his readers that “words matter,” before going on to quote Winston Churchill on the subject: “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.” (p. 36)
    • In Winning (2005), Jack Welch—considered by some to be the greatest CEO of the modern age—describes his meteoric rise to power at General Electric in part as follows (p. 278):

      …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.

      Yet shortly thereafter he’s urging ambitious managers not engage in behaviors that might alienate colleagues, and thus undermine their opportunities for advancement. In particular, he warns against “wearing your career goals on your sleeve” (p. 287).

    • In Sam Walton: Made in America (1992), the founder and former CEO of Wal-Mart recalls with pride the following aspect of his childhood upbringing: “We learned how much hard work it took to get your hands on a dollar, and that when you did it was worth something” (p. 5). But this tidbit of homespun wisdom comes shortly after Walton boasts of a response he gave to reporters following Wal-Mart’s loss of half a billion dollars in the 1987 stock market crash. According to Mr. Walton himself, he quipped “It’s only paper” (p. 3).
    • And then there is Donald Trump, real estate mogul, businessman, host of the reality-TV shows “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” and current presidential hopeful. In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life (2007), Trump has this to say regarding steadfastness in the face of adversity: “[if] you want to be successful,” he writes on page 63, “you can never, ever quit. You can never, ever give up.” But, he later opines, “there is a time, however, in some endeavors…when it is time to call it quits” (p. 216). Nor would this seem to be a one-time slip of the tongue: “My motto is: ‘Never give up.’ I follow this very strictly. I only give up on something when it is perfectly clear that there is no other option” (same page).

    So what’s going on here?


    Some background

    To be sure, I’m not the only one to take aim at management advice books.

    In Popular Management Books (1999), Staffan Furusten investigates the supply, production, and effects of these texts – and then concludes that most simply propagate “institutionalized myths, beliefs, institutions, and ideologies about management…”[3] Instead of offering useful advice, he goes on to say, some of the bestsellers in the genre “should probably be seen more as entertainment…”[4]

    In Management Gurus (2006), Andrzej Huczynski’s examination of why certain management ideas gain widespread popularity, the author singles out for criticism those books written by so-called “celebrity CEOs.” But it’s not the advice per se that he objects to, so much as it is the possibility that the average person will be able to implement any of it successfully. “There inevitably lurks a sub-text,” Huczynski warns, “that actually implies that you must also be a genius (like the writer) to make it all work.”[5]

    In The Halo Effect…and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (2007), Phil Rosenzweig takes aim at the methods and logic (or lack thereof) that many books use in reaching their conclusions. In particular, Rosenzweig argues that many management “researchers” confuse correlation with causation, substitute quantity for quality when it comes to their research, look for simple explanations when a multiplicity of factors may be involved, and connect only the “winning dots.” Only very rarely, he maintains, is the scientific method rigorously applied.

    Business theorist Chris Argyris would seem to agree. In Flawed Advice and the Management Trap (2000), he points out that rarely if ever are the recommendations of any of these books assessed in any meaningful or reproducible way. “Usually, the validity of this advice is not tested,” he observes, “nor is the range of its applications specified.”[6]

    And finally, Brad Jackson simply wonders if anyone actually reads these books, much less follows their advice. “On a very basic level,” he writes in Management Gurus and Management Fashions (2001), “no one appears to be sure who reads [management books], let alone understands why they read them and what they do differently as a result of reading them.”[7]

    None of these critiques, however, address what I had run into.


    Contradiction and paradox

    To be clear, my own objection to management advice books is not that individual authors will contradict each other on occasion.

    Yes, it’s frustrating to get three different opinions on how to manage your time from three different books. But this is just simple disagreement – something perhaps to be expected given the apparent complexity of the managerial role.

    More perplexing, however (and considerably more frustrating), are instances in which the supposed “experts” who write these texts contradict themselves – and without any apparent awareness of having done so.

    For instance, in Built to Last (1994) Jim Collins commends the work ethic of J. Willard Marriott, Jr., the 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.”[8]

    And yet in Good to Great (2001), Collins can be found praising Colman Mockler (the successful former CEO of Gillette) for taking precisely the opposite approach:

    “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.”[9]

    Obviously this is not two or more thoughtful individuals disagreeing with each other. This is someone blatantly contradicting himself. So not only is any “advice” that Collins hopes to convey with each passage rendered useless to the critical reader, it also calls into question Collins’ very credibility as an expert on managing.


    More contradictions…

    I know – you’re probably thinking I’ve simply stumbled across an outlier or two. These are occasional slip-ups in what are otherwise coherent texts. Well, consider the following:

    • Also in Built to Last, Collins praises The Boeing Company’s willingness to cut its staff when it had to, noting that “during the three year period from 1969 to 1971, Boeing laid off a total of 80,000 people, roughly 60 percent of its workforce” (p. 100). But on page 104, Collins speaks highly of the “guarantee of steady employment” that Proctor and Gamble offers its employees.
    • On page 115, Collins reprints “the Wal-Mart pledge”—which employees were known to recite at company meetings—as an exemplar of CEO-inspired company loyalty. This pledge was typically followed by the invocation: “So help me Sam.” But on page 135, Collins ascribes Nordstrom’s extraordinary commercial success in part to creating “a zealous and fanatical reverence for its core values…rather than demanding slavish reverence [my emphasis] for an individual leader.”
    • On page 10, Collins argues that the idea that successful companies ”focus primarily on beating the competition” is a “myth.” But on page 95, he nevertheless applauds GE’s aspirations of becoming “#1 or #2 in every market we serve…”
    • And I couldn’t help but notice that in the preface to Built to Last, Collins writes “At it’s deepest level this is not a business book” (p. xiv). His publisher, however? HarperBusiness.

    And just so you don’t think I’m picking Mr. Collins here:

    • In their book, In Search of Excellence, 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 12, the authors claim “that concept of innovation [my emphasis] seemed to us to define the task of the truly excellent manager or management team.” And yet several pages later they’re arguing that one of the fundamental attributes of any excellent company is “sticking to the knitting” – or staying “reasonably close to the businesses they know” (p. 15).
    • On page 30, Peters and Waterman are openly critical of what they call the “numerative, rationalist approach” to managing, in which the only measure of business performance is that which one can “put numbers on.” This is the “paralysis through analysis’ syndrome,” they warn (p. 31). But they then quickly backpedal, arguing later on that same page that “we are not against quantitative analysis per se,” adding “we’re advocates of sound analysis.”
    • Finally, in the last chapter of their best-seller, these authors articulate that principle which they seem to feel best summarizes the management practices of excellent companies. And that is: “simultaneous loose-tight properties.” This means having “firm central control” while at the same time allowing “maximum individual autonomy,” (p. 318) and being “simultaneously externally focused and internally focused” (p. 323). They also insist it means adhering to the “smart-dumb rule” (p. 324) which they themselves confess as being a “strange contradiction.”[10]


    …and still more contradictions

    Nor is it just Collins, Peters, and Waterman (and Iaccoca, Welch, Walton, and Trump) who are guilty here.

    • In Guts!: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company (1998), former President and Vice Chairman of Chrysler Bob Lutz writes “while a good leader can and does command a spectrum of styles, he or she should never [his emphasis] 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). And yet he follows up these thoughts on fiscal responsibility with this confession: “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 at the time by his own admission? “There is just no way this is going to work” (p. 81).

    How about some “old school” examples?

    • In The Prince (1513), Machiavelli singles out the example of Duke Valentino (aka Cesare Borgia) 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.”

    • In The Art of War (~500 BC), Sun Tzu delineates some very specific tactics that generals should adhere to in times of war, including: “camp in high places” but “pass quickly over mountains” (?), “do not climb heights in order to fight,” “after crossing a river you should get far away from it,” “when you come to a hill or a bank, occupy the sunny side,” and so on. Sound advice, I can only assume. And yet he also insists “Do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

    And a couple more from the “new school”:

    • In Pour Your Heart Into It (1997), Starbuck’s CEO Howard Schultz attributes the extraordinary growth of his company to “a team of smart and experienced [my emphasis] 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), Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh 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 Hsieh’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 for you academics out there:

    • In Managing (2009), McGill University’s Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies Henry Mintzberg observes that “Organizations need order.” But in the very next breath he also ventures, “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).

    This also appears to be an equal opportunity phenomena, in case you were wondering:

    • 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 how impressed she was with 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.” Sandberg hired her, effusing “It was a killer approach” (p. 52). But on page 69, she 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.”[11]

    And finally, at least one CEO can’t even seem to help contradicting the very title of his own book…repeatedly:

    • In Only the Paranoid Survive (1996), former Intel CEO Andrew Grove recounts the following anecdote from his tenure at the company: “The other night, 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).
    • And on page 152, Grove tells this story: “Some time ago a business reporter told me of an encounter with the head of a major Japanese corporation… When he [the reporter] asked questions that clarified the strategy of the corporation, the other man angrily retorted, ‘Why would I tell you our strategy? So I could help our competitors?’” Nice and paranoid, right? Not according to Mr. Grove: “I think this man wouldn’t talk about his strategy not because he was afraid of helping his competitors but because he didn’t have one…”

    So there you have it – paradox and contradictions galore. But why? How is it that these management “experts,” who are undoubtedly well-intended and thoughtful individuals—and undeniably successful—come to so frequently contradict themselves, all the while seeming to remain blissfully unaware of that fact?

    Well, next week I’ll explain why all of this isn’t just the result of poor editing (although that’s certainly part of the problem). In fact, I’ll make the case that, based on what most people understand to be “good management,” the proffering of contradictory or paradoxical advice may actually be impossible to avoid.

    But in the meantime, my advice to you?

    Throw out that management advice book you’re reading.


    Next week: Throw out that management advice book (part 2): The “Ten Commandments”

    Bloggers note: Portions of this post were first presented for critical review at the 7th International Critical Management Studies (CMS) Conference in Naples, Italy, on July 13, 2011.



    Allen, Paul. 2011. Idea Man: a Memoir by the Co-Founder of Microsoft. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

    Argyris, Chris. 2000. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Ash, Mary Kay. 2008. The Mary Kay Way. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

    Blanchard, Ken and Spencer Johnson. 1981. The One Minute Manager. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

    Branson, Richard. 2004. Losing My Virginity. New York: Three Rivers Press.

    Collins, Jim. 1994. Built to Last. New York: HarperBusiness Publishers, Inc.

    Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great. New York: HarperBusiness Publishers, Inc.

    Drucker, Peter F. 2001. The Essential Drucker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. (Cited page numbers from Collins Business edition, first published 2005.)

    Furusten, Staffan. 1999. Popular Management Books: How They Are Made and What they Mean for Organizations. New York: Routledge.

    Grove, Andrew S. 1996. Only the Paranoid Survive. New York: Currency-Doubleday.

    Hsieh, Tony. 2010. Delivering Happiness. New York: Business Plus.

    Huczynski, Andrzej. 2006. Management Gurus (Revised Edition). New York: Routledge.

    Iacocca, Lee, with Catherine Whitney. 2007. Where Have All the Leaders Gone? New York: Scribner.

    Jackson, Brad. 2001. Management Gurus and Management Fashions. New York: Routledge.

    Lutz, Robert A. 1998. Guts: The Seven Laws of Business That Made Chrysler the World’s Hottest Car Company. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

    Machiavelli, Niccolo. 1966. The Prince, translated by Daniel Donno. New York: Bantam Books. (First published 1513.)

    Mintzberg, Henry. 2009. Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

    Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization: The Executive Edition. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

    Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. 1982. In Search of Excellence. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. (Cited page numbers from HarperBusiness Essentials edition, published 2004.)

    Rosenzweig, Phil. 2007. The Halo Effect. New York: Free Press, A Division of Simon Schuster, Inc.

    Sandberg, Sheryl, with Nell Scovell. 2013. Lean In. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

    Schultz, Howard and Dori Jones Yang. 1997. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. New York: Hyperion.

    Trump, Donald, and Bill Zanker. 2007. Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and in Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

    Tzu, Sun. 2002. The Art of War. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. (Originally written around 500 B.C.)

    Walton, Sam. 1992. Sam Walton: Made in America. New York: Bantam.

    Welch, Jack, with Suzy Welch. 2005. Winning. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

     [1] Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker (Collins Business Edition), p. 239.

    [2] Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. In Search of Excellence, p. 7.

    [3] Furusten, Staffan. Popular Management Books, p. 142.

    [4] Ibid, p. 58.

    [5] Hucszynski, Andrzej. Management Gurus, p. 66.

    [6] Argyris, Chris. Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, p. 94.

    [7] Jackson, Brad. Management Gurus and Management Fashions, p. 39.

    [8] Collins, Jim. Built to Last, p. 197.

    [9] Collins, Jim. Good to Great, p. 61.

    [10]Peters and Waterman, op. cit., p. 324-325.

    [11] For a similar analysis of Sandberg’s book specifically, please see “Lean Where?” by Amanda Hess, at Slate.com: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/03/sheryl_sandberg_s_lean_in_gives_contradictory_advice.html. Retrieved January 20, 2016.


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    How I became interested in managing and its malpractice

    Jan 22, 2016





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  • 11 minute read


    So I recently saw Steve Jobs – the new movie directed by Danny Boyle about the Apple co-founder, and starring Michael Fassbender.

    Based on the 2011 biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson, it’s been in the news recently as a possible nominee for some of this year’s Academy Awards. Its certainly superior to the film from a couple of years ago starring Ashton Kutcher (Jobs, 2013), I’d argue. But for real insight into the man, nothing beats the documentary Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (2012, Magnolia Pictures), in my opinion.

    My interest in the life and times of Mr. Jobs does not stem from my being a faithful apostle of Apple, however. Nor do I feel drawn to Jobs’ lingering cult of personality.[1] No – my curiosity arises from the fact that I, like a lot of people I suppose, believe there is still much to be learned about good management from the man who built what is, at the moment, one of the world’s most profitable companies.[2]

    Just what those lessons are, however, seem to be the question of some debate.

    “Mercurial” is just another word for…

    For many, the issue boils down to one of personality.

    Over the years, Jobs’ disposition has been repeatedly described as “mercurial” – a characterization that he himself has also embraced.[3] This, however, is perhaps simply the polite way of saying that he could be a real ***hole at times. For instance, Mike Markkula (an early investor and chairman) noted that Jobs could be “sharp in his criticism” and even “tyrannical,”[4] while Andy Hertzfeld (a member of the original Macintosh team) characterized Jobs as “the opposite of loyal.” “He has to abandon the people he is close to” Hertzfeld once observed.[5] And Steve Wozniak (Apple’s other co-founder) confessed that Jobs could be “manipulative” at times.[6]

    These sorts of traits did not make Jobs a particularly pleasant manager to work for, according to many who were afforded that opportunity. For instance, Mike Murray (an Apple marketing chief) once described Jobs’ management style in a memo as “management by character assassination.”[7] Bud Tribble (another member of the Mac team) somewhat famously said Jobs had “a reality distortion field,” making him perhaps uniquely difficult to work for:

    “In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”[8]

    Arguably the most scathing assessment of Jobs as a manager is offered by Jef Raskin (original project leader for the Macintosh):

    “[Jobs] is a dreadful manager.…He does not give credit where due….Very often, when told of a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say that it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it. This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.”[9]

    Yet Jobs was clearly an extraordinary product visionary – a fact his many critics could not deny. Wozniak saw “genius” in Jobs’ approach to products creation and development,[10] and argued that Jobs was “exactly what Apple needed.”[11] Mickey Drexler (an Apple board member) said that watching Jobs transform Apple in the late 1990s and 2000s was “the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in business…”[12] And even Andy Hertzfeld did not deny Jobs’ gifts, offering the following assessment when asked if the Macintosh would have succeeded without Jobs:

    “No way. It would have been just another little footnote, a little research project that finally ran aground when one of the principals left to do something else. … Apple probably wouldn’t be here.”[13]

    So the question seems to boil down to this: Was Jobs’ “mercurial” personality a necessary dimension of his brilliance, and thus crucial to Apple’s success? Or would he and the company have achieved just as much had he not been such an ***hole?

    Or as Seth Rogen’s character put it in Danny Boyle’s movie: Can a person be “decent and gifted at the same time”?


    Creation story

    For my part, however, I believe that reducing Jobs’ legacy to this one question is to overlook a far more important aspect of his—and Apple’s—story. While I certainly have an opinion on the matter, I see the Jobs/Apple narrative not so much a question of personality, but more as a cautionary tale.

    Blogger’s note: With regards to the abbreviated history of Apple that follows, I relied heavily on Walter Isaacson’s biography (Steve Jobs, 2011, New York: Simon & Schuster) as source material, except where noted. I would recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Jobs, or Apple. I also consulted John Sculley’s autobiography (Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple…, 1987, New York: Harper & Row) as well as Steve Wozniak’s (iWoz, 2006, New York: W.W. Norton & Co), both of which I found to be insightful. And I found Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (2012, Magnolia Pictures) and the Wikipedia entry for Steve Jobs to be helpful as well.

    Consider the story: What Wozniak and Jobs created in his parents garage wasn’t the first or best personal computer ever made up until then.[14] But it was a device that would revolutionize a nascent personal computer industry in ways that neither of them could possibly have imagined at the time. That device—which they called the Apple I—only sold 200 units,[15] but the Apple II series which followed it would become the longest running mass-produced home computer in history.[16] Then of course came the successes of the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, the iPad, and so on – devices that would not only become widely imitated, but forever alter how we as human beings do business, communicate with each other, and live out our lives.

    Wozniak and Jobs began their business as a simple 50-50 partnership. In order to assemble and fulfill their first orders for the Apple I, however, they enlisted the help of their family and friends – basically anyone willing to help out. Perhaps to their surprise they met their deadline, then made a profit, and were suddenly off and running.

    Fast forward several years, and the rapidly growing company began to see a need for an experienced CEO who might lead it into the future. At the time, Jobs believed that he didn’t possess the experience to run the company all by himself, while Wozniak never had any interest in managing to begin with. John Sculley, then president of PepsiCo, was hand-picked by Jobs for the position and, after some convincing by Jobs, accepted. In addition to having the marketing experience Apple felt it needed, Sculley had graduated from Wharton, one of the nation’s top business schools. Sculley, for his part, felt he had plenty to offer Apple, telling Jobs that “just as Northern California is the ‘technology center’ for innovation in computers … the Northeast corridor [is] the ‘management center’ for innovation in business.”[17] He seemed an ideal match.

    But then, just a couple of years later, Apple did the unthinkable – especially knowing what we know today.

    Apple fired Steve Jobs.*

    Incredibly, the organization that Jobs had co-founded, and which was based upon his remarkable vision, came to the conclusion that his contributions were somehow expendable.

    Clearly they were not, as the events that followed would bear out. While Apple would prosper temporarily following Jobs’ departure—a success that might be attributed to increased sales of the Macintosh (the product Jobs had developed) and continued sales of the Apple II (Wozniak’s creation)[18]—by the 1990s, the company was in serious financial trouble, at one point coming within 90 days of bankruptcy.

    On the other hand, Jobs would thrive. The company he started following his departure (NeXT) would never be wildly successful in its own right, but the software it developed nevertheless became the foundation of the operating system for the iMac, the product that would ultimately save Apple. It also paved the way for Jobs’ return to the company, and thus the successes that would follow – including the iPod, iPad, and iPhone. Jobs’ other venture, Pixar, was even more successful. It would produce a string of blockbuster movies, and is seen by some as having saved Disney’s animation studios, who eventually bought the company.

    By any measure then, Jobs’ departure was not a good move. (Maybe not the worst decision ever to be made in the history of business, but that too is perhaps open to debate.)

    What makes it all the more remarkable, however, is that even at the time, nobody seems to have wanted Jobs to go.

    Certainly not Jobs, who even years later, would get emotional just talking about the experience.[19] Nor were those on Apple’s board anxious to see Jobs leave, it seems. According to Sculley’s autobiography, all of them expressed affection for the Apple co-founder even as they voted in favor of keeping Sculley as CEO, and stripping Jobs of all operational responsibilities.[20] Sculley himself called Jobs’ ouster “the darkest hour of my professional life” and admitted to feeling “lost” afterwards.[21] He even briefly considered resigning.[22]

    As for Apple’s employees, it appears most of them weren’t terribly pleased with how things played out either. Some left with Jobs to start NeXT. As for the rest, while it may have been because of Sculley’s decision to start laying people off—which, in his defense, may have occurred anyway, had Jobs stayed—Sculley nevertheless admitted that during this period “morale sagged miserably.”[23]

    So how did Apple come to expel arguably the greatest product innovator of his generation without really wanting to?

    Think different

    To my mind then, this is the question that should dominate any discussion of Steve Jobs’ legacy, and the story of Apple: How does a company come to make what is now recognized as a monumentally terrible business decision – and one that, even at the time, nobody was in favor of?

    Blame cannot be rightly assigned to Sculley, as some have suggested. (In Boyle’s movie, for instance, Sculley’s character complains of receiving death threats following Jobs’ departure.) If we take Sculley at his word, however (and I see no reason not to), his intent was never to wrest control of Apple from Jobs, but to, in his words, “help Steve grow so that someday the board would have the option of allowing him to run his own company.”[24] Nor is the board at fault, in my opinion – nor Jobs himself. Instead, I believe that blame lies with the other thing that Wozniak and Jobs created in that garage in Cupertino – something that was not, by comparison, nearly as revolutionary nor forward-thinking as the computer they worked so hard to build.

    In fact, it was as old as time.

    Indeed, if that garage was at all like a cave, then what Wozniak and Jobs also created in there was something that human beings have been cobbling together in caves for thousands of years. Should it ever be found that humans were responsible for hunting the wooly mammoth to extinction, for example, then it is almost certainly true that they did not hunt alone, but rather together, and in groups.[25] And that’s exactly what Jobs and Wozniak chose to do themselves many millennia later. Like those early hunters, they had decided to cooperate, and work together.

    In other words, they organized.

    The organization they created to build their computers would have been based on the concept of “hierarchy,” an organizational paradigm familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an organizational chart. According to it’s precepts, employees report to managers, managers report to executive managers, and execs in turn report to the CEO. And if nothing else, it is abundantly obvious Jobs saw himself as sitting atop (at least in spirit, if not in title) of the organization he’d helped create.[26]

    Following the arrival of Sculley, it is likely that a hierarchical style of managing would have only been strengthened, and reinforced. PepsiCo, Sculley’s previous employer, appears to have been rife with the trappings of hierarchy, and he would almost surely have been influenced by this. For instance, PepsiCo executives ate in their own dining room, separate from the cafeteria used by other employees. Board meetings were held in a room featuring a 21-foot-long conference table “polished to look more like glass than the rare burl of Carpathian elm…”[27] And PepsiCo Chairman and CEO Don Kendall, was known to drink his Pepsi from a Tiffany tumbler served to him by an attentive butler.[28] So despite any proclamations of bringing “innovative” management techniques to Apple, Sculley may have instead taken pains to create the management environment that, at least in some respects, would be similar to the old world style of PepsiCo, and in which he’d obviously thrived as president.

    So ignore for a moment the question of Jobs’ personality, and whether or not Apple succeeded because of, or despite his “mercurial” nature.

    Instead, ask yourself this: How comfortable are you with the management/administrative structure at your place of employment? Because chances are, it’s based on the organizational paradigm used by a company that fired arguably the greatest product visionary of the 21st century.

    And that, I think, should be enough to give anyone pause.

    Things ultimately turned out well for Apple, of course. Jobs came back to run the company he started. (Although ironically, Jobs seemed to not really want the top job when he was re-hired, preferring to remain interim CEO for as long as possible.[29] Nor did then CEO Gil Amelio, in part responsible for bringing Jobs back into the fold, want to be replaced.) And Sculley has since admitted that he wished he’d hired Jobs back.[30] Of course, by the time he came to this realization, he’d long since been fired by Apple himself.

    But that’s all ancient history now.

    So what about your company? How comfortable are you with how it’s structured?

    The reason I ask is because if it’s at all organized by hierarchy, which it almost certainly is, how confident are you that your employer or your manager—or even you—won’t fire its “Steve Jobs”?

    And perhaps more importantly, if that were to happen, would your company be able to afford it..?

    * Whether or not Jobs was actually “fired” by Apple is also a matter of some debate. Jobs felt he was,[31] while Sculley maintains that he wasn’t.[32] Allow me to clear up the confusion here, if I may.

    At the time of his departure, Jobs was running the Macintosh division. The board, who had become increasingly frustrated with Jobs’ divisive management style, decided to relieve Jobs of all operational responsibilities after a power struggle/showdown with Sculley. They voted to strip Jobs of any and all authority over the Macintosh project – an action that would have been devastating to Jobs, who once confessed to Sculley that “We all have a short time on this earth. We probably only have the opportunity to do a few things really great…”[33] In any case, on May 31, 1985, Sculley signed paperwork removing Jobs as executive vice president. He was furthermore forced to vacate his office in Macintosh building, and while his box wasn’t removed from the Apple organization chart, after this “restructuring” it wasn’t connected to anyone else’s either. As Sculley put it to investors: “From an operations standpoint, there is no role either today or in the future for Steve Jobs…I don’t know what he’ll do.”[34] So in that sense, Jobs is correct. He was fired by Apple.

    Complicating matters, however, is the fact that during this time Jobs held another position at Apple: he was chairman of the board. And since he was not relieved of these duties at the same time, technically speaking, he remained part of the Apple organization. Shortly thereafter—on September 17, 1985, to be precise—Jobs did voluntarily resign from that role in order to start NeXT, taking several key people with him (which led to Apple later suing him). But in that sense Sculley is also correct; Jobs wasn’t fired from Apple. He left of his own accord. So the confusion/ambiguity here really stems from Jobs’ dual roles. Because most of us do not typically occupy two separate and distinct positions at our places of work, being fired by an organization is essentially the same as being fired from that organization. But Jobs’ situation was unique. It is thus not inaccurate—nor contradictory—to say that he both resigned from, and was fired by Apple.


    [1] In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit to being somewhat loyal to the Apple brand over the years. I was first turned on to Apple products back in the early 80s; my best friend in high school had an Apple IIe, and we spent hours on it programming (and maybe playing a few games on it as well). Later, I wrote my graduate thesis on a Macintosh, and my first-ever computer purchase was an iMac. And at the moment, I’m writing this post on a MacBook Pro.

    [2] “The 10 Most Profitable Companies of the Fortune 500” by John Kell. Fortune Magazine (online), June 11, 2015. http://fortune.com/2015/06/11/fortune-500-most-profitable-companies/. Retrieved Dec 10, 2015.

    [3]“Mercurial” posted by Alex Brooks, April 5, 2012 at worldofapple.com. http://www.worldofapple.com/archives/2012/04/05/mercurial/. Retrieved January 5, 2016.

    [4] Isaacson, Walter. 2011. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon&Schuster, p. 81.

    [5] Ibid., p. 103.

    [6] Ibid., p. 54.

    [7] Ibid., p. 196.

    [8] Ibid., p.117.

    [9] Ibid., p. 112.

    [10] Ibid., p. 497.

    [11] Wozniak, Steve, with Gina Smith. 2006. iWoz. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., p. 297.

    [12] Isaacson, op. cit., p. 558.

    [13] Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (2012, Magnolia Pictures). Bonus material, 18:08.

    [14] That distinction—the first programmable “personal desktop computer”—belongs to the Programma 101, produced by the Italian company Olivetti for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programma_101. Retrieved January 14, 2016.

    [15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_I. Retrieved December 1, 2015.

    [16] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apple_II_series#Advertising.2C_marketing.2C_and_packaging. Retrieved December 1, 2015.

    [17] Sculley, John, with John A. Byrne. 1987. Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple… New York: Harper&Row, p. 135.

    [18] Wozniak, op. cit., p. 265.

    [19] Steve Jobs: The Lost Interview (2012, Magnolia Pictures).

    [20] Sculley, op. cit., p. 252.

    [21] Ibid., p. 299 and xi, respectively.

    [22] Ibid., p. 254.

    [23] Ibid., p. 305.

    [24] Ibid., p. 200.

    [25] http://www.natgeotv.com.au/history/why-did-the-woolly-mammoth-die-out.aspx. Retrieved January 6, 2016.

    [26] In his biography, Isaacson recounts the story of Jobs’ insistence on being assigned badge #1 for the newly formed Apple Computer company. Not willing to capitulate, Jobs eventually settled for #0, and Wozniak remained employee #1. (Isaacson, p. 83).

    [27] Sculley, op. cit., p. 1.

    [28] Ibid., p. 3.

    [29] Isaacson, op. cit., p. 332.

    [30] http://money.cnn.com/2015/02/06/technology/john-sculley/. Retrieved January 6, 2016.

    [31] Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UF8uR6Z6KLc. Retrieved Dec. 10, 2015.

    [32] https://www.siliconrepublic.com/business/2015/05/21/i-did-not-fire-steve-jobs-says-ex-apple-ceo-john-sculley. Retrieved January 5, 2016.

    [33] Sculley, op. cit., p. 155.

    [34] Isaacson, op. cit., p. 208.


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