The Management Culture

Abraham Zaleznik, 1924–2011

My newest topic of study and writing (another book) is one that I’ve touched on many times in prior works, and that is the idea that managers and leaders are completely different personality styles. In 1977, Harvard Business School psychologist Abraham Zaleznik published his brilliant essay, Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?. This paper set forth a line that separates the two personalities, and this has been a seminal document in the education of Terry Heaton.

The reason this is so important is that the managers have had their way since the invention of moveable type, which gave managers the ability to sell their beliefs to wide audiences. Slowly, but surely, the idea that you can manage your way to just about any goal (a management term) has led to disillusionment and frustration, because it’s just not possible to continually manage without the creative innovations provided by leaders.

This is why the financial laws that ancient Israel were given by Moses included checks and balances to prevent anyone from gaining massive wealth or to place any person into poverty. The Sabbath Year and the Year of Jubilee were designed to keep everything honest between people when it came to their financial well-being, even to the extent of recovering lands they might have lost in the years prior to the Jubilee. The Israelites may have practiced this in the beginning, but clearly they gave it all up centuries ago and turned to profit-based hegemonies.

What we have today in the West is a management culture, one that’s built on hierarchies and rules, all of which serve the top of the pyramid and not the base. Oddly, the vast majority of the population agrees with this and even votes for those who make the rules that keep them forever at the bottom. Each institution of the human existence offers a process-driven solution to a problem that’s based on, amazingly, their own core competencies, but this is a public mask for private manipulation. Banking is the most obvious example. Banks hold our money “for” us, but that’s just marketing doublespeak. Banks exist to only serve banking, and the clearest example of that is how those least able to give their money to a bank are punished the most for not playing by the rules. We accept that this is “the way it is,” and the management culture advances.

When managers reach the inevitable wall that such formulaic adherence to rules must produce, those who pay the actual price are the rest of us. What awards managers is growth, and growth has limits. Always. There will come a day when these rules force a stoppage of growth, but to managers, this is just another hinderance that needs correction through management of the bottom line. People identified as “expenses” are summarily dismissed in order to help the guy who managed the destruction get his bonus. There is zero incentive for such people to not step all over others in the name meeting the money needs of the owners (who, by the way, managers have convinced us are the good guys).

The Shirky Principle is even more telling, for it states that “institutions will always try to preserve the problem for which they are the solution.” Drug companies are a great illustration of this, because it’s not always in their best interests for their medicines to provide cures. The pharmaceuticals industry is a terrific example of how the managers at the top get filthy rich in the name of “research” to help the world, but the sheer size of the salaries of drug company CEOs makes such a position utterly false. As a result, the entire industry is rampant with shame while touting the good they do for the community.

The paradox of prosperity, it should be noted, is that discontent increases with opportunities for acting on it.

In the world of music, the management culture inserts itself in a couple of ways. One, managers determine who gets money and who doesn’t, and it all depends on their ability to manufacture (a management term) hits. And, since managers are risk averse, this results in the homogenization of music that sells. Let me be the first to say that the purpose of music among humans is not to make money, but this is the fruit we have from the management culture. Two, the method of teaching music has adapted to the management culture by eliminating the ear from the making of music. In bluegrass music, for example, the invention of tablature puts the complex and fast notes in learnable form on paper. This has produced some phenomenal new 5‑string banjo talent, but everything sounds the same. Pickers that stand out are guys like Jim Mills, whose right hand work can’t be completely transferred to paper. His ear-taught methods are unique, even though he can play the same songs note-for-note that the tab players use, yet sound dramatically different, because his ear tells his right hand to “punch” certain notes and play others softly. This produces a loyalty to the song instead of the notes, and that’s the nuance that’s lost with only tablature.

Consequently, originality in music has become a niche and not the main market, and this benefits only those willing to be “managed” to prosperity.

Happy with the music industry? Read Joel Rose’s recent NPR article, Why Is The Music Of 1968 So Enduring? ‘It Was Allowed To Be Art’.

“I realized that I was part of the rebellion, and not part of the establishment,” says (author John) Simon, who earned a degree in music from Princeton University before getting a staff job at Columbia Records. “Part of being the rebellion is, you could rebel musically in the studio. You didn’t have to be as formulaic as in the past.”

The management culture copies formulas for success in every walk of life, including, believe it or not, the church. Here we have an institution with little incentive to overcome cultural evil, for that would take them out of business. Instead, the message is always “you need us” in your life for protection against the culture and the possibility of going to hell.” We are taught to believe this is “truth,” so we behave as instructed, which helps the other managers stay on top and in charge. Ask yourself this: if churches aren’t a part of the management culture, why is the goodness of churches heaped on only those that are growing?

The management culture put Donald Trump in the White House. It was inevitable and predictable.

Another institution fully involved in the management culture is medicine. Doctors today are troubled by patients educated by other patients via patient websites who question both diagnosis and treatment. They don’t have time to argue, because other patients are jammed into a queue that’s part of the profit process from other managers. The authority of the doctor is rightly challenged by the spread of formerly protected knowledge, and I always point to the story of Lorenzo’s Oil and a statement by Lorenzo’s father: “The needs of the doctor are different than the needs of the patient.” Healthcare in the U.S. is an enormous mess, thanks to the fine work of the management culture.

I can’t help but think this way after reading The Education of Henry Adams, who notes in the book that “The way of nature is change (chaotic); the dream of man is order.” Order is truly an unreachable dream, because human nature gets in the way. The only way to produce a form of it is to apply force. Self restraint requires sacrifice, and that’s not a hallmark of the human condition, and absent an internal governor, order requires the use of some form of bayonet at our backs. It’s good for the culture, right? Maybe not so much.

The world desperately needs Zaleznik’s leaders, people who are comfortable with a little chaos in the mix. For them, problem-solving isn’t always based in what worked before. They are fearless in that sense, and can’t be tied down to a specific set of rules to follow. They must have freedom in order to innovate, and the management culture has a serious problem with that. And since progress is judged by those who play by the rules, very few institutions are run by leaders.

And the most ridiculous idea that the management culture perpetuates is that one can follow certain systems or processes to “become” a leader. Zaleznik tried (because the demand was there) with his book You can call a manager a leader, if you’d like, but that doesn’t make her a leader in the Zaleznik style.

The problem is that absent contributions from both, the culture can’t really function as free, for there is a grave difference between the liberty of free people and the license demanded by those at the top of the tower. Can we overcome it? Perhaps, but given the nature and depth of the hierarchy, they won’t give up their positions without a fight, and that conflict could be very, very deadly.

I want to end this with a Bible verse that speaks to the core of this dichotomy, because it strikes at the motive of managing and being managed. It’s from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter four, verse four (NIV):

And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Don’t ever think that managers aren’t aware of this. They exploit it to their own ends, and we just go along.

After all, it’s a management culture.

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