Mintzberg Slams B-Schools For Teaching Leadership


All I can say is Wow! Henry Mintzberg is not going to make any friends in the current "leadership is everything" business climate.

Professor Henry Mintzberg, scourge of the business school world, has launched his latest attack on his own profession of management scholars by denouncing the teaching of leadership, the latest business school trend.

In Monday's Financial Times, Prof Mintzberg writes: "We have this obsession with 'leadership'. It's intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them." By focusing on the single person, he writes, "leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality" that is "undermining organisations".

I wouldn't go so far as to say leadership should not be taught, but I agree that it is overemphasized. For some reason, people see it as a magic solution to all their organizational problems.

One small business owner I know is so obsessed with leadership, he is always reading books and telling people at business meetings about all the recent studies on leadership. Yet, almost everyone that spends five minutes with him says his problem is that he doesn't understand who the real customer is for his product. Maybe he is leading his company, but it's not to any place worth going.

  • Read the whole thing and you’ll see this isn’t about leadership per se but the difference between what some think a leadershould be. It’s all in defining what is meant by leader, manager, boss and what are the fundamentals of good business leadership.

    You’re right about Mitzberg. He’s been questioning many MBA notions for a decade and that doesn’t make friends among those who are in the business of selling expensive degrees.

  • Rob

    Do you have a link to the original article? I can’t find it on FT’s site.

  • Mintxberg’s problem with leadership education is the way it is taught and the kinds of “leaders” it tends to generate. That is, heroic leaders that have no experience to fully understand the world they are entering. As Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” It is astonishing how much these “leaders” learn after they’ve been out in the workplace for a while. Hopefully, in time, your entrepreneurial friend will run across the book that suggests that a good leader gets advice in those areas that are not working. None of us know what we don’t know.

  • Much of what passes for business wisdom, especially in realms like leadership is just eyewash. I worked for an entrepeneur for 22 years, and helped grow the business from 7 to 47 employees. His reading of Seven Buzzwords About Effective People was as disruptive to the business as was the breakup of the company. He was too busy telling us to be PROACTIVE to keep track of what was going on.

  • Mintzberg is a delight, and has earned the right over the years to make such pronouncements.
    It has always struck me as odd to that despite having read a fair amount on the subject, I can’t recall a single specific meaningful or useful concept from the field. It’s the “chinese food” of business thinking, seems to me.
    Interesting interview with STanford’s James March in the current HBR where he says leadership isn’t fit to be an academically studied category; read more at;jsessionid=AHN5DOYFBVO34AKRGWDSELQBKE0YIISW?type=F

  • Ironically, although Professor Mintzberg is quite critical about the strategy consulting business, he has twice won the McKinsey Award for publishing the best article in the Harvard Business Review.

  • Rob

    Professor Henry Mintzberg is spot on target here. Everywhere you turn, individuals in organizational leadership positions appear to be more concerned with their “Leadership” than the organization’s success and/or process execution. The leadership Gurus: writers, educators, consultants, etc… have infecting organizations with the belief that Leadership is the answer for all of an organizations shortfalls. We have to get away from the mindset that you can’t have too much leadership.

    For a more in-depth discussion, join me at the Leadership Epidemic –

    Take care…


  • anonymous coward

    two observations from Germany:

    1. the exact translation in German of leader is Führer. We know where this went.

    2. I have worked and lived in France, Germany and the UK. Nowhere do I remember this craving for leadership. Is this an american thing?

  • I think Henry Mintzberg is on target questioning the focus on and the way leadership is taught. One, as anyone who ever worked in corporate or served in the military can tell you, leaders are born, not made. That said, it is a good idea for born leaders to increase their knowledge of leadership skills.

  • Anonymous

    Lewis I must not be understanding you right. Good leadership is made, bad leadership is made, it’s nurture not DNA. There’s plenty of good research, done by serious people with both backgrounds in military and business matters.

  • Rob

    That interview is great. Thanks for the link.

    I fall in the camp that leadership has parts of nature, nuture and situation. It’s a special case of the “fundamental attribution error” sometimes.

  • Actually, the research is mixed about whether leaders are born or made. I spent eight years in the military and 12 in corporate management, and my comments above are based on my experiences, which tell me that leaders are born such and then educated to employ their innate skills.

    Here is Psychology Today’s take:

    Are Leaders Born or Made?
    Provided by Psychology Today

    Some people are born to move and shake the world. Their blessings: high energy, exceptional intelligence, extreme persistence, self confidence and a yearning to influence others.

    After 50 years of collecting data on the topic, most psychologists believe that leadership qualities are innate or genetic and thus impossible to learn. Yet, my colleagues and I presented over a decade of research showing that leadership skills can be developed and mastered.

    First, we found that Mom and Dad can instill us with the tools and drive to lead. Both senior VPs in high-tech firms and the military leaders we interviewed had very involved parents who set challenging goals, translated failure into “how to succeed next time” and lived by high standards of moral conduct–helping their kids to appreciate diverse views.

    But even if you weren’t prepared early in life to be a leader, we’ve discovered techniques to help you take the helm: Visualize obstacles; set goals and find someone who will hold you accountable to them; seek and incorporate feedback from colleagues; reflect on your best and worst moments; train gradually; broaden your model of leadership to include a full range of styles; and honor high ethical standards.

    In a series of five studies, leaders of different ages and levels of experience from around the world participated in workshops with other members of their organizations. Based on this model, the teams developed practical problem-solving techniques and leadership that they successfully deployed over the following six to 12 months. Regardless of whether their skills were born or made, all got the job done equally well.

    Bruce Avolio, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Leadership Studies at SUNY-Binghamton and author of Full Leadership Development: Building the Vital Forces and Organization (Sage, 1999).

  • Let’s see “most psychologists believe that leadership qualities are innate or genetic” yet “a decade of research showing that leadership skills can be developed and mastered.” I don’t see any research that says leadership is a matter of DNA. I just see “beliefs.” Well people believe a lot of crazy things. How about a link to some research that is divided?

  • On the contrary, it is in need of more leaders.
    From the FT article:

    “But let’s be careful how we define leadership. A leader may in fact be the person occupying the corner office. But, he or she may too be the person ascending the divisional ranks or the more youthful executive fresh from business school. The concept of leadership must not be confined to just the “headliners”; it must be a concept with the potential to include and apply to everyone.

    That is not to say that everyone will become a leader, but rather that everyone does and can possess some leadership qualities. It may be a cliché, but it is an important point: organisations need leaders at every level, not simply at the top. Indeed, every team needs a leader and there are many teams within most organisations. This critical need for leaders exposes a fundamental flaw in our societal approach to leadership training. That is, the training and development of leaders should not start on the job, as it too often does now. Instead, it needs to happen at a much earlier stage in an executive’s career cycle.” There’s hardly a “leadership epidemic”. And it ain’t nature.
    BTW Rob is there any part of any person’s behavior that you would say isn’t part “nature, nuture and situation?”

  • Rob

    Good point. All three together covers pretty much everything. But what I mean is that some things might just be nature (raw intelligence), some may be primarily nurture (problem solving skills), but leadership requires the intersection of all three. People that make good leaders in one situation don’t in others, etc.

  • Rick Rexor

    Check out Bert Martinez’s system on Business Leadership and how to strengthen your company!