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Management is local

The modern leadership movement (MLM) works hard to promote the theory that there is a universal model of leadership, if you will, that unites the standard concept of leadership with the quantum expression of it in particular assignments. Moreover, key to the sustainability of this movement is the consistently proffered argument that mastery of the standard, abstract form of individual leadership must first be attained; only then can it be applied at the practical level.

But things simply don’t work that way. In physics, the quantum-level components of the universe acquire their various characteristics from where they are and what they do under narrowly confined and rigorously demanding circumstances. They aren’t “taught” to be what they are by presumably higher-order principles. Rather, what they are and what they do are direct products of their intimate relationships with their immediate environments. These inescapable facts then inform the organization of reality at higher levels perhaps at least as much as their own unique natures are informed from “above.” While we don’t understand how these levels interact in the real world, it does seem pretty clear that they both influence each other and, at the same time, appear to reflect fundamentally irreconcilable natures.

Organizations work pretty much the same way. When you occupy a management position within one of them, your responsibilities and the measures of your success will come from the realities immediately surrounding you right there where you work – certainly not from “leadership” books and seminars. To a surprising degree, you may find that they don’t even come from most of the specifics you learned in your formal business or management studies.

Perhaps the best modern presentation of this idea is given by Henry Mintzberg in his definitive book, “Managing,” reviewed here¬†some time ago. He describes the experiences of managers in widely differing levels of widely differing industries. These managers succeeded not by attempting to farcically project on to their job activities the perspective-distorting tenets of wholly unrelated external systems. Rather, they quickly realized that they were each going to have to devote themselves to studying the unique requirements of their jobs and to adapt their backgrounds to the specific demands of those duties. Moreover they learned that they would need to supplement – perhaps even replace – their training with deeply local study and awareness.

Mintzberg described three planes of thinking from which to accomplish this individuation into local management work (information, action, and people). However, his purpose was not to propose yet another universal model for performing any job, but rather a basic toolkit that can help you come to an understanding of the unique qualities of, and requirements for properly executing, each specific management assignment. Indeed, a central argument of his book is (the decidedly iconoclastic idea) that management is not really a profession that can be taught, but a practice that can only be learned by the doing of it.

As a professor of management Mintzberg has surely done a good bit of management teaching. His point is that education is necessarily simplifying and standardizing; practice is unavoidably complex and variable. Formal study does not equip you to step right in to your job; it helps make it possible for you to learn your job once you are assigned it. You must deemphasize yourself and the academic accoutrements you have acquired. You must emphasize the job and honestly address your responsibilities to it.

Politicians who become seduced by grand national or international agendas and their roles in promoting them can quickly find themselves unemployed if they forget to answer the needs of the local voters in their districts. All politics is, famously and inescapably, local.

This lesson surely applies to management as well. Don’t be misled by how your are taught to view yourself by many management and leadership programs. Your job is not – it is never – about you. It is not about some grandiose notion (from your unimpeachable integrity to your other-worldly embrace of innovation) that supposedly only you can give expression to; It is always about the work at hand. It is always first and foremost about the specific demands of your position in your industry in your company in your part of the world.

Management is local.


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