Mintzberg isn’t mincing words

When I got my MBA 20 years ago McGill’s Henry Mintzberg was considered to be one of the top management and strategy thinkers of the time.  His books on management were required reading in many MBA programs.  He continues to remain one of the top read and quoted management theorists.

He has started his own A.B.C. campaign advising people to vote for anyone but Harper.

I don’t know his politics.  I can assume from this campaign that he isn’t much of a fan of the Conservatives but what was strange to me was the National Post’s savage attack on his professional credibility.  I’ll let you read the NP attack on Mintzberg but I will comment on the summary conclusion:

Management gurus should stay away from economic declarations. The idea that shareholders pay corporate taxes is a misunderstanding held by even bigger minds than Mr. Mintzberg. Shareholders assess their investments on the basis of long-term after-tax net profits. Shareholders will make that money, in a market economy, come hell or high water.

The idea that Henry Mintzberg, a guy who has done case studies and interviewed more corporate leaders than a 100 economists, wouldn’t have some insight into how CEOs think is just stupid.  Economists study data – including corporate survey data – but Mintzberg actually knows how CEOs think.    So whether or not someone agrees with Mintzberg’s view on corporate taxation or not his bona fides on how CEOs might react to various tax rates are about as good as you are ever going to see.

And I would also say that trying to frame Mintzberg as some kind of Marxist is also laughable (example – “Prof. Mintzberg is a McGill management guru who slices his ideological toast somewhere between Karl Marx and Adam Smith, with not much Smith remaining on the plate at the end of the slicing.”).    He has been doing more to help perfect the capitalist model – the real nuts and bolts of corporate strategy and management – than any economist ever will do.  He just happens to believe – from studying hundreds/thousands of actually companies and their managers – that there are good and bad firms and managers out there and that corporations should pay some taxes.  I guess these days that makes you a pinko communist.

Look, my political views run right of centre.  On the continuum between a full scale Nanny State on one end and full scale Libertarianism on the other I come in a little to the right of the midpoint.  I have made no bones about that but I do not worship at the alter of laissez-faire capitalism.    I think there needs to be rules of the road and I think that the corporate sector should bear a share of the tax burden.  I think this tax level should be set in a competitive context – relatively high taxation could discourage investment but we have to be sane about it too.  There are a number of U.S. states that charge zero state corporate income tax and company investment hasn’t been pouring in.

Taxation is one factor in a complex combination of factors that decide investment decisions.  His politics aside, I would trust Mintzberg’s view on how CEOs think and react more than any economist.

As for his A.B.C. campaign, as a public figure, I think questioning that is fair game for the media and having him set his political views in the context of his life’s work of studying CEOs and corporate strategy is a very worthwhile exercise.  The National Post opted for the easy and frivolous way out.

I think there is a broader point here about the role and place of credibility in our society and our politics.  You can disagree with Mintzberg without needing to try and paint him as a charlatan.  This is the world we live in today.  If someone – with a lifetime of expertise – disagrees with someone else – the latter will jump right to the charlatan card.   You see this on the left and the right.   I heard an old scientist – nearly 90 years old – who was a pioneer in climate related science questioning  some of the methodology behind climate change predictions and he was pilloried – the charlatan card was played yet again.

If we end up degrading all professional credibility in our society we will end up with the Rush Limbaughs of the world setting direction.  I remember hearing him wax on about the Bolsheviks one time and it was clear he had never read anything more than the “Soviet Union for Idiots” book and here he was positioning himself as an expert.

We need to get off that train.     We need to respect the credibility of experts while realizing that they can, and many times are, wrong.  But, on balance, we need to have experts to help us calibrate how we move society forward.  Heaven help us if we end up having policy set on the editorial pages of the National Post – or the Toronto Star.

9 thoughts on “Mintzberg isn’t mincing words

  1. I am not sure if you want to get into a political debate on this forum but I will put in my two cents.

    Since Harper began running, people opposed to him have tried to scare Canadians into believing he will make change that most people do not want (women’s rights, abortion, CBC, french language, the list is long). I argue that most of this has not happened, however he has not had a majority and now those same scare mongers are using that as the tipping point.

    Correct me if I am wrong but we do not live in a totalitarian state, the leader of the governing party does not have unlimited power. I have to believe that the vast majority of Conservative candidates are good people and if their leader goes over the edge and starts trying to change Canada in a way that most Canadians do not want, they will vote against that change. Maybe that is naive, further if he did do something like that, the government would last one term.

    I am not a huge Harper fan but I am even less a fan of Iggy or Layton. The Liberals have brought this on themselves by choosing leaders that nobody outside the party hierarchy wants, and Layton seems to be promising programs that appear very expensive and people still remember the NDP in Ontario.

    Mintzberg wants us to vote for the candidate in each riding that could best defeat the Conservative one, that’s a great way to pick a Prime Minister. We have this process in Canada which confounds many, picking the best man may pick the worst leader. If we follow Mintzberg and there is a tremendous Conservative candidate and maybe a dullard with a fighting chance, we should pick the dullard?

    I respect his views, he is much smarter than I, if the other parties had a leader I could follow maybe I would change my vote, they don’t so I won’t. Harper isn’t making my decision easy though.

  2. Most of this ‘has not happened’ because Mr. Harper has been in a minority position. Mr. Rivington simply is not aware of the massive power of the PM’s office. The Cons have been even more fussy about local nominees than any other party, so the idea that somehow local tories will ‘fight back’ against Harper is simply crazy. Most of them are even further out in right field than Harper is.

    Plus, Harper has already shown nominees like Helen Guergis that he can and will throw them out of caucus for NO reason, so that tories aren’t goosestepping along is a pretty specious thought.

    And some of them ARE outrightly crazy, like the Pastor from just outside Kitchener, who is not allowed to even TALK to the media he’s so crazy. My biggest fear about tories is NOT Harper, because he’s MEAN, but he’s not CRAZY. Many of the staunchest Harperites are mean AND crazy.
    With a majority there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to stop Harper from canning CBC on day one. He already installed as head of CBC a guy who has outrightly said he despises it and numerous changes are already apparant-from adopting the worst practices of private broadcasting. Any readers of CBC will no doubt notice the ‘community changes’ that happened just before the election, which made them take the comments off of most political stories.
    And the last time we had a majority government was the liberals in the nineties. They GUTTED health care spending in transfers to the provinces, they cut services so bad it reduced Canada from being the best place to live, ranked by the UN, to something like 15th currently. And that was a LIBERAL majority, so you can just imagine what a conservative government is capable of, particularly one whose base is in the west, and guess what people, the west is NOT dirt poor like the east. So in the east you SHOULD be afraid. The only comments from Harper about the east has been his “culture of defeat”. You already have a provincial government that is gouging virtually EVERY department-and has said that the worst cuts are to come. Now, imagine that scenario with a huge cut in what represents just over one third of NB’s budget. Guys, if you AREN”T afraid, if you aren’t absolutely TERRIFIED, then you’re crazy. I’m ‘sort of’ terrified, even though I’ve got money and I can just run over to Buffalo for dirt cheap healthcare.

    As for local candidates, I’m still at a loss to see what defines “a tremendous conservative candidate” let alone a “dullard”. By that standard the ONLY people we should be electing are Harvard scholars like Ignatieff.

    Sorry thats off topic, but really the Financial Post doesn’t even DESERVE to be debated. Anybody that thinks when company X does its pricing for product X that it adds 30% to its price to cover its lost taxes is just too stupid to even be ALLOWED to debate. IF that is happening, then its because all these corporations have such a monopoly that its clear we’ve got MUCH bigger problems that corporate tax cuts.

  3. I read the NP article too but since it was written by Terence Corcoran, I was already poised to view it with some skepticism. Mr. Corcoran, we will remember, also insisted in 2007 that there was no financial crisis.

    Professor Mintzberg is a data-cruncher as well as a firebrand. He gained notoriety largely because his more prominent works focused on what managers actually do, as opposed to what they should do according to what was the fashion of the time. That did not make him the darling of the Donald Trump set.

  4. Mikel,

    You assume that someone cannot be a great candidate, even if they belong to the Conservative party? If there is a man or woman, they have a track record of good management in business or government, they have right of center views, believe that we need some government intervention but there is a point where its too overbearing, too inefficient. They may be pro-choice, not homophobic, not aligned with any one religion, sounds like a Liberal eh? We used to call these people Progressive Conservatives, they are still around. A dullard of an opponent would be one that got the nomination by default, nobody else wanted to run and they have no track record of business acumen or public service. I am supposed to vote for that guy/gal because there are some left leaning intellectuals screaming at the rooftops that Harper will change Canada forever?

  5. ” I heard an old scientist – nearly 90 years old – who was a pioneer in climate related science questioning some of the methodology behind climate change predictions and he was pilloried..”

    I’mm not sure that is comparable to the attack on Mintzberg. You are speaking here of Dr Richard Muller, I believe. He did some pioneering work on climate science a few decades ago, but as he has been fairly inactive in climate science since then. I don’t believe he could be called an expert, especially wrt to data of the past 2-3 decades.

    The term expert is not a life-long appointment – once you stop staying current with the data, you lose whatever claim to ‘expertise’ that you once had. At least, that is how it works in science. Muller made some off-hand public remarks about some datasets w/o really looking at the data or the methods – he was vigorously attacked for that by climate scientists – as he should have been. I am not sure that people appreciate how rough-and-tumble things can get when scientists get together. That’s just the way things work, and the way science moves forward – if you cannot defend your position with good data, its best to keep your head down. Its not like economics, social ‘science’, english lit, or polysci where you can apparently say anything w/o good data and expect people to take you seriously.

    Corporate interests that have been unhappy with climate science data analyses gave him funding to study those procedures. Muller began to look at the data, and (surprise, surprise) found that it was, after all, correct, and the methods acceptable. Then he was pilloried again, by those same corporate interests, for saying just that at a Congressional hearing.

    That, I would say, is the real danger here – the right’s inability to accept the data for what they say. That’s true of Corcoran, Harper and many others.

  6. I do not suggest that ‘experts’ should not be questioned – they should be vigorously questioned. Where I am uncomfortable is when a journalist or a talk show host or other person will attach their credentials just because they don’t like what they have to say. There has to be some value in deeply studying an issue – even if people don’t like your conclusions. I am haunted by the NB Power/HQ debate where the most knowledgeable people such as Bill Marshall had their credibility and even ethics assailed because they took a different view then our collective gut.

  7. Tom, this is the problem in politics. YOU assume that a ‘good candidate’ for the ‘new conservatives’ is a ‘progressive conservative’, even though that party and its principles are long gone. What YOU call a good candidate somebody else may call a dullard, another may call a liberal, etc. And what if that person has ALL the qualities you mention and also was nominated without any competition? Why does that suddenly make such a person a dullard? They could be geniuses, they could be Jesus Christ, Einstein, Gandhi, all rolled into one (highly doubtful I know).

    That’s why I said that I don’t KNOW what makes such a ‘quality candidate’-not that one doesn’t exist. I know what makes one for ME, but right now NO candidates have the qualities I am looking for. However, say you DO get such a ‘progressive conservative’ kind of candidate-I don’t know anything about Helen Geurgis, but I’m sure SOME people thought she was a stellar candidate. And what happens? She is thrown out of power by Harper on either a whim or a vendetta.

    That’s why local candidates, even if they ARE stellar, are largely irrelevant. Everybody knows you march to the beat of Stephen Harper’s drummer, or you are out the door. Personally though, I am NOT looking for a ‘good manager’. If that were true, this new finance minister for NB would be a godsend-instead, he seems just as dim on economic matters as a high school drop out.

    Actually, I’ve written extensively on that elsewhere-IF conservatives DO have any remnant of ‘progressives’ in them, they will revolt against Harper. Anybody that knows much canadian history at all knows that the Liberals were the corporate party, and one of the reasons the progressives and conservatives got together was to combat the corporations of the east. Now they seem to be quite happy so long as the corporations are in the west as well. Take what is nominally the most realistic and prominent of conservative policies- an elected senate. Any progressive OR any conservative would know that just because you elect a senate that doesn’t mean it solves your problems. It MAY turn out better than a nominated one (and it may not). But for the ‘guy in the street’ it really makes no difference, just like our current election makes little difference because of the hamstringing of our electoral system. That MAY change by a fluke, but I agree with Tom that trying to base your vote on strategic voting is NOT a good thing-but it IS a necessary thing.

    The only thing I’d argue is that often strategic voting is not that strategic simple because nobody knows how everybody else will vote. I ‘strategically’ voted liberal (for the first time in my life-yuck) because our previous incumbent lost by only 14 votes. He is well known in a university town where students don’t vote that often. BUT what happens if large numbers are swayed to the NDP or Greens? I have no way of knowing. All I know is that the NDP has only a couple of signs up, so they aren’t running hard, and this liberal had a pretty good name that nobody really associates with a scandal. IF this were 1995 I’d be voting for the conservative guy for exactly the same reason-for a minority government.

    But it was very hard not to vote for the guy from the “Pirate Party”, even though I don’t know anything about it:)

  8. @David Campbell
    I don’t disagree, but Muller was not attacked by the climate scientists because of his credentials – he was attacked because he did not know what he was talking about. When he did check the data and realized that his initial statements were wrong, he corrected himself. Then he was attacked personally, by the right side of the spectrum. Minzberg, by contrast, made statements that he can support with data. That is why Corcoran and others are making personal attacks – they can’t really dispute the data, so they try to discredit the person with the data.

    So once again (and consistently it seems these days) the right makes personal attacks in order to deflect attention away from the data. The right has trouble with data – that, IMHO, is a serious problem in politics today. You can’t have a rational debate when the data are rejected out of hand.

  9. Actually, the more I think about it, the more possible it is that Corcoran has a point. And thats because when you look at a LOT of canadian industries, they DO have that oligopoly or quasi monopoly stranglehold. Take a look at the print media in New Brunswick. Since Irving is about the only game in town, Brunswick News may very well set their prices according to how much they pay in taxes, because they can essentially charge what they want. That obviously isn’t the ONLY pricing mechanism, but its possible that its a major one.

    So Corcoran COULD be right, in which case, like I said, its a MUCH huger problem than just talking about corporate taxes, because essentially Corcoran is saying “not only do corporations have a stranglehold on power, but they shouldn’t have to pay ANYTHING to be able to operate”. Corporations become much like royalty, largely doing like the Sherriff of Nottingham and not doing ANYTHING constructive for the population, and robbing it of its resources. So IF Corcoran is right, they are essentially admitting that the corporate form of organization is no longer a creative development, but a parasitic one. That’s a big thing to admit, since it basically tells people that in order to build a ‘good’ society, we have to get rid of corporations altogether. Not sure if that’s really the message the Financial Post wants to send out, but thats the logical conclusion of his thinking.

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