Earth Day 2009--Still Stuck

Mintzberg.jpeg

It is easy to find much written this day by people deeply involved in environmentalism and the greening world. I found an unlikely source with a highly relevant lesson for this day. One of the most respected management gurus and teachers, Henry Mintzberg, steps out of his usual role and delivers a powerful critique of business. His words ring far beyond the world of MBA’s who take the brunt of his blows, reaching to the core of our stuckness in unsustainability.

Mintzberg is seeking the roots of the financial crisis and lights on management. Citing an analysis he and colleagues did tracking a group of “star graduates” from the Harvard Business School, only 4 out of 19 were rated as successful. Ten were ultimately moved out of their offices because their firms fared so badly.

What we have here is a monumental failure of management. American management is still revered across much of the globe for what it used to be. Now, a great deal of it is just plain rotten - detached and hubristic. Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting engaged, too many CEOs sit in their offices and deem: They pronounce targets for others to meet, or else get fired.

And the new U.S. administration? It rushes in with dramatic actions, paying out “cash for trash,” deeming the movement of massive amounts of money around the economy, much of it to prop up dying businesses in the short run. More quick fixes for an economy brought down by quick fixes.

His use of the words—detached and hubristic— are on target. They reflect the belief that complex systems, including firms, can be treated like machines and run without authentic engagement. He points to the roots of the larger issue of global unsustainability, the predilection to solve all problems by treating the symptoms with some sort of quick fix. As I have written, this practice eventually leads to a collective unconsciousness and a failure to identify and address the roots of the systemic failures. Mintzberg continues:

In this, we have America’s problem in a nutshell: the utter absence of collective introspection, whether it be the current crisis, the relationship between the Vietnam and Iraq debacles, even what might have contributed to 9/11, as well as the way it has been compensating and educating its corporate “leaders.” The country seems incapable of learning from its own mistakes.

Put differently, the U.S. appears to be in social gridlock. Thanks to vested interests and their powerful lobbyists, as well as an economic, individualistic dogma that has been embraced so thoughtlessly, it is business as usual in America. And beyond: Our planet is becoming as sick as many of these corporations, yet we are being implored to get back to consumption. Fix the problem now; continue to forget about the future. Except this time, we may be consuming ourselves.

No country in the world has been more admired for its capacity to change, to learn with the times. This remains true of technological change; but, on the social front, America seems incapable of changing.

As long as technology is held up as the Holy Grail, what else would we expect. Mintzberg is focused, as he should be, on his world of management. The story he tells in this excellent article is, however, a metaphor for the larger world we inhabit. Everything he says applies to the general conditions of unsustainability. On Earth Day, we should stop and listen carefully, for it will take a huge effort to stop applying quick fixes, reflect on what is really wrong, and then turn to address whatever that turns out to be.

(Hat tip to Garry Peterson)

|