By Brown, Tom
Management Review , Vol. 85, No. 12
You may not be aware of it, but a very influential "managerial underground" has emerged.
No one has precise numbers, nor can anyone gauge its future impact. But don't discount the coming consequences of thousands of managers heeding books that go beyond--way beyond--traditional business.
Consider The Heart Aroused (Currency/Doubleday, 1994): When poet David Whyte asserted the potential relevance of the Old English epic Beowulf to modern management, many predicted his book would be half-price within hours. Now Whyte consults to companies like Boeing.
Consider ex-P.R. exec Richard Bode: His first you have to row a little boat (Warner, 1993) has sold thousands of copies--but there's little here to assuage minds comfortable with current corporate practices. Bode bashes the insincerity, the lack of authenticity. No manager who has read him takes issue.
But if this "underground" movement has founders, they would probably be Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. Meg's Leadership and The New Science (Berrett-Koehler, 1992) is a book about how modern physics, and concepts like "fractals" in nature, can guide managers trying to meet production quotas. It's sold a startling 175,000 copies worldwide.
Meg and Myron Kellner-Rogers collaborated to create a simpler way. One could argue that it's not a management book. With a couple dozen sepia-toned black-and-whites adorning the front and back covers, and with text that lies loosely on hefty ivory stock, this leadership text looks like the "pretty" coffee-table book one buys as a thank-you gift. It's not.
Sure, it's a book with pictures, poems, philosophic quotes that some may find gnomic and references to abstruse scientists--but, in the main, it's a book about how we structure businesses and organizations and then try to lead them in perilously chaotic times.
"Organizations can keep searching for new ties that bind [people] to them--new incentives, rewards, punishments," they write. "But organizations could accomplish so much more if they relied on the passion evoked when we connect to others, purpose to purpose. So many of us want to be more. So many of us hunger to discover who we might be together."
This is a key passage. But my quandary after reading the short book was an inability to answer a very basic question: Who out there is actually reading such management writing?
Meg and Myron say that there is no discernible pattern to the 50 to 90 people who show up for their frequent conferences, held at the Sundance, Utah, resort also famous for Robert Redford film festivals (yes, yes, he did come in once to hear Meg and Myron speak). Now they're touring major U.S. cities, holding "evening conversations" with audiences of up to 200 people attracted to their stimulating roessage that organizational life could be different, simpler, more genuine.
"What are these people like, the ones who come to hear you?" I keep demanding. "They fit no mold. Some work for big companies, some for small. Some are senior in rank, some junior" Meg says. "Some are young, some old. We get consultants, senior-level military officers, people who have dedicated their lives to making nonprofit organizations viable, people from Europe and Australia--and everyone sits right alongside managers from companies like Du Pont," adds Myron.
My conclusion? The answer is in their messages. Meg and Myron assert seven core ideas in a simpler way:
* Everything is in a constant process of discovery and creating.
* Life uses messes to get to well-ordered solutions.
* Life is intent on finding what works, not what's right.
* Life creates more possibilities as it engages with opportunities.
* Life is attracted to order.
* Life organizes around identity.
* Everything participates in the creation and evolution of its neighbors.
The book treats each of these in turn if not in depth. …