The Wild Side of Management Theory Is Where the Money Is
Excerpts from The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus
This chapter is a brief survey of the unmapped regions of management theory -- where it mixes with self-help, philosophy, futurology, or downright quackery. This is where the greatest fortunes are to be made. Yes, the thinkers' appeal rests to an unusual extent on the fear or greed of their audience. But, there is occasionally something of value in what they are saying. Moreover, the gap between orthodox management theory and its flakier fringe seems to be narrowing.
Consider first the man who has made a fortune by mixing America's three great obsessions: management theory, religion, and self-help: Stephen Covey, an earnest bald-headed Mormon and one-time management professor. Executives, politicians, and public servants flock to his Utah seminars. They watch films. They read "wisdom literature." They discuss what prevents their companies from peak performance. They learn how to use Covey's patented personal organizer. They rescue each other from contrived calamities. They break down and weep.
By 1997, Covey's management training business, founded in 1985, employed 700 people and had revenues of close to $100 million. Its clients include many Fortune 500 companies. Covey's ideas have been embraced by institutions as diverse as the Idaho Minimum Security Prison and the Oneida Indian Nation. The foundation is a single management book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which has sold about five million copies since it was published in 1989. Its message: to reach your full potential, you have to build "character."
Coveyism is actually a tough discipline: people have to take responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, this rigor does not extend to the book's style. The first six words of The Seven Habits are: "To my colleagues, empowered and empowering." Worse is to come. The first of Covey's seven habits is "be proactive"; the sixth is "synergize." He forever refers to "emotional bank accounts" and "deposits of unconditional love."
This is disturbing territory. Can you really take seriously a man who claims, straight-faced, to have identified "the universal value system of all mankind"? The instinctive response is to reach for the critical hatchet. This reaction is not entirely fair. Whatever its weaknesses, Coveyism's emphasis on personal responsibility comes from the heart. That is one explanation for Covey's success. His own Mormonism has been lifelong and unflinching. Nor is Covey some cone-headed fanatic from the sticks. He studied at the University of Utah and Harvard Business School.
The second explanation for Covey's success is that he runs an extremely efficient business. Covey is unapologetic about wanting to turn the center into the world's biggest multinational self-help organization.
The third reason that Covey has been successful is that, underneath all that frightful talk about enabling, his ideas actually have some relevance to mainstream management theory. Most management thinkers are obsessed with corporate organization and its systems of control and reward. Coveyism starts with individuals -- and sets out to improve them before slotting them into their place. Coveyism is total-quality management for the character, reengineering for the soul.
Cynics argue that Covey serves the needs of corporations that want to shift the responsibility for coping with job turbulence. Instead of spending the time between one short-term job and another drinking and going to seed, Covey's pupils spend it "sharpening the saw" -- his phrase for improving their mental and physical health. It would be interesting to know how many of the AT&T managers who scampered around the mountains with Covey were downsized in the telephone giant's huge restructuring -- and how many returned from Provo to plot that restructuring.
All the same, "character" does seem to be a valid topic for management theorists to discuss. And Covey's basic idea -- that businesses should think about how individuals feel as well as about the structures in which they work -- is gaining ground.
One reason that Covey has won over organizations like IBM is that he seems alarmingly well qualified. Consider his rival, Anthony Robbins, a school janitor turned "peak performance coach" who claims to make $50 million a year from his seminars alone, and whose clients have included Bill Clinton, Andre Agassi, and the Princess of Wales.
Robbins is almost seven feet tall and a dead ringer for Superman. He divides his time between his castle in San Diego, Ca., and his island in Fiji. Robbins's message, laid down in books such as Awaken the Giant Within (1991) and Unlimited Power (1987), is that you can achieve anything you want with the right attitude. However, the main way to unleash one's power seems to be opening one's wallet to attend an Unleash the Power Within seminar, the high point of which comes when some members of the audience walk barefoot across burning coals.
If Robbins has any relevance to the wider world of management theory, it has passed us by. However, one attraction of Robbins' package (and Covey's) is that they are one-stop shops. This gives them an edge over their peers. The market has become hopelessly segmented. Morris Shechtman, a "corporate psychotherapist," specializes in reducing the "trauma and distress" of restructuring. Another part of the management industry claims that you can radically improve productivity by organizing your desk.
Another fertile segment might be described as mental gymnastics. Here, the king is Edward de Bono, the father of lateral thinking. De Bono's books preach that the best way to approach a problem is often from the side: "The mind must wobble before it can leap." Though lateral thinking has often been treated with disdain by academics, it has provided de Bono with wealth and influence. From his private island in Venice, he dispenses advice to giant corporations and the educational bureaucracies of Venezuela, Singapore, and Bulgaria.
Today's most pervasive self-improvement philosophy comes under the New Age rubric. New Agers disagree about technical questions -- whether hand-holding, meditation, or chanting is the best way to get on in life; but they all seem to agree on the awfulness of something called "the Newtonian paradigm." Isaac Newton is condemned for legitimizing an atomistic approach to the world, in which things can be looked at in isolation.
This may seem a long way from management. But management consultancies peddling New Age cure-alls seem to be flourishing. Some help managers clarify their "business visions" by persuading them to dance. A British company, Decision Development, uses the American Indian Medicine Wheel. The Maharishi Foundation's management school trains "managers to bring unfailing success and continuing progress to their companies" through meditation and levitation.
These gurus all preach the same seductive message: that we achieve far less than we are capable of; and that we can close the gap if we understand ourselves, set appropriate goals, and transform fear into strength. They also preach in more or less the same ways. They are forever drawing up lists. They are also addicted to metaphors. Covey, who likes metaphors from the natural world, at times sounds worryingly like [Chance the gardener] the character Peter Sellers played in the film Being There: "The sequential leadership development can be likened to a tree."
John Micklethwait, the New York bureau chief of The Economist, has written for the Los Angeles Times, and has appeared on National Public Radio. Winner of the Winscott Award for financial journalism, he lives in New York City.
Adrian Woolridge, the West Coast bureau chief of The Economist, has written for The Wall Street Journal and The New Republic. He lives in Los Angeles.
Reprinted and excerpted with permission from The Witch Doctors, Making Sense of the Management Gurus
Copyright 1996, 1997 by John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Convention
Published in the U.S. by Times Books, a division of Random House, Inc. in New York
Adapted with permission of Random House, Inc.
Available at the McGraw-Hill bookstore, local and online bookstores or see Random House's website www.atrandom.com.