Management is a job

I have often said to myself, myself I have said: “I do not believe in leadership. And I don’t believe in management either.” That is, leadership or management as some skill-in-itself, outside of some concrete knowledge of and experience within the area that someone is supposed to lead and manage.

In discussions on this, I tend to relativise the statement, of course, from an absolute to a more fluffy one. Something like: “It seems to me that in many cases the financial cost of management and leadership in an organisation does not measure up to the value added from management and leadership.”

“But management is most definitely a skill in itself”, my interlocutors will say… “just look at Manager Leaderman who turned the Highly Sophisticated Tech Company around in five years without knowing the first thing about the industry”.The problem for me then is the more pragmatic one that there certainly are good managers out there, they are just too expensive for most universities. And if they are sufficiently low-cost, chances are that they have most of their leadership experience from an area that works differently from an academic institution: In a university it is not a good thing for a manager to think of the faculty as workers in a factory, but for starters a necessity I think to view them as a diverse group of very proud subcontractors.

It seems that I am not alone in being a management skeptic. Harry Brighouse, in a recent post, gives two reasons that academics are perhaps more skeptical towards management:

I suspect that there are two (respectable) reasons for this. One is that academic managers are drawn from the ranks of academics and given little if any training. This narrow pool has already selected out a lot of people who might actually be good at it, and as a result academics rarely get to experience good management directly. Second, management is something that is much easier to recognise as a real and important skill if you have seen some good examples of it than if you have only seen bad or indifferent examples. (I think of it as a bit like my experience with dental work; the first time I had work done with a good anaesthetic it was something I couldn’t possibly have imagined before).

Brighouse then links to this article by Aaron Schwarz which makes the case that management is a job. The article, as Eszther Hargittai argues in the Crooked Timber discussion, in some ways posits an ideal model of management that is not easily applicable to academia. But while it may translate neither directly nor fully into academic institutions, I think the list is useful for being precise about what is so good or bad about the management that you have to work with.

John Quiggin weighs in, focusing not on what the skill of management consists of (the aim of Schwarz’s post), but instead on whether people recruited for Management are likely or unlikely to possess management skills. He says:

There is a skill of management, but:
(1) It’s not much related to what’s taught in MBA courses and similar
(2) It’s not much selected for as people rise in organizational hierarchies
(3) It’s not necessarily transferrable from one environment to another


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