The management myth

Mathew Stewart’s lengthy piece in The Atlantic is summarized as follows: “Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to succeed in business, don’t get an M.B.A. Study philosophy instead” The article defends this claim with a detailed history of management theory, arguing that it’s central (and false) claim is that it is infallible. As any philosopher can tell you, nothing human is infallible.

Stewart writes:

“The tragedy, for those who value their reading time, is that Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better. In the 5,200 years since the Sumerians first etched their pictograms on clay tablets, come to think of it, human beings have produced an astonishing wealth of creative expression on the topics of reason, passion, and living with other people. In books, poems, plays, music, works of art, and plain old graffiti, they have explored what it means to struggle against adversity, to apply their extraordinary faculty of reason to the world, and to confront the naked truth about what motivates their fellow human animals. These works are every bit as relevant to the dilemmas faced by managers in their quest to make the world a more productive place as any of the management literature.”

He explains that his years of success as a consultant came not from an M.B.A., but from the skills he developed as a philosopher. Stewart has a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century German philosophy, a specialization that one would think would be useless in the business world, if you believe the poorly informed skeptics, that is.

In fact, Stewart was incredibly successful precisely because he realized that management theory was itself philosophy. As he explains:

“The recognition that management theory is a sadly neglected subdiscipline of philosophy began with an experience of déjà vu. As I plowed through my shelfload of bad management books, I beheld a discipline that consists mainly of unverifiable propositions and cryptic anecdotes, is rarely if ever held accountable, and produces an inordinate number of catastrophically bad writers. It was all too familiar. There are, however, at least two crucial differences between philosophers and their wayward cousins. The first and most important is that philosophers are much better at knowing what they don’t know. The second is money. In a sense, management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.”

This article is longer than the ones we usually recommend on PIAGM, but it is most certainly worth reading. Click to read the full text at The Atlantic.

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