‘You Can’t Create a Leader in a Classroom.’

Professor Henry Mintzberg is one of the world’s most influential teachers of business strategy. Now he’s developing a new lesson plan: to change the very essence of business education itself.


Henry Mintzberg, 61
Professor of management
McGill University
Montreal, Canada


Attending the annual meeting of the Academy of Management with Henry Mintzberg is the business-world equivalent of attending the MTV Video Music Awards with Mick Jagger. The Academy is the world’s largest association devoted to the study of management, and its annual meeting is a marketplace for aspiring professors looking to land their first job. At the presidential luncheon, where Mintzberg is to receive an award, he can scarcely manage a forkful of pasta with cream sauce without being tapped on the shoulder again and again by starry-eyed fans. “I just had to meet you,” gushes one such follower. “I can’t wait to tell my colleagues!” When Mintzberg bounds to the stage to claim his award, applause courses through the cavernous ballroom of the Toronto Sheraton Centre. As the luncheon ends, he is mobbed by well-wishers and colleagues. Posing awkwardly for a photograph with a professor from the Netherlands, Mintzberg looks both gratified yet a bit irritated by the fuss.

His fans are enthusiastic for a reason. With 10 books and more than 100 published articles to his credit — and with a faculty position at McGill University, in Montreal, as well as at INSEAD, the high-profile business school outside Paris — Mintzberg, 61, is a dominant figure in the field of management and strategy. For some 30 years, he’s been contributing pathbreaking ideas and trailblazing analyses, all rooted in the real work of companies and their executives, to a discipline that often feels stuck in the abstract and the theoretical. And although many of his ideas were considered radical (some would say downright heretical) when he introduced them, Mintzberg is “hot” again: More and more companies are realizing that there’s an enormous difference between a CEO with keen financial instincts and a great leader. Mintzberg has shown that management itself is as much a Jackson Pollock painting as it is a quantifiable science. “There’s a reason I’m getting this award in 2000 instead of in 1990,” Mintzberg says, flashing an ironic smile.

It would be easy for Mintzberg to bask in the overdue glory, to become yet another past-his-prime academic celebrity who recycles old ideas into new books and gets paid ridiculous sums of money to regale corporate bigwigs at off-sites. But that’s never been Mintzberg’s style. Indeed, these days, Mintzberg is in hot pursuit of a personal goal that he wrote down on a scrap of paper almost two years ago and then locked away in a vault at a bank in Montreal. He plans to open the vault someday to see if he will have delivered on the goal. One of the things that he wrote: “Change management education.”

It sounds like a strange ambition, given that management education in general, and the MBA in particular, has never been more popular. Top business schools are overflowing with applications; companies famous for their mutual love affair with MBAs (Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Co. immediately come to mind) now scramble to compete for the affections of the top graduates from the best schools. If it ain’t broke, one can’t help but wonder, why fix it?

Pose that question to Mintzberg, and you’ll get an earful as he explains, calmly but firmly, that management education is terribly broke. “The MBA is a fabulous design for learning about business,” he says. “But if you’re trying to train managers, it’s dead wrong. The MBA trains the wrong people in the wrong ways for the wrong reasons.”


Mintzberg concedes that the U.S. style of management education is in demand around the world — but mainly, he says, for the big bucks that such a degree confers upon its holder. “Right now, we are creating a kind of neo-aristocracy,” he complains, “a ‘business class’ that believes it has the right to lead because it spent a couple of years in a classroom.” But if you really want to learn how to be a manager, he says, you need to be in an environment with, well, other managers. “This is supposed to be about leadership,” he says. “You can’t create a leader in a classroom.”

Mintzberg has other questions. How can aspiring managers expect to learn from business-school case studies — which are obsolete on the day they are printed and which give the professor too much control over classroom discussion? What does it mean to learn to think globally? It’s not enough, Mintzberg insists, to teach American-style ideas to a class with a smattering of students from outside the United States. To become a global-minded manager, you have to learn how people from other countries and other cultures think and act in various situations. And how many companies really value the idea of management education itself — as opposed to the credential? “I ask a lot of managerial groups, ‘What happened on the day you became a manager?’ ” says Mintzberg. “And the answer, almost inevitably, is ‘Nothing.’ It’s like sex. You’re supposed to figure it out.”

Lots of professors are good at raising provocative questions. What distinguishes Mintzberg is that he is devising answers. Along with a colleague, Jonathan Gosling of Lancaster University Management School, in the United Kingdom, Mintzberg has created an educational experience that is in many ways the anti-MBA. The program, an International Masters in Practicing Management (IMPM) , is now in its fifth cycle. Nearly 180 participants have gone through the program, and, according to those participants and their sponsoring executives, it has had an indelible impact on their personal and professional lives. “It changes people more than any other program I’ve seen — ever,” says Frank McAuley, 44, a Kellogg MBA and vice president for leadership effectiveness at the Royal Bank of Canada, which has sent 16 people through the program. “It brings them to a different place.”

Learning to Learn

Henry Mintzberg’s entire career has focused on understanding how managers make decisions and how they develop strategy. After studying mechanical engineering at McGill, he went to work in operations research at Canadian National Railways. Then he went to MIT to study management and decided to switch tracks, so to speak, because he was more interested in how people worked than in how things operated.

In his first book, The Nature of Managerial Work (Harper and Row, 1973) , Mintzberg explored his topic by watching what managers actually did in their offices, rather than, as most academics do, by inventing theories and then trying to back them up. What he found demolished the assumption that managers were organized and confident planners. His research demonstrated that real bosses spent more time responding quickly to crises than they spent doing anything else — a lesson that many new-economy chieftains think they’re discovering only today. Although the book was rejected by 15 publishers before it reached bookstore shelves, it became a huge success — and Mintzberg’s career as an influential author was on its way.


Although Mintzberg had been railing against management education for years, what had been theory became practice in 1993, as he was considering a new MBA program at McGill. He heard about a more practical model that Gosling had been using at Lancaster with British Airways executives. He first tried, and failed, to create a joint program along the Lancaster lines with INSEAD. Then he approached Gosling himself. Working together, the two decided to create something completely different: a program that focused on teaching real executives how to deal with real problems, the kind that don’t fit neatly into case studies. The duo toyed with calling the program the “Alternative MBA,” and then with calling it the “Real MBA.”

“That wouldn’t distinguish it,” says Gosling, “so we had the notion of ‘Real-Alternative MBA,’ which would have the acronym RAMBA, a sort of feminine Rambo. We liked that, but there was no way that the management school at Lancaster was going to allow us to launch something called ‘RAMBA’ while it was still trying to sell the MBA.” Once it was dubbed the ‘IMPM,’ Mintzberg and Gosling decided to make the program more global by adding INSEAD, the Indian Institute of Management and Japanese faculty from several schools, including Hitotsubashi University. The first cycle began in spring 1996.

So what makes the IMPM different — and more worthwhile — for managers? Start with this: There is no home campus for the program, which consists of two-week modules spread over 16 months and five countries: Canada, France, India, Japan, and the UK. After each module, when students have returned to work, they must write a reflection paper describing how what they learned relates to their job. They meet regularly with a tutor in their area and work on “ventures,” which are program-long projects to create real change in their own work environment. There are five modules: Managing Self, the reflective mind-set; Managing Relationships, the collaborative mind-set; Managing Organizations, the analytic mind-set; Managing Context, the worldly mind-set; and Managing Change, the action mind-set. Each module is presented by one of the five partner universities. Students travel to each campus for one module and spend the time immersed in the home culture of the country, making company visits (called “field studies”) and learning from colleagues, some of whom are now in their home country. “It has been absolutely a life-changing experience,” says Jane K. McCroary, 45, project manager for the online travel portal at Deutche Lufthansa AG and a member of the first graduating class. “Somehow IMPM learning was implicit in the stomach, in the gut. You learned not explicit things but things that improved judgment and performance.”

In the IMPM, all students must be practicing managers and all must be sponsored by their companies, which include Alcan Aluminum Ltd., AstraZeneca PLC, Deutche Lufthansa, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Matsushita Communication Industrial Co. Ltd., Motorola, and the Royal Bank of Canada. Students stay in their jobs, so that classroom activity can be connected to ongoing work experiences. The IMPM also encourages people who already work in groups, whether those groups are in-person or virtual, to attend the program together. This is both a support network and a better way of ensuring that new ideas will become reality when the participants return to the work world.

Another critical distinction is the concept of reflection — quite a switch from traditional executive education, which uses a lot of “action” learning or case studies. “The last thing managers need from us is boot camp — intense, high-pressure classroom activity,” says Mintzberg. “They live boot camp every day! What they need is to step back from the pressures and to reflect on their experiences.” Because Mintzberg rejects the notion of silos, most of the business functions are covered either in the analytic module or in “close learning” (otherwise known as “distance learning”) between modules. This doesn’t mean that you have to hug a tree or dance at a powwow at every session of the IMPM — though you will sometimes find yourself in drama workshops or yoga classes. What it does mean is that you must learn to ask the right questions, to reflect, and to avoid the traditional manager’s trap of reacting to one crisis after another. “Management is, above all, a practice, where art, science, and craft meet,” says Mintzberg.


It is that type of interaction that seems to have the most impact. When McCroary was in Japan for the collaborative module, she was walking with another student, an engineer from Matsushita, amid cherry blossoms falling from trees onto a driveway. “He explained to me that a lot of Japanese haiku is written about exactly this event, and I admitted that I had been thinking ‘What a messy tree.’ The combined effect was so powerful that when I got home, I made it a point to select people who were different from me in a project.”

A recent innovation at the IMPM is the 50-50 rule. Unlike the traditional lecture or case format, where a professor is the only expert in the room, IMPM sessions allow students to spend half of the time in conversation with other students. The discussions often veer off on tangents — but that’s the point, says Mintzberg: The executives must decide for themselves what’s relevant. “Our program doesn’t take more work,” he says. “It almost takes less work. But you have to have a lot of depth and understanding and then react to the class.” The Royal Bank of Canada’s McAuley sat in on a session in Bangalore the day after the IMPM participants had visited several Indian companies. The next morning, like every morning, began with a session called “reflections.” “That was the most fascinating conversation in an academic setting that I had ever seen,” McAuley says. “We zoomed around the room discussing everything from political to economic issues, and then got into ethics and business.”

The IMPM’s managerial exchange takes the 50-50 rule to its logical extreme. Between two modules, participants spend a week at a partner’s office and then present a paper detailing their observations. That was the highlight of the program for Jeff Guthrie, 42, a 24-year veteran of the Royal Bank of Canada. He accompanied his partner, Helga, an Icelandic native and a team leader for West Africa for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to a refugee camp in Sierra Leone — her “office.” Apart from the shock that he felt from seeing firsthand the extent of the human suffering there, Guthrie learned a real management lesson. “It was typical, if we had a problem, for our solution to be ‘give me, give me, give me the resources that I need to solve this,’ ” he says. “What the Red Cross taught me was that people said, ‘How can I solve the problem with what I have?’ “

“Move Society — Have Some Impact”

The IMPM’s spirit of informality and on-the-fly innovation come straight out of Mintzberg’s worldview. He seems to find inspiration in any kind of conversation or event, such as the Montreal jubilation gospel choir that he saw last Christmas. “It was the best thing I’d ever seen on a stage in my entire life,” he says. “Not that it was the most polished performance; it was just unbelievable energy. I watched that and said the role of a manager is to bring out the energy that’s inherent in people.”


Mintzberg takes that same open-mindedness to his research on strategy. “I often think that if we got rid of the word ‘strategy,’ we’d be better off. Not because strategy is bad, but because we formalize it. Strategic planning is an oxymoron. The idea that it is immaculately conceived, like Moses walking down from the mountain, is silly.”

Now that the IMPM is established, Mintzberg is moving on. He has stepped down as the program’s chairman (Gosling will take over his role) , but he’s hardly abandoning the cause. Instead, he’s trying to “diffuse” the concept to other sectors. He’s writing a book called Developing Managers, Not MBAs, about management and about the theory and practice of the IMPM. Already there is an IMPM for Canadians in the volunteer sector, and plans for a health-care IMPM are under way. And the day after the awards luncheon in Toronto, Mintzberg and his team met with executive-development heads from nine companies to sell them on Mintzberg’s latest concept — ALP, the Advanced Leadership Program. It’s an IMPM for very senior managers. If all that isn’t enough, there’s the rest of civilization to think about. Also written on Mintzberg’s locked-up sheet of paper are the words “Move society — have some impact.” So Mintzberg is stretching beyond management with a new book, tentatively titled Getting Past Smith and Marx: Toward a Balanced Society. He thinks the structure of current political and social dialogue has been corrupted by the twin tyrannies of shareholder value and rampant consumerism.

The success of the IMPM suggests that after years of MBA bashing from the Canadian wilderness, the world may finally be moving toward Mintzberg’s point of view. Traditional MBA programs are now trying to bring out the more emotional, thoughtful side of management. Companies everywhere, desperate for more effective leadership, are working with their executives to develop more robust approaches to managing, rather than simply sending them off to cookie-cutter executive-education programs. “It was extraordinary at the Academy of Management this year to hear so many people saying the same thing as Henry’s been saying for years,” notes Gosling.

And yet, while that’s happy news for Mintzberg, it’s obvious that part of him relishes the role of the renegade, the naysayer, the lonely voice on the fringe. “I’ve always been a cynic about things that are too popular and too widely believed,” he frets, peering intently over round, metal-framed glasses. Indeed, Mintzberg says that he does his most creative thinking when he’s involved in some type of solitary physical activity, whether it be canoeing, cross-country skiing, or bicycling. Back in 1987, when he was finishing an eight-day bike trip from Paris to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, he was loaded down with gear and luggage. As he approached the Champs-Elysées, Mintzberg saw a phalanx of police officers guarding a bizarrely empty avenue. He asked what was going on, but no one responded, so Mintzberg slipped past a barrier for a bit of experiential learning. He rode alone down the long, wide avenue until he was spotted by a slack-jawed policeman at the end of the street.

It turned out that the Canadian professor had nearly managed to become the first cyclist to ride along the Champs-Elysées as the Tour de France came to a close. It’s not a bad metaphor for his career: one of the most original minds in management, charting his own course, being chased by others, who are pedaling furiously and who get to the same spot as Mintzberg — only much later.


Jennifer Reingold ( is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Henry Mintzberg by email ( , or visit the IMPM on the Web ( .

Sidebar: What’s Fast

How do you get stressed-out executives to turn off their cell-phones, close their day planners, and open their minds to learning? It’s a question that both fascinates and torments Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, visiting scholar at INSEAD, and cocreator of the International Masters in Practicing Management. Here are some of his basic beliefs.

Real executives only, please. The concept of teaching management to twentysomethings who are just a few years out of college makes no sense to Mintzberg. Only by having been in the trenches can you relate personally to what’s being taught. You must be sponsored by your company and should continue to work while you’re in the program. Only if you have experiences of your own to share can you contribute to class discussions.

Your colleagues are also your teachers. The IMPM uses what’s called the “50-50 rule,” which means that for every hour the professor speaks, students get an hour to discuss issues that are relevant to them. That allows the lessons of the classroom to flow immediately into the real-life experiences of the students. And because IMPM students sit in groups around tables, rather than in the standard U-shaped classroom (which Mintzberg believes deifies the professor) , it’s easier for lessons to flow.

Smash the silos. Most MBA programs still teach through the prism of specific subjects such as finance or marketing. But that’s no way to learn, according to Mintzberg. “The MBA is fine for training,” he says. “But the concept of teaching specific skills in finance or in marketing does not help with the real-life decisions that people make in the business world each and every day.” The IMPM, in contrast, uses holistic mind-sets such as “reflective” and “analytic” to connect the dots. And since many of the IMPM students are now in general-management roles, that’s where they should stay. Says Mintzberg: “Why would you want to push them back into the silos?”


Be ready to abandon the script. In the IMPM, each module is redesigned at the end of the preceding one to bring in some of the most current problems and issues faced by the students. If everyone is struggling with e-commerce, for example, the program is flexible enough to spend extra time in that area and to eliminate a workshop that is less than enthralling to the students. While there is always a blueprint, it is up to the students to make their education relate to their jobs, and the IMPM professors adjust where necessary.