The Manager as Mystic

You’re in your favorite bookstore, scanning the new titles in the business section, looking for something that will help you make sense of the turmoil of competition.

Wrong section! Wrong decade!

For the most important management book for the 1990s, try fiction from the 1940s: Hermann Hesse’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Glass Bead Game. It combines leader-as-servant, pragmatic mysticism, creative destruction – in other words, all the business issues of the decade! Plus it’s a great read.

The glass bead game itself is a model of innovation, improvisation, and creative synthesis, played within a set of strict rules and regulations. To play the game at the highest levels requires a different, deeper intelligence – intuition and, as Hesse puts it, a “capacity for universality rising above all the disciplines.” Mere technicians, those who are content to move pieces on a board, will never rise to the level of the master.

Hesse’s protagonist, Joseph Knecht, is the Magister Ludi, the master of the glass bead game, and a model for the manager in the 1990s. He is a new breed of pragmatic intellectual mystic, the kind of leader who would be able to integrate chaos theory as a predictive tool, appreciate digital convergence as a technological force, and listen to the music of the spheres for inspiration.

But like a true master of the game, Knecht can see beyond the walls of his organization. While the other members of the institution have grown complacent and inward looking, Knecht smells danger. His only response can be to rush to put out the fire. In the end, says Hesse, the job of the leader is an urgent one – to transcend! Paul Saffo is a research fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, CA.