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Bully Pulpit

The debate over Harvard president Larry Summers’s inflammatory remarks about women’s ability in math and science continues to rage, now expanding beyond his attitude toward women to his generally abrasive management style.

The debate over Harvard president Larry Summers’s inflammatory remarks about women’s ability in math and science continues to rage, now expanding beyond his attitude toward women to his generally abrasive management style.

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Summers defends his often humiliating and debate-stifling treatment of underlings as just a way of engaging in debate. Only pansies, he thinks, aren’t tough enough to defend their ideas when under attack. This sort of Management by Devil’s Advocacy neglects one thing: the imbalance of power that always gives Summers the upper hand. I was reminded of Marshall Goldsmith’s recent column about coaching a company CEO whose fondness for rough-and-tumble debate was driving his employees nuts.

Summers’s defenders, however, applaud his willingness to take the heat if that’s what it takes to shake up a smug and self-satisfied organization. Indeed, Harvard’s Board of Governors knew Summers was, uh, prickly when they hired him.

Where’s the line between being provocative and being a bully? Can this type of management ever actually be good for an organization, or does it invariably lead to organizational dysfunction?

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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