Mundane organizations and heroic leaders. Prof. March on not taking oneself too seriously

Tonight I came across an odd little book that has been on my shelf for a few years. Its content goes back even further, to my years as a student in business school.

It is titled On Leadership and I want to quote from Appendix 2, “Mundane Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, by James G. March. More snippets from the book are highlighted here, but I want to give you a fuller sense of March’s reasoning, as well as his style.

[…] there are some special features of the managerial role and the career path to it that lead to systematic leadership biases. The most conspicuous of these is the tendency for organizational leaders to have an overly grand vision of leadership and management and an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Unlike most of us, they have plenty of casual evidence that they are important. The evidence may, however, be misleading.

As managers rise through an organization, managerial power is celebrated; the trappings of managerial importance are increased; but it becomes less clear that a leader’s action has major effects on organizational performance. […] The procedures and dramas of decision making are organized to emphasize the importance of management and managers, to reassure us of the significance of leaders. Information is gathered and reported to symbolize that decisions have been made properly. Meetings are held to symbolize that specific actions have been decided upon by persons in authority. Control procedures are introduced to symbolize that the system is controlled. Evaluations are used to symbolize that managers are monitoring the organization properly.

As a reasult of these rituals and ceremonies, it seems very likely that most organizational leaders exaggerate their control over their success. We know that individuals tend to exaggerate the importance of individual action in controlling human events and that this exaggeration is particularly common among people who have been successful. Successful people tend to imagine that the events of their lives are produced by their actions. Organizational leaders are systematically successful. The managers we see in an organization are typically people who have risen to their present position by being evaluated as successes in previous positions. Such successes encourage them to see their own histories as the consequences of their own actions and competences.

This powerful belief on the part of successful people, the idea that their successes are the product of their competences, qualities, and efforts, is not particularly supported by research on managerial success. Studies of success in organizations show that successful people in most organizations, as in most other walks of life, are distinguished particularly by having made two early decisions very well. The first decision is the choice of parents; people who choose successful parents are much more likely to be successful than those who are unwise enough to choose unsuccessful parents. The second early decision is the choice of gender: people who decide to be male are much more likely to be successful managers than are those who decide to be female. These two “decisions” do not, of course, account for everything; but they account for more than any other two things we know.

Once you leave such well-known attributes of organizational leaders, research on managerial success provides very few consistent results. Most measured attributes of leaders fail to predict success with any accuracy.

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