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July 19, 2023

Managing Virtuously

By Mark Schwartz

This post has been excerpted from Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation by Mark Schwartz.

“Ask anyone to talk about a great manager they know, and, after some recognition of the individual’s technical skills, the discussion will almost always take place in the language of moral obligation: respect, consideration, fairness,” Matthew Stewart says in The Management Myth. Great management, in other words, is about demonstrating, applying, and inspiring employees with the virtues.

The challenge for digital managers is one of forgetting—forgetting bad things they’ve been taught about management, forgetting the levers of power they’ve been told to push and pull, and forgetting the clichés they learned from old TV shows of how bosses behave. In a bureaucratic organization, a manager’s authority comes from occupying a node in the org chart vested with certain authorities. In a digital organization, where managers often must influence people outside of their hierarchies and where employees are expected to own outcomes, authority comes from an ability to influence others.

It is definitely not gained through mastery of a management science as taught in business schools.

Traditional Management Skills

Gary Hamel, one of the writers frequently cited in MBA programs, has been quoted as saying “the machinery of management—which encompasses variance analysis, capital budgeting, project management, pay-for-performance, strategic planning, and the like—amounts to one of humanity’s greatest inventions.”

Hamel is mixing apples and yuzu fruits. Some of the “machinery of management”—a telling term—that he mentions is truly mechanical (variance analysis, capital budgeting, project management). Those are valuable skills, useful to some employees in some circumstances, but even if we add accounting, corporate law, and other parts of the curriculum, knowing them doesn’t justify any leader’s authority as a senior manager or executive. They are basics, like arithmetic and dressing to come to work. What he refers to as strategic planning, pay for performance, and “the like” are a different type of skill, and might justify placement in the higher boxes on the org chart—if, in fact, they were skills.

Brian Quinn of Dartmouth says, “A good deal of corporate planning . . .is like a ritual rain dance. It has no effect on the weather that follows, but those who engage in it think that it does.” If a “science” of leadership existed, abstracted from particular business contexts and applicable to any managerial role, it would have to offer techniques and frameworks that managers could use to achieve better business outcomes. To do that, it would need predictive power—if you do x, you will get y results. There is nothing in the study of management that justifies any such power; management research can only show techniques that seem to have worked in the past in particular cases.

Alasdair MacIntyre calls management theory a “moral fiction.”

I am suggesting that “managerial effectiveness” functions much as Carnap and Ayer supposed “God” to function. It is the name of a fictitious, but believed-in reality, appeal to which disguises certain other realities; its effective use is expressive. There are thus two parts to the manager’s claims to justified authority. One concerns the existence of a domain of morally neutral fact about which the manager is to be expert. The other concerns the law-like generalizations and their applications to particular cases derived from the study of this domain.

After Virtues: A Study in Moral Theory by Alasdair MacIntyre

The predictions of a science can be tested. Results are repeatable. Laws identified by one scientist can be confirmed by another. Managerial “science” is not like that at all: the result of applying a management technique is not predictable. Its “law-like generalizations” don’t generalize and aren’t lawlike—two companies are never in exactly the same situation. It resembles alchemy in its ability to offer excuses every time its predictions fail.

Popular “management guru” literature takes a small set of “successful” companies, extracts some qualities those companies share, and presents those qualities as a theory of good management. For example, in the book Good to Great, Jim Collins examines a group of companies that were plugging along for a while as good companies and suddenly accelerated to “greatness.” Among the qualities Collins finds these companies share is “level 5 leadership,” which he defines as “a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will.”

If I want to become a successful leader, how would I go about developing a paradoxical blend of humility and professional will? Would it really make me a great leader? What does it even mean? Would a “paradoxical blend of pasta jokes and Frankenstein references” make me a level 6 leader, even more successful than Collins’s CEOs?

Valuing “success” is a way of denying the impact of uncertainty. We don’t know whether the CEOs held up as role models made good decisions under uncertainty, only that their decisions led to success, by some definition of success, as many bad ones do. In our struggle to deny the impact of complex and uncertain circumstances, we attribute genius to CEOs who were successful—a kind of survivorship bias. We don’t know if other CEOs made similar choices but were less successful, we don’t know whether the CEO’s choices were rational, and we don’t know whether they could have been even more successful if they had acted differently. We’d love to find a simple formula like “have a paradoxical blend of caffeine and donuts” for transmuting bits and brawn into business success so we don’t have to make difficult decisions. But the formula doesn’t exist.


Managers are not value-neutral professionals who apply the techniques of management science within a bureaucratic machine to deliver efficient outcomes. The organizational distinction between people with brains and people with muscles is not a logical principle, just a historical outcome. Stewart says, “The corporate hierarchy that exists today is a work of customs, cultures, laws, and politics. It is the product of a historical process, not a logical one. Ultimately, it exists for many of the same reasons that warrior aristocracies existed in the ancient world.”

The characteristics of a good manager include the ability to understand and motivate people, to think critically and creatively, to handle surprises and change; and qualities like curiosity, openness to learning, integrity, trustworthiness—significantly, these are things one is more likely to learn in a liberal arts program than an MBA program. The goal of an ethical leader is not to master a science of ethical management, but to become a good person; to master the virtues that help one lead people. Business schools teach skills: finance, accounting, “strategy.” Morality, however, is not a skill. 

As Stewart says:

Tips on organizational politics are all there in Machiavelli’s descriptions of Roman and Florentine politics, not to mention Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War or William Faulkner on the American South. There is probably more to learn from studying the defects of King Lear’s “management style” than there is from reading articles about Michael Eisner’s shortcomings as CEO of Disney.

The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy by Matthew Stewart

Management is not a general-purpose discipline focused on abstract ways of achieving efficient, but effective behavior in concrete circumstances. It is about what a manager says in the ten o’clock meeting and what their body language conveys; more about managing particular human beings with their quirks than about managing human resources with Taylor’s or Mayo’s techniques.

The article “Hierarchies and Dignity” suggests that a good leader is something like the conductor of an orchestra, who creates a possibility for the individual musicians that they would not otherwise have; that is, coming together in a successful performance. An orchestra conductor succeeds when there are lots of different instruments in the orchestra; it is the interplay of the textures of different instruments that make for the magic of orchestral music. A manager’s role is to bring out those differences in texture, yet harmonize them. 

The Virtues and Transformation

The bureaucratic framing of ethics—rules, duties, and algorithms—I’ve argued, is not helpful to leaders of digital transformation. Instead, I’ve called upon virtue ethics and social contracts as the best way to think of ethics in a time of rapid change and complexity. In my previous post, excerpted from my book Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation, I presented what I consider the important virtues of the digital workplace. You’ll notice that, in contrast to the stern prohibitions of deontology, these virtues are positive. A workplace where people exhibit these virtues is a place we’d want to work—and a place that can better accomplish the goals of the business. A proper view of ethics is what enables the transformation of an organization.

Read more in Adaptive Ethics for Digital Transformation by Mark Schwartz. Coming July 25, 2023.

- About The Authors
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Mark Schwartz

Mark Schwartz is an iconoclastic CIO and a playful crafter of ideas, an inveterate purveyor of lucubratory prose. He has been an IT leader in organizations small and large, public, private, and nonprofit. As an Enterprise Strategist for Amazon Web Services, he uses his CIO experience to bring strategies to enterprises or enterprises to strategies, and bring both to the cloud. As the CIO of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, he provoked the federal government into adopting Agile and DevOps practices. He is pretty sure that when he was the CIO of Intrax Cultural Exchange he was the first person ever to use business intelligence and supply chain analytics to place au pairs with the right host families. Mark speaks frequently on innovation, bureaucratic implications of DevOps, and using Agile processes in low-trust environments. With a BS in computer science from Yale, a master’s in philosophy from Yale, and an MBA from Wharton, Mark is either an expert on the business value of IT or else he just thinks about it a lot.

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