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(June 13, 2002, Gazette)

Friday, May 31, 10 a.m.
Oration honouring Dr. Henry Mintzberg

Let us begin with the word, paradox – not the safest word in the English language to use in this august assembly of engineering and business students because it tells of the existence of ambiguity, contradiction, and chance. Our graduates, today, have been taught the importance of precision not ambiguity, consistency not contradiction, and planning not happenstance.

And, Mr. Chancellor, we are glad of that, because we do not want our bridges to fall down, our ships to sink, or our businesses to go bankrupt. Yet we ignore paradoxes at our peril, for they express propositions that are only seemingly absurd; when you think about them, they express fundamental truths about reality.

Today, we honour Henry Mintzberg, Officer of the Order of Canada, recipient of nine honorary degrees – and the best is yet to come – Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, one of the world’s most provocative and influential management gurus, media darling of Wall Street Journal and The Financial Post, author, at last count, of 10 books and of countless articles, interviews and several short stories. Henry Mintzberg recognizes the existence of ambiguity and he, himself, is a series of paradoxes: His ideas were once so radical that he was considered the enfant terrible of the academic world of management studies, but now he has star-billing at international conferences. He has even been dubbed the Mick Jagger of the management world. For both Mick and Mintzberg are pursued by adoring fans, but the similarities end there. Mick's passion, among other things, is soccer; Mintzberg's is the solitude of the Canadian wilderness. This man who spends half his life in the public arena spends the other half escaping from people.

Mr. Chancellor, these “pretty paradoxes” continue: Mintzberg is the high-priest of management studies, but advocates demolishing the cult of management, claiming that “society becomes more unmanageable as a result of professional management.” The inspiration for business academics and company CEOs, this man is photographed under the Latin tag illigitimus non carborundum, a loose translation of which, in polite society, means “Don’t let the buzzards get you down.” This leading academic states that business leaders cannot be made in the classroom, yet his books are studied in business schools all over the world. This is the man who in the middle of a slick, high-tech, multimedia, powerpoint presentation will, like a Miro manqué or Dali gone mad, scribble surreal, hand-drawings of a company’s structure. This archetypal advocate of planning cannot stick to a grocery list, going into Costco to buy coffee and coming out with a bag of crab legs and a set of roller-blades. This is the man who understands how we strive for profit but also knows that we need the philosopher Pascal’s wisdom. For, Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît poins. (The heart has its reasons that reason never knows.)

Mr. Chancellor, you will be glad to know that Henry Mintzberg is the new order of Canadian academic, defining the boundaries of his discipline, and also crossing the boundaries. He is the new “compleat” man, holding degrees in Mechanical Engineering and in General Arts, writing a ground-breaking doctoral thesis in management studies at MIT and simultaneously studying political science.

So it should come as no surprise that this advocate of creative, open-ended management loves to play with alliteration, puns, and paradox; uses metaphors from music, sculpture and the cosmos that take us to levels of knowledge within and beyond reality, demolishes the buzz words and clichés favoured by conventional thinkers, stating that the phrase “strategic planning” is an oxymoron, that only children need “empowerment” and that “rationalization” is similar to medieval blood-letting. Fully aware of the treacherous terrain in the corporate world, he offers himself as a tour guide through the wilds of the corporate jungle in his book, Strategic Safari, and prefaces it with a quotation from that other classic on how to prepare for the unexpected, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh. In his weighty tome, The Structuring of Organizations, a standard text in The Theory of Management Policy Series, Mintzberg states apologetically that the book is only one view of reality, it may contain 175,000 words laid end to end in a single, linear sequence, but the “world is not linear, especially the world of organizational structure, that the world intermingles all kinds of complex flows – parallel, circular, reciprocal,” In this he echoes the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who also saw the grandeur in “All things counter, original, spare, strange.”

Mr. Chancellor, Henry Mintzberg’s original perceptions go beyond the cleverness of his titles and the allusiveness of his writing. And that is why we honour him. On the one hand, he is the consummate academic, a leader in his chosen field of study and on the other he has not lost sight of his humanity, of the reality and the value of the random and the inconsistent in human institutions. This writer of texts about strategic planning, has also told us that fancy strategies don’t come up with solutions, people do, if given the opportunity, encouragement and credit. He tells us all to think about the work we do, not mindlessly follow techniques and procedures; That the most “dangerous” person in a company is the person who is parachuted in to come up with a great strategy. That there should be more dialogue, less computer-generated data, more networking less number-crunching. That managers should know how to write haikus about falling cherry blossom in the city, as well as reports on civic maintenance. He agrees with that master of paradox, Oscar Wilde, who warns us about creating societies that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Mr. Chancellor, Henry Mintzberg is a passionate Canadian, one of our most original thinkers since Frye and McLuhan. He has put the ethical back into the material and mathematical equations in management. Unequivocally he tells us, “As members of the world community, Canadians are committed to the continued use of our influence and resources in support of the very values that we specify here for ourselves: the freedom and dignity of the individual, respect for cultural plurality, responsiveness of institutions, balanced prosperity, and peace and stable order.”

Like today’s graduates he wants to make a difference. He has always taken “the road less traveled by”; he has always been wary of “what was too popular or widely believed,” always more a maverick than a company man. He has even been described as a gadfly, stinging large organizations out of their complacency.

Mr. Chancellor, the great philosopher, Socrates, was also called a gadfly and was famous for his radical thinking, but he suffered a terrible fate at the hands of his society; he was made to drink a chalice filled with poison. We know better. We have given this gadfly, who managed to provoke change without acrimony, a robe of silk, and will give him a free lunch, once he is admitted to our privileged community. Therefore, I ask you Mr. Chancellor, to award the degree of doctor of letters, (honoris causa) to Henry Mintzberg who prefers “open fields to closed cages,” the planner who says “you can’t predict the future, so the best thing is to create it.”

Annette Staveley
Deputy Public Orator