Covert Leadership: Notes on Managing Professionals
The orchestra conductor is a popular metaphor for managers today–up there on the podium in complete control. But that image may be misleading, says McGill University and INSEAD Professor Henry Mintzberg, who recently spent a day with Bramwell Tovey, conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, in order to explore the metaphor. He found that Tovey does not operate like an absolute ruler but practices instead what Mintzberg calls covert leadership. Covert leadership means managing with a sense of nuances, constraints, and limitations. When a manager like Tovey guides an organization, he leads without seeming to, without his people being fully aware of all that he is doing. That’s because in this world of professionals, a leader is not completely powerless–but neither does he have absolute control over others. As knowledge work grows in importance, the way an orchestra conductor really operates may serve as a good model for managers in a wide range of businesses. For example, Mintzberg found that Tovey does a lot more hands-on work than one might expect. More like a first-line supervisor than a hands-off executive, he takes direct and personal charge of what is getting done. In dealing with his musicians, his focus is on inspiring them, not empowering them. Like other professionals, the musicians don’t need to be empowered–they’re already secure in what they know and can do–but they do need to be infused with energy for the tasks at hand. This is the role of the covert leader: to act quietly and unobtrusively in order to exact not obedience but inspired performance.
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