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Henry Mintzberg. Photo by Owen Egan

Henry Mintzberg, an award-winning academic, contrarian thinker and Order of Canada recipient, is not afraid of big ideas.

Described as “the rebel of management theory” by Forbes magazine in 2019, Mintzberg is a tart critic of business schools that teach graduate management education as if it were a science like engineering and medicine. Instead, the management studies professor at McGill

University’s Desautels Faculty of Management believes managers become successful leaders through practice and experience. As faculty director for McGill’s International Masters for Health Leadership, Mintzberg leads a program to equip global healthcare professionals with tools to become thoughtful leaders, not number-crunching technocrats.

Now Mintzberg is tackling a very big idea – a global power imbalance he sees as tipped in favour of the private sector at the expense of democracy, civil society and meaningful action on the climate crisis.

In January, with nine like-minded allies, he published a “Declaration of Our Interdependence” to mobilize a global movement to “restore balance in a lopsided world.” Since its release, more than 800 people have signed the declaration inspired by the 16th-century Reformation movement and the American Declaration of Independence.

“The Reformation was about the corruption of the Pope and the corruption of the higher authorities, and [reform] did not start at the top,” says Mintzberg, whose 2015 Rebalancing Society helped lay the foundation for the “interdependence” declaration.

“We are making the case that the problems we face, whether climate change or income disparity and so much else, have a common cause: an imbalance across the sectors of society,” he says.

The declaration’s opening lines make clear the urgency for action: “Now our world has reached the limits of growth driven by the pursuit of individual rights at the expense of shared responsibilities. Faced with the threats of warming, weapons and waste, and the lopsided distribution of wealth, we must declare our interdependence.”

The global coronavirus pandemic illustrates, for good and ill, what is at stake, he says. “Countries seem to be reacting in two ways. One [group] functions in balance, where the sectors cooperate, with governments serving the role of protection, businesses serving the role of supply, and communities serving the role of galvanizing the population. On the other side are those countries where the governments have been starved for funds, businesses are inclined to profiteer, and people are inclined to ignore requests to self-isolate.”
Mintzberg has been thinking about the politics of imbalance for decades.

In 1991, he was in Prague to witness the fall of Communism, where Soviet-dominated states crumbled after centralizing power at the expense of local communities and the private sector.

Today, he argues that Western democracies are similarly out of balance, but for a different reason: too much power held by private interests at the expense of vibrant communities and a well-functioning public sector.

The declaration, says Mintzberg, is a bottom-up “call to action, not to arms” to promote collaboration among private, public and community interests for society’s benefit. His quarrel is not with capitalism “in its place,” he emphasizes, but with “capitalism out of its place and controlling government.”

Along with its lofty goals, the declaration lays out suggestions for “next steps” by individuals, communities, governments and the private sector to reframe beliefs, reverse wrongs and renew rights. For example, individuals should call out socially irresponsible practices by companies. Speak up instead of remaining silent, says Mintzberg.

Those unaffiliated with the declaration praise its lofty ambitions.

“[It] is wishful, hopeful and necessary,” writes retired Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki in an email. “At a time when polarization, marginalization and ‘other-ing’ seems rampant, it is important to promote a counter vision. Our environment, economy and politics urgently need to be recalibrated with a message of local, national and global interdependence and equity.”
Mintzberg has no illusions about the effort to recalibrate the status quo.

But it takes only one spark to start a flame, he argues, citing examples from history. In the 16th century, he says, Martin Luther challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church, setting off the Protestant Reformation, while 1960s-era black activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger, igniting a national boycott against racial segregation of public services.

Over the next few months, Mintzberg hopes to recruit social influencers – columnists and opinion leaders – and mobilize those now on the sidelines to recognize what’s at stake for them, their children and grandchildren.

“My [concern] about rebalancing society is about decades of regress,” he says. “The issue now is whether we have reached an inflection point [for action].”

 

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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