Friday, January 11, 2013

Leaders to Managers Revisited

One of Hugh Nibley’s most controversial articles was the commencement address he gave at Brigham Young University in August 1983 entitled “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift.”[1] It was so controversial that when an abridged version of this address was published in BYU’s alumni magazine, one of the editors was sacked.

In this address, Nibley makes a number of observations about the differences between leaders and managers:
Leaders are movers and shakers, original, inventive, unpredictable, imaginative, full of surprises that discomfit the enemy in war and the main office in peace. For the managers are safe, conservative, predictable, conforming organization men and team players, dedicated to the establishment.[2]

In war 
we think of great generals from David and Alexander on down, sharing their beans or matzah with their men, calling them by their first names, marching along with them in the heat, sleeping on the ground, and being first over the wall.[3] 
The men who delighted their superiors, i.e. the managers, got the high commands, while the men who delighted the lower ranks, i.e. the leaders, got reprimands.[4]

‘If you love me,’ said the greatest of all leaders, ‘you will keep my commandments.’ ‘If you know what is good for you,’ says the manager, ‘you will keep my commandments and not make waves.’ That is why the rise of management always marks the decline, alas, of culture.”[5] 

(One wonders what Nibley might say to the massive increase in administration and bureaucracy in higher education since he gave his speech.)

Nibley draws a long comparison from the Book of Mormon between Moroni, the leader, and Amalickiah, whom Nibley depicts as a manager.[6] The comparison between the two sides makes a convenient rhetorical juxtaposition with clear good guys and bad guys on opposite sides of a war. But it is the least convincing portion of Nibley’s argument because the point seems stretched.

The more interesting comparison is between Moroni, the leader, and Pahoran, the manager. As Nibley observes of the general situation the manager, Pahoran, had the higher command, not the leader, Moroni. These two men were on the same side and a key interchange between them is preserved. Moroni was not in possession of all the facts (“we know not . . .” Alma 60:18), but neither was Pahoran (“I was somewhat worried concerning what we should do” Alma 61:19).

Moroni’s correspondence is clearly angry and moves almost immediately to an attack on Pahoran: “great has been your neglect towards us” (Alma 60:5). “Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor, while your enemies are spreading the work of death around you?” (Alma 60:7), and ends with a threat of mutiny: “I will come unto you speedily” (Alma 60:35). “I will stir up insurrection among you” (Alma 60:27). Moroni does this, in part because of a lack of information, and in part from the covenants he has made: “I, Moroni, am constrained, according to the covenant which I have made to keep the commandments of my God” (Alma 60:34).

This confrontation could have ended disastrously as the Nephites were in the midst of a war that was not going their way (Alma 59:5-8). If Pahoran had been a typical manager, he would have sacked Moroni immediately upon receipt of his mutinous letter. Instead, Pahoran musters his administrative skill to make amends: “Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul” (Alma 61:2). “In your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry” (Alma 61:9). Pahoran appeals to Moroni’s principles in his response (‘stand fast in the liberty with which God hath made us free’ seems to have been a patriotic slogan of the time; Mosiah 23:13; Alma 58:40; 61:21). Pahoran proposes a slightly altered strategy that unites Moroni and Pahoran against common enemies.

The end of the book of Alma shows that leaders and managers do not have to be on opposite sides of the conflict.  There does have to be humility, trust, forgiveness, and recognition of the real enemy. Only when the leader and the manager are willing to put aside their differences and work toward a common goal is there real success.

Unfortunately, most managers typically are not as humble or forgiving as Pahoran was. Then again, most are not in as dire predicaments as Pahoran was. Given the typical management response resembles that of Amalickiah, perhaps Nibley was right after all.

[1] Hugh Nibley, “Leaders to Managers: The Fatal Shift,” in Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, CWHN 13 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 491-508.
[2] Nibley, “Leaders to Managers,” 496.
[3] Nibley, “Leaders to Managers,” 496.
[4] Nibley, “Leaders to Managers,” 496.
[5] Nibley, “Leaders to Managers,” 497.
[6] Nibley, “Leaders to Managers,” 499-502.