Book Review: Management Mysterium by Bob Emiliani

Once upon a time, I took a meditation class. I have since lapsed in my practice—but I still remember distinctly some of the teachings that the instructor shared. The one that really stuck with me was this: “there are only three things that are certain in life: time will pass, you will get sick, and you will die.” That one hurt. I thought, really, is that it? Could that be so depressingly, dismally true? But, as I thought about it a bit more, I eventually accepted it—although only after having passed through something like the Kubler-Ross phases of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. I found the process of acknowledging this basic truth— which is, objectively speaking, a very banal, factual statement—to be psychologically difficult. Reality, I discovered, can be pretty hard to take.

Business leaders, argues Professor Bob Emiliani in his new book Management Mysterium: The Quest for Progress (Cubic LLC: 2020), also find reality pretty hard to take. When confronted with unpleasant facts that do not fit easily into their existing belief system, they instinctively avoid examining these facts, and instead resort to comforting falsehoods. They resort to supernatural explanations that have no rational validity, but which instead are simply taken on faith to be true. These mystical explanations can be damaging to health of their business and the mental health of their employees, but nonetheless persist because such faith, shared and sanctified by all of their peers, protects their honor, privilege and status.

Mysterium is the third installment Emiliani has written in his quest to answer the question of why leaders resist or reject Lean Management. While previously he used the various lenses of history, sociology, economics, politics, philosophy and aesthetics to treat the subject, in Mysterium he uses the language of spirituality and religion to cast a harsh light on the same target: Classical Management. Classical Management is simply the mainstream and dominant ideology of business management today. It has existed, with very little fundamental modification, since the rise of big business itself and the advent of the joint-stock corporation in the mid to late 1800’s. Emiliani points out that Lean Management, Classical Management’s direct opposite, exists only as a fringe practice, at least in its pure and true form. Despite much empirical evidence that Lean is superior both in terms of business results and respect for employees, the mainstream business community has yet to be persuaded to adopt it. 

An engineer by professional training, Emiliani spent fifteen years working in industry before retreating to academia, where he’s been teaching and writing prolifically about Lean Management—the good, the bad, and the ugly of it– for the last 20 years. For his recent trilogy of books, he has drawn heavily from Thorstein Veblen, an American economist and sociologist from the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) who is most famous for his 1899 critique of social stratification, The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is quite rare when a full-time academic has real-world industrial work experience to refer back to. It is even rarer when such a “pracademic” thinker from a scientific/analytic discipline ventures into the realm of classical social science texts to do his research. The result, in Mysterium and many of Emiliani’s other works, is a trove of provocative and original ideas that emerge from his cross-disciplinary approach. 

At the same time, Emiliani, in keeping with the spirit of Veblen, uses his research in the service of mounting a searing critique of the institution of contemporary business management. If you’re familiar with (and enjoy) his brand of vitriol, Mysterium will not disappoint you. If you’re newer to the material, it may be hard to take. The tone is frequently polemical, and he does not shy away from tipping over any sacred cows, including many in the Lean community itself. Take, for instance, this assertion: “Leaders have no time or desire to turn all problems, especially their problems, over to scientific thinking. To do so would violate the fundamental belief in the universal applicability and effectiveness of conservative plans, past conventions, and expediency, and thus undercut leaders’ prerogatives—their rights and privileges.” Emiliani is more concerned about presenting blunt facts and building sound arguments from them than winning friends or impressing clients. As a reader, you might take his style as either a mean-spirited affront to your sense of status and privilege, or as a refreshingly candid diatribe that sparks some new ideas.

The basic argument of Mysterium is that spiritual habits of thought (not, it should be noted, personal religious belief and practice, which Emiliani leaves alone), are still with us in our secular business culture, despite the Church, from the 17th century onwards, having increasingly diminished formal power over economic affairs. In the Western world, the Age of Enlightenment saw the rise of the State, on the one hand, and an economically self-interested merchant class on the other. The Church was left to govern only the spiritual lives of individuals, on a private and personal level, while the State came to govern all that was material, including trade and commerce. The Church, finding itself increasingly irrelevant as social and economic conditions changed, sought to fit in with the times. So, under social pressure, the rule book changed. No longer was pecuniary self-interest unchristian or sinful, against the laws of God. The pursuit of personal wealth became, instead, part of leading a good Christian life and a Natural Law: i.e. it was the “natural right of mankind” to own property (built by the hands of others) and pursue wealth far beyond the ascetic minimum required for survival, as had been the norm in the Middle Ages. And the State enshrined this new faith in economic liberalism in law.

The Church’s acquiescence to economic liberalism meant that those who pursued unbridled economic enterprise could remain confident that they were virtuous and moral beings. Business leaders had to obey the secular laws of the State, but, Emiliani argues, they maintained a spiritual (as opposed to rational-scientific) way of thinking when it came to management.

These spiritual habits of mind have calcified over time into a tradition of unquestioned preconceptions, informing the institution of leadership as we know it today. Leadership has a blind faith in ideas like the inherent superiority of laissez-faire economic policy, the magic of the free market, and the effectiveness of private enterprise in solving all complex and widespread economic, political or social problems. It’s not that Emiliani says these ideas are never right, but he takes issue with the fact that they are presumed to be always right, and this is never questioned or examined with any rigor. It’s based purely on faith. Those who dare question this faith are ex-communicated and dismissed by business leaders as heretics; scientific facts are dismissed as “fake news”.

Similarly, when presented with business problems, leadership resorts to “the simplistic, atavistic solutions of belittling, criticizing, threatening, or blaming people.” People are the problem and technology is the solution. As leaders, they do not have to justify their beliefs. It is their divine right to believe so. Taking the time to examine problems and properly understand the non-anthropomorphic causes of problems is the profane job of low-level laborers, having no place in the sublime province of leadership. 

Anyone who’s witnessed the theatrics of corporate strategy formulation will relate to this dichotomy. Leaders describe their own “strategic” targets and goals in terms of nebulous activities (“grow market share”, “implement next generation technology”, “develop new products”) but then insist that, at the “tactical” level, workers have nothing but hard numbers to meet (e.g. produce 27 more widgets per day, increase customer satisfaction scores by 15%, etc.). Real products and services that customers care about—the things one can observe and count– belong squarely in the profane world of material reality. So, too, do customer problems. Concern for customers is pushed down to the lowly “operational” levels of the business so that leadership may freely pursue its pecuniary interests, disguised as virtuous, strategic goals.

In Mysterium, Emiliani has creatively reframed the age-old tension between science and religion to examine the contemporary business context, provoking his readers to think in new—and sometimes difficult– ways. His writing asks us to conceive of business culture as split into two distinct realms, one being that of Science (the realm of facts and the rational logic of cause and effect), inhabited by customers, suppliers, and the low-status workers of this world (and the few leaders that have adopted a Lean Management system). The other realm is that of Classical Management, inhabited by conventional leaders and their followers, both of whom have a visceral distaste for the realm of Science. They find thinking about facts disturbing, just as most of us dislike meditating on our own mortality. Those with high status in the business world have been granted, under the auspices of the institution of classical leadership, the privilege of being able to use a shroud of mysticism to protect themselves from the unpleasantness of contemplating the bleak facts of business.

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