Canoeing with Mintzberg

The CoachingOurselves Reflections 2017 – Rebalancing Society conference was an outstanding 3-day event filled with ideas, presentations and passion shared with us by the brightest minds: Henry MintzbergPhilip KotlerDan PonterfractEd ScheinJonathan GoslingMitch Joel and many other prominent thinkers, businesspeople and coaches.

This true feast of sustainable leadership was concluded with a savory dessert – The Great Canadian Canoe Trip, five hours in double canoes going down the Devil’s River in Mont-Tremblant National Park.

Now, mentally going through the experience again, I think that this trip in the end of the conference was more than just for pleasure and relaxation. The unbridled nature, the canoes, and the river flow – all have their profound role in the understanding and “internalization” of the worldview experienced during the main event.

Here are my key takeaways from the Canoe Trip.

1.      Key safety rules in the canoe are familiar to every manager:

  • Avoid sudden movements.
  • Go with the flow.

Nothing new, but that does not mean “don’t rock the boat”; it’s just that any disruption creates unnecessary risks and may lead to an accident, and is not necessary when you are on the right course.

2.      The real leader in the canoe, the helmsman, is the paddler in the stern. He is the more experienced one, doing the steering. Leading from behind, he will be looking over the front paddler’s shoulder all the time, and if the latter does not have a small frame and wears a hat, the helmsman will not see much.

Hence, at least for his own welfare, the paddler in the front must alert the helmsman for any underwater hazard, like rocks or crocodiles, because the helmsman may not see them. That requires good two-way communication.

I was lucky to have the most experienced helmsman on the trip: Henry Mintzberg. Sitting with my back to him was really awkward at first; it also made our communication more challenging. But after a couple of underwater rocks that we narrowly escaped, our communication channel quality has improved. (Captured in the header photo above is one of those moments.)

3.      Experience and diligence trump youth and “hard work.” Our duo was not the strongest, but we would get ahead of the pack several times because of the experienced helmsman (Henry) and the less experienced but diligent oarsman (me). Our trip instructor stopped us and explained that she must remain in the front of the group because that’s her job – and our safety.

4.      The trip was a long-awaited digital detox experience.

Speaking at the conference, Mitch Joel came up with a very quotable thought: “Technology has removed technology from technology.”

“Technology has removed technology from technology.”

That’s very true indeed. But while we were canoeing, Nature (and the risk of losing one’s phone) has removed us from our smartphones for a few hours. And again, the world has not collapsed.

5.      No L-word. This detox sensation was also caused by the fact that even having spent 5 hours in the canoe with Henry Mintzberg, the world’s top expert in management and leadership, I have not heard him mentioning the L-word even once, except in this context: “If someone says ‘leadership’ again, I will not be able to keep my dinner down.”

“If someone says ‘leadership’ again, I will not be able to keep my dinner down.”

It was a real bliss to have spent several days among some brightest names, true world-class leaders – and never ever hear about “humble”, “servant” or any other strain of leadership.

6.      Another pleasant memory from the conference that carved itself a permanent place in my brain: Marketing is not only about selling a better lifestyle. Marketing is not about creating jobs, although it may create jobs, true. Surprise: marketing is also about reducing demand. We do not think about marketing this way because, as managers, we are being fine-tuned to sell more and to cost less. That we may want to change – if we are serious about corporate and personal responsibility for everything that is going on in the world.

That great message was shared by Philip Kotler. “That’s the father of marketing” you think? Wrong: he is the grandfather of marketing. I bought his textbooks, in 5th edition, second-hand in 1995. I hope I retain half of his vigor and cognitive capacity when I catch up with him age-wise.

7.      We had a very flat organization, our canoeing group. And we were really efficient: We got there together and on time, had cheerfully rescued a couple of guys (who didn’t follow the rules from p.1), and safely made it back to the hotel, as scheduled, having enjoyed the trip profoundly. The secret of our guaranteed success was that we were all driven by the same purpose on this particularly beautiful day, and probably in our lives as well.

Dan Pontefract described that in his book “The Purpose Effect”. “Purpose” – is when you have the “why” to live for. Compared to “mission”, the buzzword of leadership, “purpose” is about having a meaning, while “mission” is ultimately about making money.

In a way, that seems to be the case of CoachingOurselves in general, founded by Henry Mintzberg, Jonathan Gosling and Phil Lenir. “Flat Army” – is another book that comes to mind when you witness their activities. I wish everybody would practice what they preach.

8.      By sea, by land, or by air, communication remains key to efficiency.Establishing the “up” communication, with Henry, was not hard: When people share same values, effective communication comes natural. However, this is not always the case. When I asked one of the trip instructors to take the group photo with my camera and hurried to join the team – she did exactly that: took the group photo with my camera, fast and efficient, while I was still trying to squeeze into the picture….”But you didn’t tell me…” Okay, lesson learned.

9.      The Harbinger. This whole event was conceived and organized by CoachingOurselves – a company with a new approach to business coaching and, as I look at it now, to management education in general. I wonder whether its founders have foreseen this, but CoachingOurselves may be a harbinger of disruptive changes in education on the global scale.

Today, the way we learn at school is similar to the way we eat. To guarantee survival, Nature has programmed us to consume food whenever it is available, “just in case.” Likewise, our education system offers many options, and they are not necessarily good in the long run, regardless of the “restaurant.” In order to succeed, we may have to consume a lot of knowledge, while we may need only 20% of it to become useful to the society in our chosen field. A lot of what we are being fed is useless at best.

But “If we are eating bad food, somebody is making bad food“ (©P. Kotler).

During the Conference, Mitch rephrased Kevin Kelly:

“Technology happens slowly and then all at once.”

This is what is going to happen to the education, and soon: knowledge-on-demand.

Most likely, “Masters”,”Bachelors”, and especially “MBAs” will become artifacts of the past, while the quality of the new education and the efficiency of the knowledge delivery will grow. Future professionals will get the best education through the modular approach and peer-to-peer support throughout the process, making Henry Mintzberg’s CoachingOurselves concept indispensable.

10.  And, of course, we will need this Great Canadian Canoe Trip once a year.