Michael Scott and Leadership in the Post-modern World


A quick set of observations about a fictional world (The Office) that may or may not play out in any real life applications-- but may be worth talking about.

1. The Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin was noted in more than one episode of the series either to be the most profitable of all the branches, or actually the only profitable branch in the entire company. That's why it alone survived as a unit in the takeover by "Sabré," as Michael Scott initially pronounced it.

2. Michael Scott and two other branch managers are asked to go to Corporate to present an annual report. The other two make PowerPoint presentations with detailed financial information, action plans and fiscal projections. Michael brings a video about how the Scranton branch is a family.

3. When Michael Scott gets called in by Corporate to describe to David Wallace what makes his branch successful, he can't come up with any coherent answers.

4. When Charles Miner is brought in to replace Michael Scott at one point, his approach to management is to "buckle down" on the "core disciplines" and do much more to demonstrate progress against corporate's defined "success metrics," "best practices" and "standards." The result is not only that Charles is hated (everyone but perhaps Dwight Schrute is glad to see him go!) but that the Scranton branch performs worse under his leadership. In fact, the branch becomes so threatened by the upstart Michael Scott Paper Company (which has essentially no assets, few sales and no financial hope) that Dunder Mifflin Corporate ends up buying out Michael Scott's company and moving Charles Miner to another branch.

In other words, Michael Scott must be doing a lot of things right.

And that in spite of his complete blindness to his colossal flaws as a leader and even as a person.

He really does waste people's time. His meetings are never productive. The most important and powerful "working group" in his management scheme is the Party Planning Committee, which is also the source of some of the most dysfunctional behavior in the entire system.  

So what's the Michael Scott secret sauce? How does someone so thoroughly awful at nearly everything he does end up leading the only profitable branch in his company, a fact made even more remarkable since that branch is in Scranton, which had the most depressed economy of any of the other communities that had branch offices?

Let me hazard a few observations... and invite you to suggest any others you can think of.

1). Michael Scott acts as if paper sales and customer service will happen at Dunder Mifflin Scranton. That is, he basically trusts that his employees will do their jobs and he lets them do them pretty much their way. He sees overall performance as the organic rather than the mechanistic outcome of what he does.

This isn't laizzez-faire management. That is, he's not letting people do whatever they want all the time. He does call frequent, time wasting meetings. He insists on lots of parties. And everyone has to participate in those-- no questions asked. So he is setting a corporate expectation and holding folks accountable to it-- they represent Dunder Mifflin to sell paper and provide the best customer service they can in the greater Scranton area. It's just that the way he reinforces that corporate identity isn't by pushing people on sales targets, but keeping them connected to each other. Dunder Mifflin is about that connection. And that connection is, in his mind, what drives the brand promise-- paper sales with the best customer service to back it up. He has connected them. And they deliver on the brand promise better than any other branch.

2) Maybe another way of saying the same thing-- Michael Scott believes in the brand and in his team to deliver the brand promise. Always.

3). Michael Scott usually does not add to the personal misery of his employees by setting forth policies that make their lives or their work harder to handle. Yes, each of the employees has some personal quirks, and two of them (at least-- here I'm thinking of Dwight and Angela in particular) are probably generally miserable people. But without Michael adding to their personal misery, each of these otherwise miserable people is actually able to channel energies  to generate excellent results. Dwight is consistently Salesman of the Month (and one February he won the award twice!). And Angela keeps the finance department running in a way that their work never impedes that of the sales staff. And both are proud of the work they do.

4). Maybe it's just because he's so incredibly socially oblivious, but Michael Scott is not at all insecure as a leader. No one threatens him in that office. And that means, actually, no one is threatened by him, either, and thereby inhibited out of fear of displeasing him and/or retribution from him to take whatever steps they need to to do their jobs-- sell paper and serve customers.

Those four come to my mind right off the top.

And it strikes me that a lot of these qualities are likely valuable in leadership in all sorts of places in an increasingly postmodern world where the usual tools of "management" just can't produce the robustness or creativity of a team necessary to thrive in an ever-changing environment-- whether organizations, or congregations, or other formats of Christian community. 

What others do you see? And what implications do you find for the nature of leadership in the organizations, congregations and missional communities where you are? Or in the United Methodist Church?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Photo credit: Jennifer Snyder. Used by permission under a Creative Commons License.