The "Magician's Predicament"

as a Managerial Hazard[1]



Dallia Etzion

Amittai Niv


From: Lieblich, A. & Josselson, R. (1994) (Eds.) Exploring identity and gender: The narrative study of lives, Vol. 2, London: Sage.



Certain managers in organisations acquire the status of 'magicians,' apparently by virtue of their being able to do things that are vital to the success of the organisation and that others-subordinates, colleagues, superiors-are unable to do. We use the word apparently advisedly because it is impossible to know whether the magic of the magicians is real or not. The magician and those in his[2] environment co-operate in creating an enchanted world in which it is impossible to determine what should be attributed to the extraordinary powers of the magician and what is inherent in the opportunities afforded by his position or to the evolving patterns of perception, thinking, and actions of those populating this enchanted world.


Under certain conditions - and in time, these do indeed develop - the function of the magician becomes a trap. He must on performing his magic even when he has become tired doing so and despite increasing doubts concerning its effectiveness. Solutions that saved the day in the past are not suitable the present reality, and subordinates are not able to deal with new problems independently. The trap is exposed in all its severity when the big successes of the past (which came about because of the initiative and daring of the magician) lead the organisation into a new competitive environment in which the powers of the magician no longer work. By virtue of his status and with no one to question his infallibility, the magician is likely to start making faulty decisions that even may bring about ruin to the organisation and, in the end, to him too.


How can a talented and successful manager escape from the magician's trap or, better still, stop himself from falling into it in the first place? How can he help others in his environment to follow in his successful footsteps and to free themselves of their exaggerated dependence on his magic? These questions are discussed here in the context in which the enchanted world usually develops - conditions of fast growth, or the contrary, conditions of extreme crisis. The intricacies of the possibilities and dangers inherent in these conditions are illustrated by means of narratives of magicians we have come to know well during the course of our work as organisational consultants


Managing Organisations in a turbulent environment


The growth of organisations and their managers is effected through an ongoing exchange among the three partners to the process: the manager, the organisation he heads, and the external environment in which they function. Throughout this exchange, dilemmas develop that reflect the complex total environment in which the process of growth takes place. These dilemmas usually represent difficult choices such as to purchase or manufacture in-house, to bring in managers from outside develop them from inside, and to concentrate on the domestic market or focus efforts on developing foreign markets. The complexity of the dilemmas is due not only to the large number of factors involved in their creation but primarily because they impinge on the system of values of the decision maker. Dilemmas, by definition, are problems that have no unequivocal solution; thus the managers confronted by them learn sooner or later to live with them at a more or less satisfactory level. The concrete choices that they make around the various dilemma crystallise into very personal management patterns. Whatever the pattern, the managers grow by learning about themselves and their organisation while dealing with the dilemmas they face.


The main source of the dilemmas that managers face in organisations is the external environment in which they function. The management literature calls the reality in which most economic organisations function today 'turbulent," describing it as being characterised by frequent and rapid changes an ever-increasing difficulty in identifying the factors that bring about these changes. The changes in the environmental conditions are described in detail by Tushman, Newman, and Nadler (1988). They use the term discontinuities in describing the phenomenon of processes and trends that are broken off to change direction suddenly and unexpectedly. Morgan (1988 sees the risks and opportunities accompanying this reality and calls their management "riding the high waves." Vaill (1989) emphasizes the permanence of change and surprise as daily features in the lives of many firms and refers to them as "permanent white water." The combination of frequent changes and the difficulty in diagnosing their sources makes the unexpected in all areas of the organisation’s activity an inextricable part of its experience.


The turbulent environment not only demands an ever-increasing degree of managerial attention but also renders most of the classical management tools obsolete and ineffective. The classical tools are based on a large measure of stability in the world of the organisations. Such is the importance attached to planning and control by means of methodical tools and a quantitative approach. But reality creates one of the most difficult paradoxes in modem management: Today's manager is called on to take on more and more responsibility in precisely those areas over which he has less and less control. The significant lessening of conventional control ability highlights the present weakness of most premises on which classical management was, until recently, based. The changes taking place before our eyes in the environment of most complex organisations turn these assumptions into myths that do not accurately reflect reality, and other qualities become essential in affecting and controlling the turbulent reality in which the manager functions. Thus the repertoire of behavioural skills required of today's general manager, claims Vaill (1989), turns his or her job from ordered theory and methodical process into a performing art.


Quinn (1988) calls the manager who succeeds in making the transition from the classical pattern of management to that required by present circumstances a master. The double meaning of the word, which signifies both expert and overlord, reflects well the complexity of the job of the general manager in our times. Thus much of the stability, method, and absolute control that characterised the senior manager's job in the past have disappeared. These features supposedly are replaced by characteristics that border on the mystical and magical, such as charisma and transformative leadership, which, in the present circumstances, constitute an appealing alternative for management in turbulent times, but one that is not devoid of pitfalls (Burns, 1978; Conger & Kanungo, 1987; House, 1977; Yukl, 1989).


Bass (1985) claims that the charismatic leader has a sort of inner mystic belief that evokes in his followers an admiration bordering on worship. The conditions that give rise to this phenomenon are change and crisis that evoke fear, stress, or anxiety. According to Bass, charisma is adopted as a method of leadership when formal authority fails to handle a severe crisis and traditional values stand in question. Such difficult situations are more common in new organisations struggling to survive or in those that are aging and failing. The difficulties become particularly great in times that allow or call for rapid growth. These conditions, as we shall see, constitute the background against which “magicians" rise and fall.


Economic Growth and Individual Initiative


Economic development is, to a large extent, a product of the initiative and drive of capable individual managers who pull their organisations far ahead of the mediocre establishment of their economic sector or specific industry. Some of them become living legends, entering management textbooks as vivid illustrations of the role of individuals in contributing to the well-being of society.


One important characteristic of these pioneers is their ability to combine technological and business vision within the framework of a manufacturing organisation. Indeed this triangle of leader and visionary, technological and business expertise, and a dynamic organisation constitutes the main recipe for economic growth. But nothing lasts forever. Many heroes of the past on the economic growth front turned out to be stars whose meteoric rise was all too soon followed by a very painful fall. Steve Jobbs, co-founder of Apple computers, started as a small entrepreneur. He became, within only a few years, IBM's main challenge in the area of personal computers, but he was able to enjoy the glory of this victory for only a short while. The recession in the computer industry of the mid- 1980s took its toll, and Jobbs had to leave his own creation and let a bureaucratic executive put it back on the rails. John Reed, an industrial engineer, was brought to Citicorp (First National City Bank of New York) in the late 1970s to help its large Operations Division (8,000 employees) absorb new technologies and reorganise as the backbone of the bank's future growth. Reed performed what appeared to the old-fashioned bankers to be pure miracles and turned the Operations Division into the spearhead of the whole operation. It was just a matter of time before Reed was promoted to chief executive of the bank. Six years later Citicorp plunged into deep troubles. It lost significant parts of its market, its profit shrank, and the value of its stock fell to a third of its value 6 years earlier. The miracles that worked for Reed so well 10 years earlier are not helping at present.


Such stories about the rise and fall of economic legends make good reading and have spawned many and varied explanations for these fateful upheavals. The most widespread of these explanations are the following:


1.    The fog of uncertainty.. Success, like failure, is attributed, according to this explanation, to constraints encountered by most of the managers heading fast-growing organisations in dealing successfully with the uncertainty surrounding them. The sources of this uncertainty are several: (a) technological innovations that at the same time make for great possibilities and serious risk, (b) frequent and fundamental changes in the world's economy that all too often restructure the conditions of competition, and (c) the changes that take place with similar frequency in the economic policy of governments and international institutions. The combination of these factors envelops the "growth arena" in a thick fog and makes it impossible to deploy a "security network' capable of preventing a downslide into ruin.


2.    Improvisation: Improvisation is at the root of the dynamics of fast-growing organisations. In their early years, it makes for flexibility and prompt adjustment to bureaucratic obstacles and unexpected difficulties. But at later stages, it becomes a prescription for disaster because of the tendency to dismiss the value of orderly deliberation and meticulous planning.


3.    The character of the heads of the organisation: This very common explanation relates to the mercurial character of the managers and to the misfit between their personal characteristics and the objective situation of the organisations they control. Many sudden failures of fast-growing organisations have been attributed to critical mistakes, made by those heading them, around such issues as an initiative in developing a revolutionary product, breaking into a new market, and joining forces with a strategic partner. "Gambler," "success went to his head," "he fell prey to his intuition" - these are the kinds of accusations made to explain the behavior of the head of an organisation that has stopped growing. In its early stages, according to this view, an organisation seeking fast growth needs an entrepreneurial manager with a fertile and even wild imagination and an aversion for anything resembling order and method. However, an organisation that has gone successfully through its birth pangs needs a more establishment oriented manager who knows how to make use of tools and method, adheres to procedures, and creates rigid frameworks for those working around him. The greater the gap between the maturity of the organisation and the characteristics of its head, the greater the likelihood that the two will suffer a painful fall (see Adizes, 1979; Greiner, 1972; Torbert, 1987; Weinshall, 1975).


4.    Luck: Why did one firm in the area of military electronics manage to survive and grow despite a long list of crises it went through, while another in the same industry soared high in Its first years but was brought down by a minor shake-up in the defense establishment? For lack of an alternative explanation for the difference in the fate of the two firms, we turn to plain luck. This is an acknowledgement of the inability to interpret the facts in a more rational manner. The shrugging of shoulders that usually accompanies these explanations says something about the nature of people and the way of the world.


As organizational consultants we had the opportunity to follow, over long periods, the careers of managers at the helm of fast-growing firms in Israel. We also learned of the difficult conditions under which they forged their paths. We came to appreciate the challenges accompanying rapid growth and the pain involved in the disappointments. During these years our attention was focused mainly on the ongoing dialogue between the growing firm and its general manager, which makes a complex and rich mosaic of many and varied details that make up the main dilemmas accompanying the organisation’s process of growth. We have named the most salient of the dilemmas facing general managers of successful and fast-growing firms "the magician's predicament." In the following pages we describe this dilemma in detail and discuss its significance, adopting what we hope is a human approach to understanding the phenomenon.


Who Is a Magician,

and How Are Enchanted Worlds Created?


The magician is a manager, usually the head of his organisation, who is surrounded by subordinates and worried directors in a difficult and fateful period. The magic attributed to him arises from his ability to carry out a broad range of leadership functions, such as (a) getting the members of the organisation to work together as a team in achieving a difficult objective, (b) creating a meaningful and exciting vision, (c) making difficult decisions and sticking to them, (d) formulating complex strategies, and (c) maintaining employee loyalty and responsibility to the organisation, even under difficult circumstances. The enchanted world is not restricted to the top of the organizational hierarchy. It can extend to all parts of a large organisation-to the marketing or the finance department, to the R&D laboratories, or even to a project framework. It is the unusual manager who is able to scan a complex profit-and-loss statement for a few minutes and delineate a broad picture of the state of the organisation, identify mysterious malfunctions in the production system, or to determine, on the basis of a short interview, the suitability of a candidate for the position of deputy general manager for human resources.


Four conditions contribute jointly to the development of an enchanted world:


1.    An organizational reality characterised by uncertainty and much anxiety. This is usually the outcome of a turbulent environment that accompanies the growth of new organisations or crises in existing organisations.


2.    The presence in a position of leadership of a talented individual having a repertoire of skills suited to the needs of the actual situation.


3.    The inability to transmit the complex skills that this unusual manager possesses to others by any simple explanation or brief training. His inimitable actions, which he himself is often unable to explain, are thus given labels such as "intuition," "intelligence," 'charisma," or simply "brilliance."


4.    The presence of others (subordinates, colleagues, superiors) who hold the manager in high esteem and are willing to co-operate with him and to follow him blindly.


The manager becomes a magician during the course of difficult circumstances or critical undertakings in which he is perceived by others (and perhaps by himself) as the organisation’s builder or saviour. His heroic deeds, though visible, cannot be imitated easily, and it is thus only natural that henceforth an aura of magic will encompass this miracle maker's every action.


Magic, in whatever form, is a matter of context and timing. A manager can act as a magician or be perceived as such in a specific organizational context. In other situations he behaves as any other mortal. The magic we are talking about does not necessarily cross organizational boundaries and does not last forever. A talented and successful manager is likely to find himself with the status of magician for a limited period of time and, just as he managed to establish this status for himself, so he can lose it, suddenly or within a short period of time.


The Study


This chapter is based on the narratives of 10 senior managers who were magicians during a certain period in the history of their organisations. The magic they wrought is their only common denominator. Otherwise they differ in the content of the work they undertook and in the way they carried it out. We met them all during the course of our work as organizational consultants. Two years or more after our consulting activities in their organisations had concluded, six of them agreed to co-operate in a study evaluating the contribution of the organizational consulting. They were asked to reconstruct the organizational measures they had taken during the period under discussion and to evaluate the effect the consulting had had on them. We cross-referenced their narratives with our own reconstructions as consultants and with documentation from the period. Thus we obtained the stories of the cases, which served as our raw material (see Runyan, 1982, and Mann & Pedler, 1992, for methodological considerations).


From the thematic content analysis that we carried out on the material, magic stands out as the central motif of the personal tales of our interviewees. Alongside it were other salient motifs, such as contending with crises, loneliness at the top, learning from experience, and dependence and responsibility. It was difficult to detect the magician's predicament in a one-time observation. Only in long-term follow-up was it possible to discern how, in the headiness of success, the seeds of future failure are sown. We also learned from the retrospective analysis that awareness of the danger accompanying success can enable one to take appropriate preventive measures in good time (on the advantages of the "clinical" approach to organizational analysis, see Schein, 1987).


We chose to illustrate our thesis by sketching portraits of two general managers, very different in their managerial styles, heading large organisations. For us they very clearly portray two archetypes of magicians. On the one hand, David has a strong sense of his magic; he believes he has extraordinary talents that he cannot transmit to others. Josh, on the other hand, may be defined as a reluctant magician who tries to shake off the magic aura in which others have enveloped him. David became ensnared in the magician's trap and paid for it with his managerial career. Josh managed to escape.


Magicians' Tales


We met David when he was at the peak of his career, during which he had managed to turn a small family business into a flourishing corporation in the electrical equipment industry. David is firm in his belief about his ability to perform miracles. He frankly reflects on his unusual intuition, which he defines as "the stigma of experience," in the following manner:


“Our firm turned into a success story thanks to my unusual talents. However, unfortunately, I am surrounded by people who are incapable of doing the things I do so well. Apparently there are two kinds of people in the world. I belong to one, and they belong to the other. My actions are for the most part spontaneous and intuitive. I cannot describe them in detail, and others certainly cannot. These are things you are born with or that you acquire somehow through your cumulative experience. The whole thing is rather mysterious, and you cannot transmit it to others. The truth is, I derive great satisfaction from the fact that I succeed because of my unusual intuitive powers. At the same time, it annoys me that I have to do everything myself.”


From the point of view of the firm's senior managers, David's immediate subordinates, the picture appears something like this:


“We have a very unusual boss. He can do things, essential to the organisation, that we cannot. We don't understand where he gets his unusual ideas, and he, apparently, can't explain it. But he's here, thank goodness! At the same time, he drives us crazy. Every day he calls to check how the monthly production plan is going and interferes in anything we try to do by ourselves.”


When Josh came to his current job as chief executive of a medium-sized consumer goods manufacturer, the firm was badly in need of rehabilitation. He had come to the job from the public sector, where he had held a senior position in one of the country's biggest utilities. In his new role, he decided to keep the existing senior management intact even though most of them were getting on in years and lacking in education. They were also suspicious, wary, anxious, and very low in morale. Josh attributed this demeanour to the authoritarian and arbitrary management style of his predecessor, the founder of the firm, and hoped that if he helped them to develop, regain their independence and self-confidence, they would be able to apply their rich experience to rehabilitating the firm. He told them that until the firm's most pressing problems had been solved and until he properly understood the workings of the firm, he would be keeping a tight hold on the reins. He defined his job during his first 2 years as that of "student" and begged everyone's indulgence for interfering in the execution of their work in these early stages. As soon as he finished learning about the firm, he promised, he would return the reins to them and would stop interfering.


Josh turned out to be a brilliant, fast learner. Before long he mastered the major functions of his new organisation. "He can do in minutes what takes us hours," we were told by his immediate subordinates. In close co-operation with his organizational consultants, Josh carried out a survey on his firm, after which he initiated a comprehensive program for management training and development. Later the effort was extended to the lower managerial levels of the organisation and was linked to such procedures as performance appraisals, advancement programs, and incentive plans. This process of changing-while-learning was conducted in a top-down manner, starting from Josh and his senior managers and gradually going down the hierarchy as a "waterfall." This method of change became an object lesson for the organisation and gained a place of honour in its culture. Josh very soon implemented the turn-around plan, significantly reducing manufacturing costs and substantially improving the quality of the goods, changes that led to a steady increase in profits.


The board of directors, delighted with the results, gave Josh a free hand to invest in new production lines, to provide the employees with material rewards, and to give them the feeling that someone was taking care of them. On top of all this came an award granted by the Manufacturers’ Association for "substantive improvement in production and perfect maintenance of labour relations." His subordinates began to perceive him as a management wizard-very different from what they had known before - brilliant, effective, courageous, determined, and firm in his decisions. Josh himself, with his typical understatement, responded to the praise heaped on him with: "It's just a question of proper procedures.'



The Trap


As long as the conditions that led to the creation of the enchanted world continue to prevail and the reality in which this world operates remains relatively stable, the wizardry of the magician works. Continuing success turns this world into a closed system in which actions reinforce perceptions. However, only too often the conditions change and the stability of the enchanted world is upset. One such source of change is the need for rapid growth and disturbance of the existing status quo - that is, precisely the conditions that led to the emergence and success of the magician in the past. Another source of change is the competitive environment, which may change in a way that makes the old wizardry obsolete. Yet other reasons for the decline of wizardry are the magician's fatigue or his subordinates' dissatisfaction. Under such circumstances the enchanted world becomes an obstacle to the changes demanded by the situation, and the role of the magician turns into a trap. He is likely to find himself collapsing under the burden of decisions he has to make. Having no one to challenge his judgement (who questions magicians?), the scene is set for wrong, and sometimes even disastrous, decisions. The many possibilities have one important common denominator: the paradox that it is precisely the strategy that in the past succeeded so well now turns into a trap for the magician and his organisation.


As a natural response to David's initial success in developing his company, the management of the parent concern incorporated under his control more and more new businesses. A professional team was brought in to support him and to handle the day-to-day aspects of the business. But the "method" and the “new order" (especially the new deputy for finance and systems) that were imposed on David against his will turned out to be a real nuisance to him. He continued to manage the growing establishment by means of telephone conversations with the various managers, making calculations on the backs of cigarette packages, and using his intuitive judgement. Very soon he began to feel weary. He would describe himself at the time as a genius surrounded by fools who drove him crazy with their inability to perform the simplest of tasks in the areas for which they were responsible.


A labour relations crisis very quickly developed into a debilitating 4-month strike with no satisfactory outcome. For the first time since David had been appointed its general manager, the firm registered heavy losses in its financial statements. In fact, the situation was even worse than reported in the financial statements. The chief accountant of the firm, so it emerged later, had managed, by means of "accounting exercises," to paint a much rosier picture of the firm's financial status than was actually the case. The accountant later explained, "It was David's wish that I do it. He never actually said so in so many words, but I sensed that that was what he wanted me to do."


After taking full responsibility for the crisis, David submitted his resignation, but it was not accepted. However, although it decided to keep him on, the board of directors limited the scope and freedom of action he had enjoyed in the past. David's immediate response was to fire several of the managers who were directly subordinate to him, to transfer others to other positions, and to recruit new managers from outside. But he quickly came to realize that the performance of the new managers was little better than that of their predecessors. The firm lurched from one crisis to another, and David's magic aura began to fade away.


Josh, by contrast, was quick to detect the dangers inherent in the magician's role. As soon as he took up his post as chief executive of the firm, he made clear his intention of building a strong management team. He encouraged his managers to learn all they needed to know to fulfil the various facets of their jobs, so that he would be able to devote his time to long-term policy considerations. Despite his good intentions, he found it extremely difficult to shake off the magic mantle that was constantly being thrust on him. The gap between Josh and his managers, in terms of knowledge, education, and decision-making skills, was indeed vast. It was clear that despite his commitment to his team's development, his subordinate managers were dependent on his wizardry in performing their duties. He believed that he already knew the system and was ready to delegate more and more responsibility for the ongoing operation of the firm. He was also proud of his middle managers who had made remarkable progress in assuming their leadership roles, but he was deeply disappointed with his senior managers' behavior. They were not developing into a cohesive team and, individually, still depended on him for all major decisions and their implementation. Josh thought he was constantly investing in them and getting no results.


Attempts to Get Out of the Trap


When a magician becomes aware of the trap he is in danger of falling into, he tries to change his behavior pattern, but this change is usually very difficult. The awareness of the danger inherent in his position is likely to motivate the magician to play down his special status and deny, for example, the magic qualities attributed to him. He is likely to say, as David and Josh did, that he wants his subordinates to share the responsibility for managing the firm and develop the managerial expertise that he himself has. In certain cases his subordinates may try to meet his declared wishes. However, the two sides tend to go on behaving in a way that makes implementation of the desired change difficult or impossible.


After the severe crisis in his firm, David declared a new policy of decentralisation and delegation, but despite his efforts to the contrary, he still carried on with his unilateral decision making. His subordinates, like, those of other magicians, insisted they were striving to acquire for themselves a larger share of responsibility and at the same time continued to avoid making any decision that had not received his explicit blessing.


Although both parties really wanted to free themselves from the magician's trap, their basic behaviors did not change. They were, in fact, blind to the inherent reasons underlying their behavior and the values and needs that led them to create and preserve their enchanted world.


David's blindness to the pitfalls of his wizardry in the end cost him his managerial career. Three years after the first crisis, his firm again ran into serious difficulties that arose from significant changes in the markets of their products and that David and his subordinates failed to foresee. The board of directors relieved him of his position, and he has not since then held a senior management post.


Another possibility open to the magician is to withdraw from his key position and refuse to continue playing his magic role. This retreat, he believes, will create a vacuum into which his subordinates are likely to be drawn. When this expectation is not fulfilled, however, he loses patience and responds with anger and frustration.


Josh, for instance, as a response to an increasing load, demanded more responsibility from his managers. He got to the point where he would send subordinates out of his office if they came asking him for a decision that he thought they should be making themselves. This tactic helped for a while and for a very narrow range of decisions. However, patience not being one of his strong points, Josh began to lose his temper more and more readily with them. He went back to doing things himself without waiting for his subordinates to do them, and they, in turn, became increasingly passive. They began to complain that he always knew better and more quickly what had to be done and that there was no way they could keep up with him. By this time Josh already had mastered the operations of the firm so well that even though he was doing all of the ongoing control himself, by noon he had finished his day's work and was looking bored and irritable.


Breaking up the Enchanted World


Changes in organizational structure, job definitions, incentive systems, or the application of new technologies are necessary conditions for a smooth transition from the enchanted world to a more rational and professional one. But they are by no means sufficient. First, the magician has to develop an awareness of his spontaneous "theories of action" (Argyris & Schon, 1978) - that is, all of those deep-rooted premises and opinions that we all have concerning the effect of our action on others (e.g., “what you don't do yourself, no one will do for you"). Second, he must learn how to serve as an effective trainer who can help those around him understand and replicate his special talents and performance ability. He must make obvious what had in the past been shrouded in mystery, to provide clear and detailed explanations of his understanding and strategies and what it is about his way of thinking that produces the organizational magic.


The magician can attain these two objectives by developing a better understanding of his part in creating the magician's trap. It is not enough to analyse his intentions and declarations. He must learn to reflect on the details of his behavior in practice. A good way of doing this reflection is to identify the gaps between what he does in practice and what he says he is going to do. More often than not, the magician himself understands no better than anyone else how he works his magic, though if pressed for an explanation, he very likely will attribute it to intuition. He is at even more of a loss to explain what is happening when his magic powers begin to fail.


To better understand what it is that endows him with the power of magic, the manager must provide detailed, precise, and usable descriptions of his actions. He must ask himself, as though he were an impartial observer: What is it I actually do that endows me with my magic powers? He almost surely will discover that the more interesting and important part of his work cannot be described in terms of a list of tools or procedures, but rather in terms of concrete behavior that gives an indication of his theory of action (Argyris & Schon, 1978). This process of self-interrogation in real time is called "reflection in action" (see Schon, 1983). The manager can be helped to develop such an awareness by outside consultants who are not involved in the enchanted world that surrounds him.


Indeed Josh was helped by us in this way. Following work sessions we attended, together with him, we would analyse his concrete behavior during the session: his way of arguing, his fast responses, the impatience he radiates when listening, the fact that he always has more information than the other participants, and, in conclusion, the fact that all too often he is right. We showed him how this style of his, however efficient, stultifies the others. We also analysed how his behavior contributes to the jealousy among the managers subordinate to him and how their battling for his attention and esteem adversely affects the relations among them. Together with him we tried to work out how to prevent this effect. Josh was surprised and doubtful, but curious, eager to learn and willing to try a new tack.


At this point Josh took yet another initiative, leading his firm into a 3-year period of rapid growth. New partnerships with external parties were formed, production facilities were added, and new technologies were introduced. To control the growing enterprise, Josh decentralised its structure and delegated more responsibility to his subordinates. Josh closely controlled the various aspects of the expansion program. He was involved personally in all stages, drawing the others along in his wake. For the first time in a long time, he stayed at work until midnight. Finally he had what he wanted - time pressure and a real challenge. The positive side effects were technical improvements throughout the system, a tremendous upgrading of the workforce (professionalization of the recruiting system, training, follow-up), and greater upward mobility of young staff members. Morale was high, but so was the tension because of the pressure Josh put on those who were doing the work. And the minute the enterprise started operating, Josh went full steam ahead into a new project - export.


To us it was clear that under the pressure of these new activities, Josh was reverting to his old habits and doing everything himself. His reaction to our observation on this point was, "It's just temporary - till the new operations start going." But indeed delegation of authority went from bad to worse, perhaps because staff members had begun to develop expectations of a certain degree of independence. Some of them began to oppose him openly, and it was precisely these whom he began to respect. Slowly we began to get from them a more human picture of their general manager. The profound admiration for his abilities still remained, but it was accompanied by a measure of criticism.


Josh gradually became aware that his style often stultifies any initiative in others, but at the same time he began to question the wisdom of his decision to retain all of the staff when he took up his position as head of the firm. Indeed over the course of the next years, Josh did let several of his management team go. In their stead he promoted young managers and took on several senior managers recruited from outside the firm. He thus was able, to some extent, to reduce the competence gap between himself and his subordinates and to create a better team spirit. Josh's management style is still too centralised, but not intolerably so. The firm continues to thrive, and Josh is now trying to cope with a new dilemma: preparing an heir to succeed him when he retires.


Conclusions: Magicians as Human Beings


What are the main lessons to be learned from these stories? Three entities contribute to creating the enchanted world: (a) the manager with the extraordinary talents, (b) his subordinates and colleagues "who see the pictures and hear the voices” and attribute them to the powers and competence of an unusual person (the magician), and (c) the organizational set-up, which demands wizardry of the kind that the individual heading the organisation is able to produce and that his subordinates and colleagues want to see. When one of the three factors changes significantly, the power of the magician is likely to evaporate.


The magic is first and foremost a means of reducing uncertainty or a substitute for the more conventional means of dealing with it. The paradox of wizardry arises from the fact that the answers given by the magician to the existing situation do not necessarily fit other situations that develop sooner or later, after the current uncertainty has been dealt with. In other words, today's wizardry may well be tomorrow's stumbling block. This is perhaps the main reason for the painful falls from grace of many magicians who starred in organisations operating in a turbulent environment.


The magician may be spared from falling into the trap if he is replaced in good time by another magician better suited to the new conditions. However, magicians and those around them tend to adhere to tried and tested spells that have worked in the past, and they only discover their weaknesses when it is too late. David's story might have turned out differently had he been replaced in time, and he and those around him would not have had to pay such a heavy price. The magician may be able to prevent the development of the trap by trying to share his expertise and abilities with his colleagues and subordinates. The fact that Josh still holds his position as a reputable general manager heading a successful organisation may be attributed in no small measure to just this. Sharing the ability to perform magic is a process of teaching and training. The magician must describe how he operates, let his subordinates observe how he puts his extraordinary ability to work, and help them understand how he thinks. Then he will free himself of the aura of mystery that envelops him and be able to become an effective trainer of generations of managers who will learn to develop their own versions of his basic expertise to the benefit of the entire organisation.


In the last analysis, the roots of wizardry are planted deep in the set of values and beliefs held by the manager-magician and those around him and relate to questions of power, influence, responsibility, and authority. Dismantling the enchanted world thus requires access to the underlying strata of the world of values of the individual and the organizational culture created around it (Etzion, 1990; Schein, 1992).


David, for instance, had to put up for scrutiny his claim that there are "two kinds of people in the world." He also had to relinquish his inner conviction that everything can be done by intuition alone. He had to realize, moreover, that he could not manage a large and complex organisation solely by means of direct and informal contacts even though these were the source of his satisfaction and pride in his work. Had he done so, he might have avoided stepping into the waiting trap.


Josh had to come to terms with the fact that not all people are able to learn everything if they are only given the chance. He also had to acknowledge that he might have been wrong when he decided, after taking up his position, not to replace any of the managers and that perhaps it would have been better for him and for the organisation to let some of them go. Furthermore he had to recognise his own part in creating the dependence and lack of initiative of his managers that he complained about and that, in a sense, the dependence and accompanying admiration were a source of much pleasure and pride to him.


Clearly the magician needs to learn to recognise the pitfalls that his behavior creates and to enlist the help of his subordinates in avoiding them. Indeed developing learning ability in the difficult conditions of a turbulent environment and rapidly changing organisations is today a central issue in research on organisations and their managers (McCall, Lombardo, & Moffison, 1988; Senge, 1990). The lessons to be learned from these studies are likely to broaden the understanding of the magician's trap as a special case of learning on the part of managers.


From a methodological point of view, our decision to employ a narrative, "clinical" approach in studying the effect of our own interventions as organizational consultants was fortunate because it gave us access to material that otherwise would have remained undetected. Like many other personal/organizational phenomena, the rise and fall of "magicians" can be detected only over time, from a longitudinal perspective, and sometimes only in retrospect.


The case study method, which is a traditional research and teaching device in the area of management and organisation development, offers us a way of seeing individuals, groups, and total organisations within a meaningful context and from a longitudinal perspective, rather than in a limited, ahistorical snapshot way, as cross-sectional research often does.


There is no better way to understand a complex phenomenon than to tell the story of the parties involved in it, particularly when the "life course" of the organisation is linked closely with that of the individual heading it. Indeed the magician phenomenon cannot be presented properly from only one party's perspective, be it the manager's personality and personal experience or the organisation’s culture and its struggle with environmental pressures. To understand the development of the phenomenon, one needs to integrate the stories of both parties against the environmental context in which they are embedded.




At the time of publication of this chapter, several years after we conducted the original interviews with our manager-magicians, Josh is still keeping a tight hold of the reins in the firm he now has been heading for many years. Over the course of the years, he has, no doubt,, learned the importance of wizardry in management and the pitfalls awaiting those who practice it. David, who fell into the trap of the wizardry he performed with such telling effect, has not returned to the manager's chair. He embarked on a new career and now serves as a much sought after consultant in the areas of the technologies and businesses in which he gained expertise during his good years.



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[1] AUTHORS’ NOTE: This chapter is based on the experience of the authors in ongoing consulting during the late 1980s to a number of fast-growing firms in Israel and on retrospective interviews with their general managers. Professor Don Schon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a partner to the consulting, the research, and the development of some of the ideas on which the chapter is based. Thanks are due to the Institute of Management for its financial support and for enabling the ideas to be developed and permitting the interviews to be carried out under its auspices. The project was also partially financed by the Israeli Institute of Business Research. Gerda Kessier was extremely helpful in translating the original material from Hebrew into English.


[2] Because no women chief executives were included among our interviewees, the masculine gender is used throughout the chapter. But women-magicians may also be a rarity. Women's style of management tends to be more co-operative than that of men (see Rosener, 1990); thus successful women managers may be less susceptible to the magician’s predicament than their male colleagues.