Doing the Right Thing vs. Doing What is Right: Learning through Michael Scott of “The Office”

Michael Scott of NBC’s “The Office” provides sufficient case study material for perhaps a doctoral dissertation. His antics as manager of Dunder Mifflin’s paper-selling Scranton, Pennsylvania office branch offer lessons on both ‘how-to’ and ‘how-not-to’ effectively lead. In part, the show’s success can be attributed to the realistic and relatable office life shown in this seemingly ordinary work environment. The characters comfortably fit into stereotypes that viewers are able to personally relate to in their own professional experiences, and the plotlines and relationships draw emotional investment by the viewership.

In as many ways as Michael Scott, the self-proclaimed “World’s Best Boss,” manages his office with success, his pitfalls shortchange him of the mention of true and effective leadership. So as to not dwell on Michael’s faults, I’ll first draw attention to his strengths. Michael Scott created and developed a professional climate in which each of his employees and followers felt personally cared for and valued (please exclude Toby from all mentions of this type of treatment). Through his relationship-oriented approach to leadership, his open communication, attentiveness to colleagues’ personal interests and problems and concern for the well-being of his team, Michael created a culture of trust. Employees celebrated successes together and turnover was virtually nonexistent. Michael encouraged personal and professional growth and believed in his employees’ potential, knowing that empowering them to do better resulted in success for the company. In essence, Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton Branch operated like a family under Michael’s control.

Moving on to Michael’s shortcomings, a specific scene stands out in my mind, as its first viewing made a very immediate and lasting impression on me due to its hilarity. Though I did not realize it right away, that moment carried great implications in regard to Michael’s leadership style. See below:

“Leaders are people who do the right things. Managers are people who do things right. There’s a profound difference. When you think about doing the right things, your mind immediately goes toward thinking about the future, thinking about dreams, missions, visions, strategic intents, purposes. When you think about doing things right, you think about control mechanisms. You think about how-to. Leaders ask the what and why questions, not the how questions” (Bennis, 1998, p. 148).


Despite the comedy of this scene, I have always been struck by the blinders with which Michael made the decision to obey the instructions of the GPS system. Despite all rational thinking and common knowledge, Michael stuck to the course and declined to enlist his own thinking or risk-taking regarding the decision. Furthermore, and to Dwight’s (empowered) credit for objecting to his leader’s decision, Michael’s stubbornness led to a catastrophic and potentially very dangerous incident. Taking a step back from the specifics of the scene begs the question: what leadership qualities did Michael lack that enabled him to make this harmful choice? A few come to mind:

  • Courage
  • Common sense
  • Openness to and tolerance of the ideas of others
  • Risk-taking
  • Focus on the bigger picture

As this scene so poignantly illustrates, Michael’s inability to display courage and risk-taking in the face of a challenge led to catastrophic consequences. A leader must possess the ability to make, sometimes quick, decisions under intense pressure. Though in theory, Michael did the ‘right’ thing by following the guidance of the GPS, he did not do ‘what is right.’ Michael, a routine manager, accepted “organizational structure and process as it [existed]. The leader or leader/manager seeks the revisions of process and structure required by ever-changing reality” (Gardner, 2007, p. 20). It is this quest for ‘doing what is right’ and staying ahead of the pressures that truly tests a leader and moves an organization forward.

Sorry, Michael, but this display of incompetence strips you of your “World’s Best Boss” accolade. Please FedEx your mug to Leslie Knope, Director of the Pawnee City Department of Parks and Recreation, immediately.

michaelleslie

Photo sources: Google images

Sources:

Josephson, M. S., & Hanson W. (1998). The Power of Character: Prominent Americans Talk about Life, Family, Work, Values, and more. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

P. (2010, February 17). Video.mp4. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3Byf8U1btI

The Jossey-Bass reader on educational leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Print.

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