Letter to the fellows about a fellow practitioner

written by Dave Fearon

This letter was written by Dave to the Fellows of the Management & Organizational Behavior Teaching Society (MOBTS) in April 2020. The letter highlights Peter’s experiences adapting to podcasting and his will to teach until the very end.

Dear colleagues,

Peter B. Vaill was among those 20th-century visionaries who willed Organizational Behavior into reality to humanize Management Education. He also worked those forward thinkers to create and grow this very Society, fostering teaching-learning practices compatible with our eclectic and action-oriented theories.

Peter passed away last week as he was being treated for pneumonia in a hospital in his hometown of Minneapolis. Earlier in the week, he and I were exchanging text messages to plan how we would resume the weekly recordings via Zoom for our Podcast called Practice?. Please listen at your convenience to our recorded conversations probing the nature of practice and share the link*.

Last summer, we adapted to podcasting for composing our thoughts because Peter, paralyzed since 2001 and fighting a myriad of related health challenges, could no longer type to finish his last book manuscript Notes on Practice. Accordingly, we two old fellows learned from scratch how to become contemporary podcasting teachers. We used the art of intentional conversation to codify Peter’s last body of work, of which I will continue. Hearing Peter speaking on our podcast will tell you a great deal about this deeply thoughtful, kind, and amusing OB pioneer. You will witness Peter’s unshakable will to teach to the end. Now it’s my turn.

And who am I? A Peter Vaill product. Peter led me through my doctorate from 1969 to 1974. He led me to OB teaching. He led me in thought with his books, articles, and invited chapters**. Over nearly 50 years, with memorable phone calls, Peter guided, better yet, inspired my overall successful approach to teaching and leadership, including my service to the MOBTS. Imagine the thrill of being found in retirement at age 76 by your all-time favorite teacher asking to help him finish work on a subject – practice – captivating him since he offered his first thoughts on the nature of Practice recording a video for the Legacy project 2010 OBTC at the University of New Mexico.

Peter told us in his still widely read book Managing as a Performing Art ***that managerial leaders will never find a settled moment change tosses us along in permanent white water. I dearly wish I could have recorded Peter’s thoughts on the torrents of change buffeting us today. He was hospitalized just before the pandemic came upon us. Now we are acutely aware of the state and fate of our practices, calling for us to adapt overnight, including how we will hold our 47th Annual Conference; now the vMOTBC. The Fellows Session that I will lead was to have brought Peter in via Zoom for us to spotlight teaching for practice. I hope you attend our 47th virtually and choose the Fellows Session, where we can address Peter’s question; we know theory, but do we really know practice? 

Thank you for giving this a full reading.


*Go to https://enactionresearch.com/podcast-page/ or wherever podcasts are heard (Spotify, Apple Podcasts) to listen in!

** “Peter B. Vaill: A Life in the Art of Managing and Leading Change” by David W. Jamieson and Jackie M. Milbrandt in The Palgrave Handbook of Organizational Change Thingers (2017) edited by David B. Szabla, William Pasmore, Mary Barnes, and Asha N. Gipson.

*** Vaill, Peter B, Managing as a Performing Art: new ideas for a world of chaotic change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

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