Management Gurus Up for Review

My Financial Times column 01/03/11

Whatever economic trauma besets the rest of Japan, its pop culture never ceases to throw up surprises. The latest is a novel about high school baseball shot through with lessons from Peter Drucker. Yes, that Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive; Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices; Managing for the Future and fistfuls of other managerial rip-snorters. The book, titled What if the Female Manager of a High School Baseball Team Read Drucker’s ‘Management’, by Natsumi Iwasaki has sold 2m copies in the past year and is being turned into a manga comic and anime television series.

On my first visit to Japan a couple of years ago, I was amazed to see how Drucker’s books still dominate the business sections in Tokyo’s bookstores. In the US and Europe, one is hard-pressed to find managers under 45 who have more than a passing acquaintance with Drucker. In Japan his works are holy writ.

There are swaths of Drucker’s encyclopedic oeuvre that no longer resonate. They reek of the hair tonic and smoky rooms of 1950s manufacturing companies. But The Essential Drucker, edited and introduced by the man himself, is still remarkably fresh. The essays, a series of incontrovertible meditations on the art of management, are shot through with humanism. Drucker was never a headbanger and rarely a bore.

His enduring popularity started me thinking about the difference between those Gods of Management who endure and those who go stale. Who deserves to hold their place on Olympus alongside Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Drucker, and whom do we throw off the mountain?

My top candidate for eviction is Jack Welch, the former chief executive of General Electric. It seems an eternity ago that Fortune magazine named him the best CEO of the 20th century. His yappy, aggressive style is woefully out of sync with contemporary business culture. And his status as the champion of shareholder value was destroyed when he made off from GE with a retirement package both outlandish and petty. Did a man worth hundred of millions of dollars really need to insist on his former company paying for the electricity at his various holiday homes? Welch once seemed a guru for the ages but is now fossilised.

No business writer has had greater influence over the past decade than Malcolm Gladwell. The ideas contained in The Tipping PointBlink and Outliers come up in conversations between businesspeople as often as the travails of Tiger Woods. Sheer Tipping Point exhaustion, and a streak of writer’s jealousy, had me pondering Gladwell’s status on the managerial Olympus, but then I felt obliged to keep him up there. As a storyteller and synthesist, he is peerless. He provokes a huge audience to think in original ways, without being bossy. My guess is that in 50 years, people will be reading The Essential Gladwell and the Japanese will have turned him into animé.

Gladwell, like Drucker, has the advantage of not being a business practitioner. He can observe impartially. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great and most recently How the Mighty Fall, is similarly impartial, but the case studies in his books, as in many of those written by business school professors, risk ageing poorly. He would do well to follow the example of Tom Peters, who wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982 but has never stopped reinventing himself and developing new material, becoming a blogger and Tweeter at an age when many gurus would rather retire to their herbaceous borders. Peters is on Olympus. Collins has more to prove.

Gary Hamel may now be one of the world’s most sought-after strategic advisers, but his career was nearly snuffed out after he acclaimed Enron as a model of strategic innovation. Hamel, though, earns his place on the coat-tails of his frequent co-author C.K. Prahalad, who brought us both core competence and the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

Last year’s Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson has the rare virtues in a management book of brevity and provocation. Big company managers should worry. Their entire management models are going to be kicked apart by companies following Rework’s refreshing creed, which says ignore the hyperbole and hyperactivity that consume many businesses. Fried and Heinemeier Hansson earn junior divine rank.

As does Freek Vermeulen of the London Business School for his ornery and entertaining book Business Exposed, a rigorous challenge to many business assumptions from the hollowness of strategic planning to the value of indecisiveness.

I realise I have admitted more gurus than I have expelled. Blame it on the lingering Christmas spirit. If I were Jack Welch, I’d have fired the bottom 20 per cent.


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