Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Management Gurus

I was recently asked about gurus by the Swiss business publication Bilan. Upon some reflection, it's an interesting topic and I thought that I'd post the first draft of that conversation:

Bilan: Why are the gurus fast all American or at least english speaking people? Are there some cultural explanations?

WAF: It is true that many, although not all -- there are some British gurus such as Charles Handy,and Lynda Gratton, and Japanese gurus such as Professors Ikujiro Nonaka, or Genichi Taguchi -- are American, but rest-assured this is not for genetic reasons. Instead, for the most part, I believe that what we're seeing here is the result of several social forces:

  • the power of the American media industry: one should never discount the economies of scale that the American media industries enjoy as a result of the sheer size of the population they serve and the ubiquity of English as a second language around the world.
  • the early and profound embrace by America of "management as a profession." While so many other nations denied "professional status" to managers, America not only accepted the role of the entrepreneur/manager as a professional one, but they made them heroes. This ultimately led to a prospering business press: The Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Business Week, Forbes, just to name a few, and out of this came a respect not only for the practice of management, but for the philosophy as well.
  • Finally, I think that America still remains one of the few places where anybody with a good idea can succeed. And, in such environments, paying attention to the good ideas of others makes abundant sense.

- Have you got a favorite guru? I have several: the late [Austrian-born] Peter F. Drucker, of course: "the guru's guru!" He raised the essential question: What is our business and what should it be? No matter how many times you answer this question, and hopefully it's many times, the next time is always the most important. I also admire Warren Bennis, who approaches leadership issues in culture-light manner that focuses on the universal requisites of leadership; and I confess to being a big fan of both Tom Peters and Gary Hamel; and my good friend Supply-Chain guru Charlie Fine, who I have the privilege of co-directing IMD's Driving Strategic Innovation program with.

- Do you advise to your students to read some of them? Yes, for sure. It’s important to appreciate their role as agents-provacateurs, rather than literally accepting all they write as “gospel.” Their role is to lead with opinions, to serve a catalytic function to get us thinking. Used correctly, the real contribution of the guru’s is more about what I -- the professional manager-- think, than about them -- the professional opinion-leader. There is a lot to discuss, both pro and con, from their writing; and most of the learnings come from our discussion rather than the words of the gurus. In addition, I should point out that there are "gurus" everywhere. As a result of my work on Virtuoso Teams, I now see that such disparate personalities as trumpter Miles Davis, composer Leonard Bernstein, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, even Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard, were also profound practicioners of the art of leadership; the reading of whom does not require relying on gurus, and is often much more enjoyable.

- How strong do you believe in the solutions they prescribe? No solution fits all problems. The gurus help us by encouraging us to articulate agreement or disagreement with what they are saying and in exploring our own views as to why we feel this way, so that we can form our own approaches to leadership.

- What can you learn from the experiences they describe? The gurus ask us to be reflective and introspective about what we believe. That is their real contribution; it is not in the rote-application of their lessons, as their lessons are not universal, and can never be. So, I am a great believer in anyone who helps us become more thoughtful about the art of management.

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