If we were to collect the lists, we would probably find the responses heavily skewed to individuals who have served as chief executives, men such as Jack Welch or Bill Gates.
Yet the growth of the large corporation as an institution has been accompanied by a similar rise in the cadre of men and women who have spent their lives trying to determine how best to manage these entities. Thousands of management experts have devoted their careers and their lives to making organizations more effective, yet most have toiled in relative obscurity. A few names might come to mind immediately--Peter Drucker, Tom Peters or Michael Porter--but most names are lost to history.
Andrea Gabor has attempted to fill some of the gap in that knowledge by shining a bright light on 13 of the past century's most influential management thinkers and writers in her book, "The Capitalist Philosophers: The Geniuses of Modern Business--Their Lives, Times and Ideas."
Some of the names will be quite familiar to most readers, such as Frederick Winslow Taylor, Alfred Sloan and Peter Drucker, while others will be less familiar, yet no less influential. Gabor has provided readers with a rich history. Her portraits of each person are thorough, yet concise. We learn not only something about what each person thought and wrote, but also a great deal about the forces in each individual's life that motivated and shaped his or her thinking.
Mary Parker Follett's name is one few would recognize, yet this woman--the only woman Gabor profiles--had a profound effect on the development of management thought. Follett was active in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when women occupied few executive positions in business, government or education. Follett's audience was small, but devoted. Those who read her articles and books found a rich trove of wisdom flowing from her pen.
It is our good fortune that Follett's roommate ignored her orders to burn all of Follett's papers upon her death. Had the roommate abided by Follett's wishes, we would not have any of her remarkable work, the best of which can be found in the volume "Mary Parker Follett--Prophet of Management," published in 1995 by Harvard Business School Press.
W. Edwards Deming was another fascinating person who enjoyed 15 minutes of fame as a management guru before his reputation succumbed to the misguided efforts of an army of Deming Disciples. Deming, who played a key role in the rebuilding of the Japanese economy following World War II, developed the concept of Total Quality Management. He was highly critical of American business's focus on short-term profits and felt the system had to undergo an enormous cultural shift:
"Western style of management must change to halt the decline of Western industry. We live in a society dedicated to orders from the top to bottom, confrontation (every idea put forth must win or lose), and all-out war to destroy the competitor, be he at home or abroad." Deming wrote those words some 40 years ago, yet they are as fresh and vital today as when they were first written.
American business seems to have a very short attention span for management writers and thinkers. Executives listen only until the "next great idea" comes along. Management writers increasingly seem forced to develop a flashy delivery if they hope to achieve the coveted appellation of "guru."
Yet Gabor's book shows that most of the ideas consultants tout today have their roots in work done long ago. The fundamentals of organization management and leadership have remained constant, even if the delivery of those concepts has been re-charged for a new economy.
Gabor closes her book by asking a provocative question: Are corporations "chronic underachievers"? She suggests that most organizations have considerable potential that they never develop. "Finding the key to unlock their potential remains one of the great untapped organizational challenges." It is for this reason that we need management experts to assist even the most talented corporate executives.
Gabor has done the business world a great service by culling through the thousands and thousands of writers who overwhelm bookstore shelves and focusing on the best and the brightest. She provides an excellent tour through 13 of the best management minds the past century produced. Ideally, her book will whet her readers' appetites for a more thorough exploration of her subjects' writings.
If corporations are indeed chronic underachievers in a time of increasingly intense competition, then the need for extraordinary leadership has never been greater. Even the most talented executives should turn to outside experts for advice and counsel. Gabor's book is like having the very best advisers as close as the nearest bookshelf.
To read more articles like this one, visit Knowledge@Wharton.
All materials copyright © 2000 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.