GURU GUIDE: Hot air or inspirational thought? Management gurus have been both mocked and applauded. Now MT offers its analysis of who's hot and who's gone right off the boil. Stefan Stern reports

GURU GUIDE: Hot air or inspirational thought? Management gurus have been both mocked and applauded. Now MT offers its analysis of who's hot and who's gone right off the boil. Stefan Stern reports - Take a half-decent - but not necessarily startling or ori

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Take a half-decent - but not necessarily startling or original - idea, sum it up in two or three choice phrases, stretch it out with a few rhetorical flourishes to 5,000 words, get it published in the Harvard Business Review and, bingo, you are launched on a new and potentially lucrative career as a management guru. After the article comes the book, after the book comes the speaking tour, after the tour comes consultancy; and so the cycle continues until a rich and contented retirement.

Unfair? Perhaps. But it will not have escaped the notice of MT readers that a new book or 'idea' arrives without fail every few years to be proclaimed as the new, new thing, without which no firm can progress and no manager's career can reach fulfilment.

Furtive words will be exchanged before board meetings: 'Have you seen that new Conquer and Destroy! book everyone is talking about? I saw the author on CNN in the States last week - fantastic stuff.' And this gambit presents any senior manager with a dilemma: admit your ignorance, or bluff your way through? Can you afford to appear out of touch?

If managerialism is today's all-conquering world religion, it is hardly surprising that there is a steady and constantly refreshed supply of priests and prophets of the new creed. Global business and global media spread the 'word' at the speed of light. The club-class elite have long flights in which to study their work.

And since it is so tough at the top, with the ever-present risk of public humiliation as the price of failure, why shouldn't business leaders look to gurus for inspiration and enlightenment?

The arrival of the internet and powerful new technologies was a gift for the guru industry. For once, the rhetoric of revolutionary change seemed to have a basis in fact. If the business rule book had just been torn up, we needed a new script and a new approach.

Yet the internet revolution is merely the latest example of the never-ending cycle of change that has always challenged business and thus stoked the appetite for managerial truths. The 'scientific management' of Frederick Taylor, an American inventor and business analyst active at the start of the 20th century, shaped the first coherent school of thought with application to the industrialised world. He was our first professional guru, and Taylorism - with its twin goals of productivity and efficiency - still influences management thinking 100 years on.

The heroes of management gurudom stand out as significant landmarks in the economic history of the western world. Henry Ford, heavily influenced by Taylor, perfected the modern production line in his Detroit car plant.

Alfred P Sloan built on Ford's work at General Motors. W Edwards Deming, sent by the Americans into Japan after the second world war to help revive their industry, developed the highly influential concept of quality.

Peter Drucker, fleeing Nazism and finding a home in the US, became the last century's pre-eminent management writer (he rejects the term guru) with 30 publications - and he's still at it. If you've ever sat in a meeting while someone wrote the word 'Objectives' at the top of a flip-chart, you know you've been Druckered - Management by Objective (MBO) is one of his key legacies.

More recently, Tom Peters (with Bob Waterman) invented modern gurudom with his 1982 book In Search of Excellence.

At the beginning of the 1990s, as global recession hit, James Champy and Michael Hammer gave the dread words 're-engineering' and 'downsizing' popular currency with their work Re-engineering the Corporation. CK Prahalad and Gary Hamel, unexpectedly, made the word 'strategy' seem exciting with their mid-'90s opus Competing for the Future. Dr Daniel Goleman tapped into the kinder, gentler side of management (yes, there is one) with his work on Emotional Intelligence in the late '90s.

Where do we stand today? Do we need more gurus, and if so, what will they teach us? Can anybody help when we're poised on the edge of a serious downturn? The buzzwords for the new era are innovation, creativity and talent, allied to a few more old-fashioned ones such as leadership, knowledge and learning. A few contemporary figures stand out. Bruce Tulgan, a young American lawyer, abandoned his embryonic legal career to publish two key books - Managing Generation X and Winning the Talent Wars. Hamel has published Leading the Revolution, a definitive account of the new economy and what businesses have to do to survive and prosper. Tom Peters, 50% genius and 50% bullshit artist (but which bit is which?), continues to inspire and motivate managers around the world with his spectacular presentations.

But in a world of fast-moving, not to say chaotic change, can any single guru claim to offer a vision that adequately summarises the challenges facing managers? Aren't most of their books out of date before they reach the stores? And isn't a return to first principles - dare one say a back-to-basics approach? - the best hope in a world where Nortel gets its forecasts wrong by dollars 20 billion?

That is the intellectually modest, even defeatist approach. Management thinkers still have a lot to tell us. You don't have to believe everything they say, but they may at least offer stimulation; they might provoke senior managers into abandoning complacency and trying to see problems in a new light.

Late last year, I was present when Prahalad held a large theatre full of managers rapt with his brilliant analysis of the new economy, and the way in which businesses' relationships with customers were bound to change in profound and unforeseen ways. This gentle, charming guru spoke quietly and confidently for 45 minutes, effortlessly throwing out idea after idea to an eager audience. But he saved his best shot till the end.

'Don't forget,' he said, 'if someone tells you they have the answer, they probably don't understand the question.' He smiled, picked up his notes, and disappeared off the stage.

< sun-tzu="" who="" is="" he?:="" chinese="" general,="" author="" of="" 36="" strategies,="" also="" known="" as="" the="" art="" of="" war="" when?:="" about="" 500bc="" big="" idea?:="" 'all="" warfare="" is="" based="" on="" deception';="" 'the="" supreme="" art="" of="" war="" is="" to="" subdue="" the="" enemy="" without="" fighting'="" favoured="" by?:="" hollywood="" magnates="" and="" stars="" -="" wesley="" snipes="" was="" spotted="" reading="" him="" during="" a="" break="" in="" filming;="" jackie="" chan="" is="" making="" the="" most="" expensive="" hong="" kong="" film="" ever,="" based="" on="" sun-tzu's="" writings="" do="" say:="" truly="" the="" strong="" shall="" conquer="" the="" weak="" don't="" say:="" i'll="" have="" a="" 12,="" a="" 17,="" two="" 37s="" and="" a="" 58,="" please="" soundbite:="" 'pretend="" to="" be="" a="" pig="" in="" order="" to="" eat="" the="" tiger'="" (got="" that?)="" hot="" or="" not?:="" still="" hot="" william="" shakespeare="" who="" is="" he?:="" brummie="" grammar-school="" boy="" with="" a="" theatrical="" bent="" when?:="" late="" 16th,="" early="" 17th="" century="" big="" idea?:="" the="" play's="" the="" thing="" favoured="" by?:="" politicians,="" visionaries,="" anyone="" looking="" for="" a="" handy="" quote;="" sir="" peter="" parker,="" former="" chairman="" of="" british="" rail,="" is="" one="" of="" business's="" great="" shakespeareans="" do="" say:="" once="" more="" unto="" the="" breach,="" dear="" friends,="" once="" more="" don't="" say:="" four="" hours,="" and="" only="" one="" bloody="" interval!="" soundbite:="" 'this="" above="" all:="" to="" thine="" own="" self="" be="" true,="" and="" it="" must="" follow="" as="" the="" night="" the="" day="" thou="" canst="" not="" then="" be="" false="" to="" any="" man'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" hot="" ernest="" shackleton="" who="" is="" he?:="" navigator,="" explorer="" of="" icy="" wastes="" when?:="" early="" 20th="" century="" -="" 'endurance'="" expedition="" during="" world="" war="" one="" big="" idea?:="" people="" can="" achieve="" anything="" if="" they="" work="" together.="" he="" got="" his="" team="" home="" from="" the="" antarctic="" against="" all="" the="" odds="" favoured="" by?:="" lonely="" leaders="" and="" hollywood="" do="" say:="" trust="" me,="" i="" really="" believe="" we="" can="" do="" this="" don't="" say:="" it="" ain't="" 'alf="" cold,="" mum="" soundbite:="" 'we="" had="" suffered,="" starved="" and="" triumphed,="" grovelled="" down="" yet="" grasped="" at="" glory,="" grown="" bigger="" in="" the="" bigness="" of="" the="" whole.="" we="" had="" reached="" the="" naked="" soul="" of="" man.'="" (not="" your="" average="" teambuilding="" session,="" then)="" hot="" or="" not?:="" hot="" (having="" been="" iced="" up)="" dale="" carnegie="" who="" is="" he?:="" author="" of="" the="" salesmanship="" bible="" how="" to="" win="" friends="" and="" influence="" people="" when?:="" published="" his="" classic="" in="" 1936="" big="" idea?:="" you="" can="" win="" people="" over="" by="" paying="" attention="" to="" a="" few="" small="" details="" favoured="" by?:="" self-help="" addicts,="" sales="" teams="" do="" say:="" at="" last="" i="" can="" face="" a="" crowd="" with="" confidence="" don't="" say:="" get="" peter="" mandelson="" a="" copy="" for="" christmas="" soundbite:="" 'become="" genuinely="" interested="" in="" other="" people;="" smile;="" remember="" that="" a="" person's="" name="" is="" to="" that="" person="" the="" sweetest="" and="" most="" important="" sound="" in="" any="" language;="" be="" a="" good="" listener="" ...="" make="" the="" other="" person="" feel="" important="" -="" and="" do="" it="" sincerely'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" cool="" peter="" drucker="" who="" is="" he?:="" austrian="" emigre="" ('the="" father="" of="" modern="" management'),="" the="" one="" writer="" of="" the="" late="" 20th="" century="" to="" bear="" comparison="" with="" the="" other="" big="" names="" when?:="" bestrides="" post-war="" management="" thinking;="" still="" going="" strong="" at="" 92="" big="" idea?:="" management="" is="" a="" crucial,="" human,="" moral="" and="" noble="" task;="" we="" should="" try="" and="" get="" better="" at="" it="" favoured="" by?:="" great="" and="" good="" captains="" of="" industry;="" newt="" gingrich="" used="" to="" swear="" by="" him="" do="" say:="" drucker="" was="" writing="" about="" all="" this="" 30="" years="" ago="" don't="" say:="" drucker,="" schmucker="" -="" where="" are="" the="" younger="" guys?="" soundbite:="" 'you="" cannot="" manage="" change="" -="" you="" can="" only="" be="" ahead="" of="" it'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" distinctly="" warm="" warren="" bennis="" who="" is="" he?:="" academic="" and="" futurologist,="" perhaps="" the="" world's="" greatest="" authority="" on="" leadership="" when?:="" 1960s="" onwards="" -="" he's="" 76="" big="" idea:="" leaders="" are="" not="" supermen="" or="" heroes="" but="" human="" beings="" who="" can="" make="" a="" profound,="" positive="" contribution="" to="" organisations="" favoured="" by?:="" californians="" do="" say:="" on="" leadership,="" he="" has="" said="" it="" all;="" there's="" nothing="" to="" add="" don't="" say:="" get="" off="" the="" beach="" and="" try="" the="" real="" world="" for="" a="" change="" soundbite:="" 'i'm="" more="" and="" more="" convinced="" that="" individual="" leaders="" can="" create="" a="" human="" community="" that="" will,="" in="" the="" long="" run,="" lead="" to="" the="" best="" organisations'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" cool="" tom="" peters="" who="" is="" he?:="" ex-mckinsey="" man="" turned="" platform="" speaker="" and="" inspirer="" when?:="" now="" a="" cosy="" 50-something,="" he="" has="" been="" at="" the="" top="" of="" the="" tree="" for="" the="" past="" two="" decades="" big="" idea?:="" excellence="" -="" his="" book="" in="" search="" of="" excellence="" (1982)="" has="" sold="" more="" than="" six="" million="" copies="" favoured="" by?:="" bored="" middle="" managers="" and,="" intriguingly,="" the="" senior="" team="" of="" the="" harvester="" restaurant="" chain="" (encouraged?)="" do="" say:="" no="" matter="" how="" tired="" and="" stale="" i="" am,="" tom="" always="" wakes="" me="" up="" don't="" say:="" he's="" a="" complete="" shyster="" who="" has="" contradicted="" or="" abandoned="" almost="" everything="" he="" has="" ever="" said="" soundbite:="" 'we="" are="" in="" a="" brawl="" without="" rules'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" still="" warm="" charles="" handy="" who="" is="" he?:="" irish-born="" writer,="" philosopher="" and="" broadcaster;="" the="" british="" isles'="" one="" world-class="" guru="" when?:="" came="" to="" the="" public's="" attention="" in="" the="" '80s="" and="" '90s="" big="" idea?:="" predicted="" the="" 1/2="" x="" 2="" x="" 3="" corporation="" -="" half="" as="" many="" people="" being="" paid="" twice="" as="" much="" to="" do="" three="" times="" the="" work="" favoured="" by?:="" restless="" and="" disillusioned="" strivers="" after="" meaning="" do="" say:="" so="" wise,="" so="" thoughtful,="" so="" human="" don't="" say:="" that's="" easy="" for="" him="" to="" say!="" i'd="" like="" to="" see="" him="" do="" my="" job="" soundbite:="" 'managers="" will="" have="" to="" learn="" to="" live="" with="" the="" process="" of="" managing="" individuals,="" rather="" than="" 'human="" resources''="" hot="" or="" not?:="" lukewarm="" michael="" porter="" who="" is="" he?:="" harvard="" economist,="" big-picture="" analyst="" of="" global="" business="" forces.="" big="" hit="" on="" the="" conference="" circuit="" when?:="" '80s="" hero,="" but="" still="" at="" the="" top="" big="" idea?:="" competitive="" advantage;="" also,="" the="" five="" forces="" (what="" every="" business="" and="" sector="" is="" subject="" to;="" they="" form="" the="" rules="" of="" competition)="" favoured="" by?:="" serious="" conventional="" types="" do="" say:="" he="" has="" brought="" the="" rigour="" of="" economic="" analysis="" to="" the="" business="" of="" management="" don't="" say:="" bo-ring!="" soundbite:="" 'in="" any="" industry,="" whether="" it="" is="" domestic="" or="" international="" or="" produces="" a="" product="" or="" a="" service,="" the="" rules="" of="" competition="" are="" embodied="" in="" five="" competitive="" forces'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" cool="" henry="" mintzberg="" who="" is="" he?:="" canadian="" professor,="" writer="" and="" wit:="" management's="" answer="" to="" woody="" allen="" when?:="" established="" himself="" in="" '80s="" and="" '90s,="" now="" a="" top="" name="" big="" idea?:="" the="" making="" of="" strategy;="" now="" also="" how="" 'shareholder="" value="" and="" heroic="" management="" have="" driven="" a="" wedge="" between="" the="" ceo="" and="" the="" rest="" of="" the="" organisation'="" favoured="" by?:="" laconic,="" cynical="" types="" do="" say:="" what="" a="" refreshing="" human="" voice="" don't="" say:="" does="" he="" actually="" like="" business?="" soundbite:="" 'you="" know="" how="" you="" could="" fix="" airline="" food="" in="" five="" minutes?="" serve="" it="" in="" the="" executive="" dining="" room'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" hotting="" up="" fast="" stephen="" covey="" who="" is="" he?:="" a="" best-selling="" guru="" whose="" seven="" habits="" of="" highly="" effective="" people="" (10="" million-plus="" copies="" sold)="" continues="" to="" win="" new="" admirers="" when?:="" spent="" five="" years="" at="" the="" top="" of="" new="" york="" times'="" bestseller="" list="" in="" the="" early="" '90s="" big="" idea?:="" strip="" down="" to="" essential="" detail="" and="" achieve="" more="" favoured="" by?:="" ex-president="" bill="" clinton="" (really;="" one="" is="" forced="" to="" wonder="" if="" he="" picked="" up="" any="" habits="" from="" covey)="" do="" say:="" covey="" changed="" my="" life="" and="" saved="" my="" marriage="" don't="" say:="" who's="" that="" crazy-looking="" bald="" guy="" with="" the="" weird="" ideas?="" soundbite:="" 'we="" never="" really="" understand="" what's="" going="" on="" inside="" another="" human="" being'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" cool="" rosabeth="" moss="" kanter="" who="" is="" she?:="" a="" harvard="" business="" professor="" and="" consultant,="" one="" of="" the="" very="" few="" women="" gurus="" when?:="" came="" to="" fame="" in="" the="" '80s="" big="" idea?:="" companies="" have="" got="" to="" learn="" how="" to="" dance="" (be="" nimble,="" responsive="" and="" innovative)="" favoured="" by?:="" think="" tankers="" and="" policy="" wonks="" (she="" made="" a="" splash="" with="" demos="" when="" they="" were="" new="" and="" cool)="" do="" say:="" thank="" god="" we've="" got="" at="" least="" one="" woman="" around="" don't="" say:="" where's="" your="" boss,="" honey?="" soundbite:="" 'the="" degree="" to="" which="" the="" opportunity="" to="" use="" power="" effectively="" is="" granted="" to="" or="" withheld="" from="" individuals="" is="" one="" operative="" difference="" between="" those="" companies="" that="" stagnate="" and="" those="" that="" innovate'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" warm="" gary="" hamel="" who="" is="" he?:="" californian-based="" analyst="" and="" consultant;="" co-authored="" key="" '90s="" book="" with="" ck="" prahalad,="" competing="" for="" the="" future="" when?:="" 1990s="" hero="" who="" went="" up="" a="" gear="" for="" the="" new="" millennium="" big="" idea?:="" strategy="" and="" innovation="" matter,="" and="" cannot="" be="" outsourced="" favoured="" by?:="" new-economy="" heroes;="" bill="" gates="" invites="" him="" to="" his="" ceo="" summit="" do="" say:="" such="" lucidity!="" such="" vigour!="" don't="" say:="" pretentious="" tosh="" soundbite:="" 'the="" skill="" in="" leading="" an="" organisation="" now="" lies="" in="" spotting="" the="" big="" opportunities="" that="" may="" emerge="" as="" a="" result="" of="" smaller="" experimentation'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" hot="" sir="" john="" harvey-jones="" who="" is="" he?:="" britain's="" favourite="" manager,="" former="" ici="" boss="" and="" tv's="" famous="" troubleshooter="" when?:="" 1970s="" and="" '80s="" corporate="" chief,="" then="" '90s="" tv="" star="" big="" idea?:="" management="" is="" about="" persuasion="" and="" action="" favoured="" by?:="" middle="" england,="" cbi="" members="" do="" say:="" i="" bet="" sir="" john="" could="" sort="" this="" shower="" out="" in="" half="" an="" hour="" don't="" say:="" oh,="" not="" him="" again="" soundbite:="" 'if="" you're="" in="" a="" meeting="" and="" someone="" is="" playing="" politics,="" just="" say="" to="" them:="" 'you're="" playing="" politics,="" come="" back="" when="" you="" feel="" better''="" hot="" or="" not?:="" lukewarm="" bill="" gates="" who="" is="" he?:="" microsoft="" chief,="" world's="" second-richest="" man="" when?:="" dominated="" the="" planet="" from="" the="" late="" '80s="" onwards="" big="" idea?:="" microsoft="" favoured="" by?:="" no-one="" really,="" but="" you="" can't="" ignore="" him="" do="" say:="" bill,="" you="" have="" made="" charitable="" giving="" respectable="" again="" don't="" say:="" say="" what="" you="" like="" about="" larry="" ellison,="" he="" sure="" knows="" how="" to="" cut="" a="" deal="" soundbite:="" 'that="" software:="" it's="" not="" yours,="" it's="" mine'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" warming="" up="" again="" will="" hutton="" who="" is="" he?:="" former="" journalist="" turned="" think-tank="" chief="" when?:="" wrote="" the="" state="" we're="" in="" in="" 1995="" and="" became="" the="" left's="" leading="" guru="" -="" for="" a="" time="" big="" idea?:="" stakeholding="" -="" we're="" all="" in="" this="" together="" favoured="" by?:="" tony="" blair="" (up="" to="" 1996);="" left-leaning="" liberals="" do="" say:="" this="" is="" it,="" the="" big="" idea="" we="" need="" don't="" say:="" japan="" and="" germany,="" eh?="" not="" looking="" too="" clever,="" are="" they?="" soundbite:="" 'britain="" has="" reached="" an="" important="" juncture="" ...="" we="" have="" broken="" out="" of="" the="" ideological="" categories="" that="" have="" boxed="" in="" our="" thinking.="" unless="" we="" learn="" important="" lessons,="" contemporary="" britain="" will="" bequeath="" future="" generations="" nothing'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" went="" cold,="" now="" hotting="" up="" sven="" goran="" eriksson="" who="" is="" he?:="" england="" football="" manager="" from="" frozen="" north="" and="" saviour="" of="" national="" pride="" when?:="" man="" of="" the="" moment="" and="" author="" of="" sge="" on="" football,="" written="" with="" a="" sports="" psychologist="" called="" dr="" willi="" big="" idea?:="" goals="" should="" be="" pursued="" with="" joy="" and="" freedom,="" not="" fear="" favoured="" by?:="" adam="" crozier;="" all="" who="" prop="" up="" bars="" across="" england="" do="" say:="" business="" is="" a="" game="" of="" two="" halves/on="" me="" head,="" sven!="" don't="" say:="" they'll="" be="" home="" from="" tokyo="" before="" the="" postcard="" soundbite:="" 'we="" must="" choose="" fight="" over="" flight,="" attack="" over="" defence="" and="" freedom="" over="" compulsion'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" coming="" to="" boil="" dilbert="" who="" is="" he?:="" the="" struggling="" creation="" of="" scott="" adams,="" a="" toiling="" and="" oppressed="" office-cubicle="" dweller.="" but="" the="" point="" is,="" you="" see,="" we="" are="" all="" dilbert.="" you="" are="" dilbert.="" i="" am="" dilbert="" when?:="" child="" of="" the="" '90s;="" when="" scott="" adams="" quit="" his="" old="" job,="" he="" set="" dilbert="" free="" big="" idea?:="" work="" sucks,="" and="" it's="" getting="" worse="" favoured="" by?:="" most="" employees="" do="" say:="" dilbert="" strikes="" again="" don't="" say:="" why="" does="" he="" have="" to="" be="" so="" negative="" all="" the="" time?="" i="" really="" like="" my="" job!="" soundbite:="" 'thanks="" to="" your="" leadership,="" the="" product="" is="" bad,="" our="" stock="" will="" plunge="" and="" our="" lives="" are="" totally="" meaningless'="" hot="" or="" not?:="" scalding="">

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