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Good Leaders Learn From the Best

Good leaders learn from the best. Why? Because you can see further on the shoulders of giants. In the business world, the best thinkers are often labelled “gurus”. But who are the best? What exactly makes someone a guru? How and why do you apply the best ideas of leading thinkers to your situation?

This three part article provides some answers to these questions. In the first we discuss what makes a guru, who they are, and how we determine their worth, crucial if a good leader is to learn from the best.

The second article, developing good leadership qualities by learning from the best, further explores the value of gurus, asking and answering the question: why should godo leaders be bothered to learn from the gurus?

The third article, leadership exercises: putting the best ideas to work, contains a useful tool to help you evaluate the ideas of the business gurus, and to apply them in your own work.


What do we mean by a guru?

handy good leaders learn from the bestThe idea of management gurus is often ridiculed, associated with the creation and exploitation of “the next big thing” in management thinking. Nonetheless, serious thinkers support the role of serious management gurus. Charles Handy makes the case:

‘Great ideas lie wasted unless someone turns them into a viable activity or a business, through management.’

Perhaps this is reason enough to explain why good leaders should learn from the best! Handy goes further though, explaining that the role of a guru is:

“to interpret and spread around what seems to be working, helping managers to cope in a world that changes fast.”

He suggests that they “often use common sense, but they see the sense before it becomes common and that’s what can give companies and their managers the competitive edge. The insights and methods of the gurus can make a big difference to the way we manage our organisations.”

Handy’s definition of a management guru is both pithy and pragmatic: someone who interprets and spreads what seems to be working.

How do Good Leaders Find out Who are the Best?

If good leaders should learn from the best, how do you tell a genuine guru from the multitude of management writers and thinkers? The definition we’ve used suggests that the crucial criteria should be: do the ideas help, and is there evidence that they work?

As an old Italian proverb suggests: “it’s not enough to aim you must hit.”

Our new book was inspired by Handy’s idea of finding the sense before it becomes common sense:

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Firstly, one useful way to identify the best is to look at those who have already gained widespread recognition. Who appears on the numerous lists of top thinkers in the fields of leadership, business and management? The Thinkers 50 is one example – an annual ranking of the most influential living management thinkers. It’s one way of seeing who is highly regarded, based on a survey (of business people, consultants, academics and MBA students), analysis of google references to candidates, and their scoring against 10 criteria. These give some indication of the nature and role of management gurus:

  1. Originality of Ideas – are the ideas and examples used by the thinker original?
  2. Practicality of Ideas – have the ideas promoted by the thinker been implemented in organizations? And, has the implementation been successful?
  3. Presentation Style – how proficient is the thinker at presenting his/her ideas orally?
  4. Written Communication – how proficient is the thinker at presenting his/her ideas in writing?
  5. Loyalty of Followers – how committed are the thinker’s disciples to spreading the message and putting it to work?
  6. Business Sense – do they practice what they preach in their own business?
  7. International Outlook – how international are they in outlook and thinking?
  8. Rigor of Research – how well researched are their books and presentations?
  9. Impact of Ideas – have their ideas had an impact on the way people manage or think about management?
  10. Guru Factor – the clincher: are they, for better or worse, guru material by your definition and expectation?

However, as The Thinkers 50 acknowledges, it only features the most influential living management thinkers. So giants, such as Peter Drucker who led the early lists until his death in 2005, are not included.

For an alternative, the International Institute of Management has researched two lists, based on similar criteria to The Thinkers 50 approach. One is a management guru “Hall of Fame”, whilst the other is the World’s Most Respected Management Thinkers”.

Secondly, good leaders can learn from the best by reading some of the excellent books which review some of the ideas that have shaped management thinking. Providing overviews of 34 leading management thinkers, Carol Kennedy’s book: “Guide to the Management Gurus” is just one example. For Kennedy:

“Timing is of the essence in achieving gurudom. Timing; originality; forcefulness; a gift of self-promotion and perhaps above all else, the ability to encapsulate memorably what others immediately recognise as true – these are the marks of the modern management guru.”

Finally, you could take the considered opinion of the gurus themselves. Warren Bennis suggests that “If Peter Drucker is responsible for legitimizing the field of management and Tom Peters for popularizing it, then Charles Handy should be known as the person who gave it a philosophical elegance and eloquence that was missing from the field.”

We have already explored Handy’s definition of a guru. On the BBC website Handy introduces his choice of twelve significant gurus in: “the Handy guide to the gurus of management”

Handy sums up his position with reference to the giant of management giants. “My view that the role of the guru is to interpret, explain and forewarn is one that is shared by the prince of guru’s, Peter Drucker.”

Good leaders have much to learn from the best but is time spent studying the words of management gurus really time well spent? This is the subject of our second article: developing good leadership qualities by learning from the best. In particular we explore six reasons why learning from the best really matters.

Why should good leaders learn from the best? Perhaps because:

“If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”

Sir Isaac Newton

Good Leaders Learn from the Best

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