Revealing Leadership Insights From Thinkers50

Leadership-insights-Thinkers50

The following is a guest piece from Thinkers50 creators Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove.

Business best practice never stands still. State of the art management and leadership techniques are continually evolving. Think about it: how organizations are run in 2014 is radically different from how they were run just ten years ago. Technology has clearly paid a huge part in this, but the biggest driver of change in how organizations are run is the ceaseless quest for improvement; to manage more efficiently and effectively to better achieve business results.

Improvements come from bright ideas. There is nothing quite so practical as a great idea. The ideas which inspire and influence business practitioners often have their origins in the ideas and work of the thinkers celebrated in the Thinkers50, the biennial ranking of business thinkers.

From blue ocean strategy to Michael Porter’s five forces, Vijay Govindarajan’s reverse innovation to Richard D’Aveni’s hypercompetition, great thinkers and their ideas directly effect how companies are run and how business people think about and practice business.

Think of Peter Drucker who topped the first Thinkers50 ranking in 2001. Drucker was writing about knowledge workers in the late 1960s. Best practice only caught up with the great thinker’s ideas in the 1990s. Similarly, CK Prahalad’s work on the bottom of the pyramid from the beginning of this century is still hugely influential.

And, the winner of the 2013 Thinkers50, Clay Christensen, now sees his ideas of disruptive innovation used and applied by managers in their relentless quest for competitive advantage. Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, is the author of several best-selling books including The Innovator’s Dilemma, topped the Thinkers50 list for the second time running – an achievement matched only by management legends Peter Drucker and CK Prahalad.

Christensen’s influence on the business world has been profound. In The Innovator’s Dilemma, he looked at why companies struggle with radical innovation in their markets. The book introduced the idea of disruptive innovation to a generation of managers and explained why the management practices that have allowed them to become industry leaders also make it hard for companies to develop the disruptive technologies that ultimately steal away their markets.

More recently, Christensen has applied his ideas to healthcare and education to show how enlightened management thinking can tackle the big issues facing society.

Rise of the Chinese thinkers
The big story in the 2013 Thinkers50 was the arrival of the first Chinese thinkers in the ranking. At No. 31, the highest ranked Chinese thinker (and the first ever to make the top 50) is Liu Chuanzhi. The former chairman of Lenovo Group started the business with a $24,000 loan from the Chinese government in 1984. Lenovo is now the second-largest computer group in the world.

Also making the list is Wang Shi, founder and chairman of Vanke, the world’s largest residential home developer. A keen mountaineer, as well as climbing Mount Everest, he has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard, led China’s first and largest entrepreneur organization, is involved with a variety of philanthropic organizations, and is the author of Ladder of the Soul.

The addition of Liu Chuanzhi and Wang Shi to the ranking suggests that Western executives and companies are increasingly looking to companies and thinkers in growth economies for inspiration. Management thinking is no longer the preserve of the West. The last few rankings have seen an Asian invasion with the arrival of thinkers from India and now China.

What is especially interesting is that the thinkers admired in China are practitioners rather than academics. The only Western business leaders to be featured in the ranking were AG Lafley of P&G and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. We anticipate that in the 2015 ranking there will be more Chinese representatives but that these will also be drawn from academia.

Women lean in
The other big story in the 2013 Thinkers50 was the increased number of women featured. In 2013, women thinkers took no fewer than four of the top 10 places – their best ever showing. (This compares with just one in 2011.) At No. 2 in the ranking (with writing partner Chan Kim) INSEAD’s Renée Mauborgne was the highest placed woman.

Also in the top ten were: Rita McGrath (6); Linda Hill (8); and the Cuban-born thinker Herminia Ibarra (9). Three more women made the top 20: Lynda Gratton of London Business School (14); Sylvia-Ann Hewlett (15); and Harvard’s Amy Edmondson (16). Overall, it is the best ever showing for the women thinkers – with 13 places out of the top 50 (up from 11 in 2011 and just five in 2009.)

Among the other women in the top 50 was Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of the 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead; and former Oracle executive Liz Wiseman. And Ellen MacArthur (of sailing fame) picked up the Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award for her championing of the Circular Economy. The Future Thinker Award also went to a woman for the second consecutive time, with Nilofer Merchant the winner.

Magpie science
All of this proves that managers across the world are more open to ideas than ever before. Management thinking is more global than ever before. No fewer than 9 different nationalities feature in the Thinkers50 – including thinkers from the US, Canada, Korea, China, the UK, India, and Cuba. (Remarkably, the other nationality punching well above its demographic weight is Canada, with two thinkers in the top 10, Roger Martin and Don Tapscott, and Syd Finkelstein makes the list for the first time.)

Ideas make a difference. For example, at No.2 in the 2013 Thinkers50 ranking were the INSEAD professors Chan Kim and Renée Maubourgne. Kim and Maubourgne, Korean and American, respectively, are the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy and a string of highly influential HBR articles.

Blue Ocean Strategy has already sold over three million copies, and has been embraced by companies, not-for-profits and national governments around the world. The government of Malaysia launched the National Blue Ocean Strategy 3 (NBOS3), the third wave of its National Blue Ocean Strategy. A key target is building rural infrastructure – providing housing and water supplies for the rural poor.

Ideas matter and managers are constantly vigilant in their quest to find the next great idea which might change their business.

So, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Do you know the key thought leaders in your area of expertise?
  2. Who else could you learn from outside your organization?
  3. Who could you learn from inside the organization?

Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove are the creators of the Thinkers50. They are adjunct professors at IE Business School. Stuart is editor of Business Strategy Review. Des is an associate fellow of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School. Stuart and Des are the authors of more than 15 books available in 20 languages. Former columnists to The (London) Times, they are editors of The Financial Times Handbook of Management. The Thinkers50 book series is now available from McGraw Hill.


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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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