We examine the present in light of the past
so as to better understand the future.
John Maynard Keynes

* With apologies to Karl von Clausewitz

Are gurus really revealers of truth?

One of my favourite management writers, Mary Parker Follett, began her book Creative Experience by asking a deliberately provocative question: are experts necessarily revealers of truth? Do they really know anything that we don’t? Or is the purpose of experts and gurus merely to make us think, preferably in quite new ways, about what we already know?

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is the latter. We already know so much; if only we knew how much we knew, we could be quite powerful.

I teach a module on organisation as part of the One Planet MBA at the University of Exeter Business School, and at the outset of the module (sorry, spoiler alert for anyone taking that module later this month) I ask people to work out how many organisations they belong to and for how long. The result is that within any given classroom there are usually at least a thousand years of collective experience and knowledge of organisations. If that knowledge can be teased out and shared among the group, then it becomes far more powerful than any organisation textbook ever written.

When writing Management from the Masters, published last week, I had to try to define what I meant by a ‘master’. Was I thinking about traditional guru figures who sit on high dispensing wisdom about management? But none of the people I have studied over the years knew everything about management, and quite a few of them were wrong about some quite significant things. Then there was the question of what constituted a ‘master’ in management terms. Should we only learn from people within the business world such as Drucker and Deming? Or do we turn to other sources of wisdom, philosophers such as Confucius and Kautilya, scientists such as Darwin and Clausius? Do they have anything to tell us? The latter seemed to me to be just as important.

I still have somewhat ambivalent feelings about the word master, and I hope no one will think that I am setting any of these figures up as know-it-all gurus. But each of the figures I profiled has something very important to say. Like Mary Parker Follett, I urge you to read their messages, then take them away and interpret them in a way that makes sense to you. The aim here is to stimulate creative thought, not regulate it.

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Adi Gaskell commented on
Management Consultancy

Pradee commented on
Oh, no, not another book on management!

Laurie commented on
Another one bites the dust - reflecting on my new book on management failures