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Published: July 1, 1996

 
 

"The Age of Heretics" by Art Kleiner

A kinship chart of the group dynamics "family" of practitioners would put NTL at the top and spider down through several famous management projects of the 1950's and 60's, from Procter & Gamble to General Foods. As the movement grew popular, it inevitably thinned out. By the late 60's, the line between group dynamics and therapy — the T in T-group originally stood for training, not therapy — had blurred to such an extent that employee complaints about intrusions into their privacy finally killed off the groups.

Like any good spiritualist, Mr. Kleiner presumes that the intellectual zest behind T-groups stayed alive in the ether until it found a place to roost. Throughout the 70's and 80's, it found expression more through inspired individuals than schools of thought, à la the NTL. This approach makes it possible for Mr. Kleiner to bring together the stories of several people who share nothing except for the fact that he has classified each as a heretic, for which read "visionary."

Thus, Amory Lovins, a leader of the small-is-beautiful, soft-energy-path movement that had a fashion in the late 70's, appears, but so does Pierre Wack, a Shell executive with a major stake in the fossil-fuel energy path. And so do Saul Alinsky, the community organizer who dedicated himself to undermining capitalism and the established order, including the corporate elite at Kodak headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., and Tom Peters, the excellence-is-beautiful guru di tutti gurus of the 80's. Only when "everything is everything" could these two men be said to have anything in common. One suspects that Mr. Alinsky, who died in 1972, would have had a few salty words at being included in a book about corporate "heretics."

One of the book's more interesting revelations is that the cultish quality of many popular management trends is no coincidence. Some of Mr. Kleiner's heretics-cum-visionaries have come under the sway of real gurus, like the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, and clearly believe in the power of the charismatic individual to influence world-historical events. The author does not explore this — it would seem — problematic aspect of leadership. Is a religious model, especially one in which a charismatic figure wields fervor, wanted in a corporate setting? Must managers become an apostle of the man — with one minor exception, all the visionaries in this book are men — in order to buy into the message?

Mr. Kleiner concludes by asking catechismically, why do corporations exist? He writes, "It might seem ridiculous at first, to answer that question by saying, 'They are here to remake the world.' " The question may seem a little over the top, but it's not ridiculous if you think corporations are like the medieval monasteries that were the only line of defense against demons and chaos. But isn't the current, stalemated debate over layoffs, C.E.O. compensation, shareholder value and corporate responsibility, if not about demons and chaos, really about the role corporations play in society?

Its idiosyncrasies aside, The Age of Heretics pushes that debate past good and evil into ambiguity, where it is really interesting.


Authors
Barbara Presley Noble, the former At Work and Business Book Review columnist for The New York Times, has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in business and economic journalism at Columbia.
 
 
 
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