The world’s most influential management thinker?

November 12, 2013

The Oscars of the "management guru" world took place Monday evening in London, and the awards highlighted much of the industry's best while also sparking, as all competitions do, a touch of controversy.

Clay Christensen at the Thinkers50 ceremony in London, Nov. 11, 2013 (Courtesy of Thinkers50). Clay Christensen at the Thinkers50 ceremony in London, Nov. 11, 2013 (Courtesy of Thinkers50).

The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management thinkers, named Harvard Business School professor and innovation czar Clayton Christensen as the top "thought leader" in the world for the second time running. Christensen, best known for his work on disruptive innovation and the author of "The Innovator's Dilemma," has applied his ideas to fields as diverse as education, healthcare and self-help.

He's followed by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, authors of the bestseller "Blue Ocean Strategy"; Roger Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a writer and adviser on strategy and design; "Wikinomics" author Don Tapscott, whose claim to fame is his thinking on networks and collaboration, and V.G. Govindarajan, the Tuck School of Business professor also known for his writing on innovation, recently in the developing world.

The list is the brainchild of Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove, former columnists at the (London) Times and both adjunct professors at IE Business School. The ranking comes out every two years and is based on voting done at the Thinkers50 Web site—more than 12,000 votes were cast for the 2013 list—as well as on input from an advisory board led by Crainer and Dearlove. The board "triangulates" and adds in names who are getting increased attention, Crainer says, then evaluates the top nominated candidates based on 10 criteria, such as their ideas' relevance, impact, practicality, presentation and accessibility.

Crainer admits "there's a lot of subjectivity," and says he and the board try to stay focused on "people whose ideas are useful and are actually making an impact." He also concedes there will always be relentless self-promoters ("you get professors who send out e-mails encouraging their classes to vote," he says) and that he and the board try to be aware of when that happens. To some extent, however, self-promotion and subjectivity are inevitable given the industry of management thinkers is basically built on such concepts.

This year's list has a record number of women—13 in the top 50. Moreover, women hold four of the top 10 spots, compared with just one in 2011. And for the first time, two Chinese men make the list (Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi and businessman Wang Shi). The list reflects the evolution of management thinking, which had long been a U.S.-centric field, into a more global phenomenon, with nine different nationalities represented among the Thinkers50.

Of course, there were some surprises. Malcolm Gladwell (No. 10 last year) dropped off entirely, Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley just now made the list after years of being overlooked, and much noted newcomers like Adam Grant were curiously absent.

Yet perhaps more compelling than who's on the list and who's not is what the ranking tells us about the topics on the minds of executives today. The first seven thinkers on the list are best known for their work on strategy, innovation or design. It is not until we get to No. 8, Harvard Business School's Linda Hill, that we see a researcher focused primarily on leadership (and even she has a book coming out next year on leading innovation). Hill is followed by two others—Insead's Herminia Ibarra and executive coach Marshall Goldsmith—who focus on leadership development, albeit in their own different ways.

A long-dampened economy and an increasing number of technological disruptions may make innovation gurus that much more appealing, but it's still surprising to see that top leadership thinkers didn't rank more highly than they did. In today's world, fresh thought on how to lead is just as sorely needed as new insights on innovation.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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