The birth of management

Those who have chosen a career in management, especially in the noble profession of agriculture, are among the exalted few.

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Your job as a manager is new, extremely complex and places you among the elite of the world. It all started in the 6th century BC when Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in his book, The Art of War, that “100 battle victories are not the best. Seizing the enemy without fighting is the most skilful”.

Sun suggested that before engaging the foe, it would be a good idea to identify his strengths and weaknesses! It was probably the first SWOT analysis ever.

This involves identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of a business, organisation or project. Strengths and opportunities are to be exploited, weaknesses are for correcting and defensive action is needed to counter threats.

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The philosophy of leadership continued to develop. In 1513, in The Prince, Italian philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote: “It is best to be both feared and loved; however, to be feared is better than to be loved”.

Some 250 years later in The Wealth of Nations English, economist Adam Smith described how to increase productivity. “The greatest improvement in productivity has been due to the division of labour,” he wrote.

“Agriculture lacks this and has not improved productivity; while poor nations cannot compete with rich nations in manufacturing, they can in agriculture.” I wonder what he’d say today!

In the late 19th century, economist Alfred Marshall and others came up with the first theoretical underpinnings of management as a profession. People were starting to realise that management isn’t easy.

Only in 1920 did the first comprehensive theories of management appear, and the Harvard Business School established the MBA degree in 1921. But “management” was understood as quite mechanical – you just applied a new technique to drive workers to work harder.

It was only later that the soft side of management started being recognised – things like integrity, setting an example, treating people with courtesy and respect.

In 1938 Dale Carnegie published his world famous How to Win Friends and Influence People, which deals with how your behaviour affects the way people react to you. But management as we know it today was led and driven by American Peter Drucker, who wrote his first book at the age of 23 and co-authored his last at the age of 95.

In 1946 his Concept of the Corporation described how General Motors (GM) operated. Up to this time, “management” was seen as a no-brainer: The boss gave the orders and everyone else followed them. But Drucker appreciated it was much more complex.

He studied how power structures, the political environment, information flow, decision-making and managerial autonomy contributed to GM’s success.

In his seminal The Practice of Management in 1955, he recognised that management is the ultimate lifeblood of business. There was now a growing realisation that management is as much a science as it is an art. Successful practitioners of management developed a certain amount of prestige.

In recent times, business books have become less prescriptive. In The Seven Habits of Effective People, Steven Covey concluded that if you have the knowledge, the skills and the desire to do a good job, good management could become a habit.
In 1994, the wonderful Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras researched the success of a number of visionary companies, and identified “12 myths” about successful business.

Myth #1, for example, maintains companies need charismatic leaders to take them to new horizons, while Myth #2 claims home-grown talent can’t give the company the leadership it needs. In 2001, Jim Collins wrote Good to Great. With a highly skilled team, he set about studying 11 really great companies which had consistently outperformed their competition over 15 years. It tells the wonderful story of Darwin Smith … ah, but you’ll have to read it yourself.

Email Peter Hughes at [email protected].