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5.0 out of 5 stars The waves and undertows of corporate tsunamis, 4 Aug 2008
This review is from: The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (J-B Warren Bennis Series) (Hardcover)
Long ago, Voltaire suggested that we cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it. Throughout human history, there have been those who challenged what James O'Toole so aptly describes as "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom." Some were executed, others were forced to recant their beliefs, and still others were at first ignored and then ridiculed as cranks, troublemakers, mavericks, misfits, etc. Ironically, many heresies eventually became orthodoxies, usually long after their advocates have died or been silenced. The search for truth continues as newly embraced orthodoxies are questioned and then challenged by other secular "heretics."

What we have in this long overdue, substantially revised and updated Second Edition of Art Kleiner's classic, first published in 1996, is a sweeping and penetrating analysis of various "heroes, outlaws, and the forerunners of corporate change" who struggled (with mixed results) to transform mainstream organizations and even entire cultures throughout a process of multi-dimensional evolution whose can be traced back almost 2,000 years to the monasteries of the early Christian church and continues forward through the Reformation, the establishment of the great European ecclesiastical universities, royal chartering of mercantile stock companies and then state chartering of companies after thirteen colonies won their independence from England, the emergence of nascent entrepreneurs, and the domination of commercial corporations in major industries (e.g. steel, oil, and railroad) from the end of the 19th century until after World War Two.

In the first chapter, Kleiner briefly discusses this background and summarizes key developments since 1945, noting that by the 1950s commercial culture had come to dominate the culture of the world. It was "a vast wave that struck with such immense, captivating grandeur that there seemed to be no escape. But the greater the wave, the stronger the undertow. This is the story of that undertow." His model is the mythic literature of destiny and integrity. Why? "Myth holds its characters to a higher ethical standard than they can possibly fulfill and yet shows us how to love them when they slip - or at least it forces us to recognize that slippage is inevitable." In each of the eight remaining chapters, Kleiner focuses on a specific time segment during which "new truths" and their advocates collided with conventional management wisdom and its defenders. On Pages 315-317, Kleiner shares a few of the lessons to be learned from the respective fates of various countercultural ideas.

The "heretics" to whom he devotes primary attention in this volume include those involved with the National Training Laboratories (1947-1962), Charles Krone and his colleagues at Procter & Gamble who attempted to improve operations, and Lyman Ketchum and Ed Dulworth who attempted to design and build a state-of-the-art production facility for the Gaines Dog Food division of General Foods (1961-1973).

Kleiner is among very few contemporary business thinkers who combine the highly developed skills of an historian, iconoclast, raconteur, humorist, explorer, thought leader, and cultural anthropologist. At no point does the pace of his extended narrative drag and his writing style reminds me of E.B. White in top form. He seems to perceive his function to be that of a travel agent and tour guide, one who invites his reader to return with him to actual situations in which an individual or members of a group struggled to resolve what he characterizes as "Parzival's Dilemma": "If we are damned for our actions but don't know our actions' results, then how dare we act? And yet when our help is called for, how dare we refrain?"

In Chapter 7, Kleiner examines this dilemma when discussing the process by which NTL was envisioned, established, and developed before it encountered all manner of problems that eventually led to its demise as a functioning organization. (Its influence and impact continue to varying degrees in today's corporate training and development programs.) Kleiner singles out Edie Seashore, Chris Argyris, and Warren Bennis. Each was determined for NTL to change the world, "and each ran up against Parzival's dilemma. Each had to find a way to act, balancing a new understanding against the old orthodoxy, while the potential for mistakes grew ever higher. Each found a different resolution - a different way of muddling through."

The same can be said for most of the other heretics within Kleiner's lively narrative. He concludes it with the observation that countless other heretics now exist in every organization, "balancing the imperative to do good works with the imperative to keep their jobs and keep earning a living...Perhaps a corporation exists, in the end, precisely for its heretics. Perhaps it's purpose in the long run is to help people to expand their souls and capabilities by providing venues within which people can try things on a large scale - to succeed and fail and thereby change the world."

And perhaps Art Kleiner needed twelve years before writing this second edition, not to change the world but rather - with rigor and eloquence - to reaffirm the great value of corporate heretics in a world in far greater need of them today than did the world he surveyed in 1996.
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Review Details



Robert Morris

Location: Dallas, Texas

Top Reviewer Ranking: 102