11 November 2023
Thought leader? It sure has a nice ring to it. You can almost picture it. The jet-set life. Fat speaking fees. Interviews with all the big outlets. Consulting gigs with the powerful firms. Access to all the right circles – and the adoration of all the right people.
Self-employment: control over your time with a steady income to boot.
HARVARD AND WHARTON LEGENDS TOP THE LIST
Ah, business faculty can dream from their brownstone stoops. For many, their research is relegated to dusty journals with the occasional peer citation. It’s not easy being a business professor, watching companies make the same mistakes in their haste and hubris – all the knowledge and none of the influence. Still, some ideas eventually break though. A book hits the bestseller list, a TED Talk goes viral, or a podcast resonates. In some cases, their research helps us make sense of how the world is evolving. Other times, they package old truths in new ways. At their best, they reveal the symbiotic relationships behind the disparate elements. In the process, they show us where to move, how to spend, when to act, and why it matters.
And these ideas inspire new models and markets that inevitably produce better options and experiences.
Every two years, these thinkers are honored by Thinkers50, an organization that recognizes the best management ideas. For the second consecutive time, Thinkers50 honored Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson as the top business thinker. Wharton’s Adam Grant moved up four spots to rank as the runner-up. Paul Polman and Andrew Winston, authors of Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive By Giving More Than They Take, debuted in the Top 10 at #3.
BUSINESS SCHOOL FACULTY DOMINATE THE LIST
Thinkers50 was founded in 2001 by two business professors – Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer – who’ve taught at IE Business School and Oxford University and collaborated on The Financial Times Handbook of Management. Since then, Thinkers50 has emerged as the “Oscars of Management Thinking” according to The Financial Times. Held in odd numbered years, Thinkers50 accepts online nominations from May to July of those years from the general public. From there, nominations are examined by the Thinkers50 Panel of Advisors. While the process is democratic, it is not necessarily transparent. The panel, together with Dearlove and Crainer, compile the ranking using “proprietary methodology” for evaluating the contributions of the nominees, weighing their impact over both the long-term and the past two years.
Broadly, Thinkers50 evaluates business ideas against their Viability and Visibility. Viability is grounded in what Thinkers50 describes as the 4 R’s: Relevance, Rigour, Reach, and Resilience. In other words, they test thought leaders’ ideas against how applicable, far-reaching, and durable they are (along with the caliber of research behind them). When it comes to Visibility, think academic citations and media coverage, public speaking engagements and affiliations. If these thought leaders are rock stars, then Visibility measures their wattage.
This year, the Thinkers50 honorees were celebrated at a gala held in London from November 5-6. Over the years, it has rated thinkers and leaders like Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, C.K Prahaiad, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, and Amy Edmondson as the world’s most influential business voices. Among this year’s class, you’ll find business professors, CEOs, authors, executive coaches, consultants, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. Like the previous 2021 ranking, women outnumber men, this time by a 29-to-27 margin (There are 6 thinkers who are treated as pairs, such as Blue Ocean Strategy co-authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne). Among these 56 thought leaders, you’ll find 44 who either teach in business schools full-time or work as adjuncts or executive educators. That includes 9 of the 13 thought leaders who populate Thinkers50 in 2023.
Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson
THE SEARCH FOR SAFETY
That starts with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. Academically, Edmondson was initially trained to be an engineer before moving into psychology and organizational behavior. She started her teaching career at Harvard Business School in 1996, with her passions gravitating towards organizational learning, transformation, and team development. Over her career, she has penned seven books and numerous research articles and cases. In 2011, she made her first appearance in the Thinkers50 at #35. She has since collected the Thinkers50 Talent and Breakthrough Idea awards in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
Her best-known work is The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. According to Edmondson’s research, a fear-based climate often filters out the most innovative ideas and voices due to these people’s fear of being mocked or suffering retaliation. In place of these fears, Edmondson suggests developing a culture where participation is invited, candor is valued, and asking for help is expected.
“I am sometimes struck by the anxiety people seem to feel about creating psychologically safe organizations; perhaps we’re naturally comfortable living with the devil we know – organizations where self-protection quietly crowds out much of the creativity, learning, or belonging that lies under the surface without our noticing,” Edmondson writers in her book. “And the devil we don’t know – unusual workplaces where people can be and express themselves, confronting greater conflict and challenge but greater fulfillment as well – awaits.”
In September, Edmondson further expanded upon these themes in her new book, The Right Kind of Wrong, a primer on turning so-called failures into opportunities to explore and grow. “Amy’s work continues to be repeatedly cited by the practitioners we talk to as practical and inspiring,” writes Thinkers50 cofounder, Des Dearlove in a press release. “The impact of her work on psychological safety resonates throughout organisations around the world.”
GIVING MORE THAN YOU TAKE
Adam Grant, ranked 2nd in this year’s Thinkers50, has bridged the biggest gap in academia. Not only has his research broken out into the mainstream, but he also remains one of the dedicated and talented teachers on the Wharton School roster. Just 42, Grant has published 5 books and ranks as Wharton’s highest-rated professor for seven years running. The voice of original thinkers, Grant’s work is designed to help employees find purpose so they can be more productive. He views people as works-in-progress who are constantly fending off the menaces of conformity, procrastination and arrogance to maintain their optimism, connectedness, creativity. This spirit – which produces an unexpected accessibility – is one reason why Grant is so popular with undergraduates.
“Professor Grant goes out of his way to make time for his students and deliver ideas in a way where all people can learn and apply,” says Dipak Kumar, a 2019 grad who served as a research assistant to Grant. “Despite his success, he is still always working on ideas, ideas that he lets students like myself take part in influencing.”
Beginning in 2021, Thinkers50 stopped ranking top minds below the Top 10. This saved them from differentiating experts by often opaque and miniscule differences. It also made the Top 10 all the more prestigious. The splashiest Top 10 debut comes from Andew Winston and Paul Polman. Two years ago, they published Net Positive, a call to leave behind a better world. The book draws from Polman’s decade-long stint as CEO of Unilever, where he argues that “People with purpose thrive, brands with purpose grow, and companies with purpose last.” The situation, Polman says, goes far beyond quarterly returns.
“Our current economic system has two fundamental weaknesses: it’s based on unlimited growth on a finite planet, and it benefits a small number of people, not everyone.”
His writing partner, Andrew Winston, also positions the book’s premise in stark terms.
“All businesses now face a profound choice: continue pursuing the shareholder-first model that forces shortsighted decisions, hurts business, and endangers our collective well-being … or build businesses that grow and prosper over the long haul by serving the world—that is, by giving more than they take.”
A LOOK BACK
Amy Lynn Webb, a futurist and NYU Stern adjunct, debuted at #4 in Thinkers50. Another newbie, Columbia Business School’s Sheena Iyengar, also made her entrance at #6. A third professor, Harvard Business School’s Tsedal Neeley, joined the proceedings at #10 thanks to her work in remote work. Overall, Harvard Business School placed 8 faculty members on the Thinkers50 list. They were joined by INSEAD and MIT Sloan with 4 professors and Columbia Business School and London Business School at three each. The Wharton School and IMD Business School also boasted 2 professors on the Thinkers50.
How much has the Thinkers50 changed in the past two decades? In 2001, the list only included two women: Rosabeth Moss Kanter and Meg Whitman. The Top 5 (in order) featured Peter Drucker, Charles Handy, Michael Porter, Gary Hamel, and Tom Peters. The list also included Nelson Mandela, Alan Greenspan, and Lee Iacocca – not to mention Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. Dilbert’s Scott Adams even popped in at #31. Fast forward a decade and the list had grown decidedly more academic. The 2011 Thinkers50 list was helmed by Clayton Christensen – though W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne ranked 2nd – the only leading thinkers found on both the 2011 and 2023 Top 10 lists. Back then, the luminaries included Vijay Govindarajan, Jim Collins, Marshall Goldsmith, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, and Stephen Covey.
This year, you’ll find several luminaries falling out of the Top 10, including Whitney Johnson, Dan Pink, and Linda Hill. In addition, Francesca Gino, embroiled in a research controversy at Harvard Business School, dropped out of the Thinkers50 altogether.
Breakthrough Idea: Wendy K. Smith (University of Delaware, Learner) and Marianne W. Lewis (University of Cincinnati, Lindner)
Coaching and Mentoring: Michael Bungay Stanier (Founder of Box of Crayons)
Digital Thinking: Paul R Daugherty (Accenture) and H. James Wilson (Accenture)
Ideas Into Practice: Julie Carrier (Leadership Development Institute for Young Women)
Innovation: Sheena S. Iyengar (Columbia Business School
Leadership: Kirstin Ferguson (Head & Heart Author)
Radar: Marcus Collins (University of Michigan, Ross)
Strategy: Howard Yu (IMD Business School)
Talent: Zeynep Ton (MIT, Sloan)
Lifetime Achievement: Zhang Ruimin (Haier Group)
Founders: Iryna Tykhomyrova (International Management Institute)
Subir Chowdhury (ASI Consulting Group)
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox (20-First and DePaul University)
Carol Dweck (Stanford University)
Stew Friedman (Wharton School)
Margaret Heffernan (Author and Entrepreneur)
Maggie Lena Walker (Female Business Pioneer)
Michael D. Watkins (IMD Business School)
Click HERE to access the Radar class, the high potentials who’ll someday populate the Thinkers50 list. These top thinkers include Lily Fang (INSEAD), Poornima Luthra (Copenhagen Business School), Fiona Macaulay (Georgetown McDonough), Nina Mazar (Boston University Questrom), Paulo Savaget (Oxford Said), and Stefano Tasselli (Exeter).