That’s it for another year. Monday’s award of the Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims brings to an end the 2011 Nobel season. But is there room for one more: a Nobel prize for management?
In the narrowest sense, yes. Alfred Nobel specified five prizes: physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature and peace. But in 1968, the Swedish central bank backed a new award for economists. It is not, technically, a “Nobel prize” and only a brave central banker would now deploy funds for such an enterprise rather than, say, quantitative easing. But this did establish a precedent.
A management prize would also recognize Nobel’s own gifts as an innovator, entrepreneur and builder of companies. Though he might not himself have considered management a task worth rewarding. Just before the Nobel dynamite interests were brought together to form the world’s first international holding company in 1886 – with Nobel as honorary president – he wrote that he cared more about his research: “I find it high time to disengage myself from the slavery to which for years I have submitted against my will, and for no good, either to myself or others.”
But to assume managers cannot aspire to the heights of scientists, poets or diplomats is to underestimate what gifted business leaders can achieve. Nobel’s will specifies that the prizes must be “distributed to those who … have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The late Peter Drucker made a strong case for the transformative impact of management that makes workers’ “strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant,” and extolled the virtues of innovation. Consider, too, some of the eulogies to Steve Jobs, who – in President Barack Obama’s words – “transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and … changed the way each of us sees the world.”
Harvard Business School’s Rakesh Khurana and Rosabeth Moss Kanter – in response to my request for Nobel nominees – said they would have put forward the Apple founder, perhaps with Henry Ford. Prof Khurana said: “I have a special place for those whose lives were ultimately about empowering people, enabling them to be free of constraints and to exercise the possibility of autonomy and freedom.”
When it comes to the detail, however, I’m afraid my proposal starts to falter. The economics prize was awarded at first to a backlog of living economists. But if you believe, as I wrote last month, that radical innovations in management theory are increasingly infrequent, the anteroom of uncrowned visionaries would empty quickly. Unproven candidates would be even harder to assess. The biennial Thinkers50 Prize has just announced an interesting shortlist of people with bright management ideas. But the fact that judges will take into account the finalists’ “elusive guru factor” in picking winners makes me queasy. If that factor is so elusive, who is to say it isn’t entirely illusory?
It would be better to look for nominees among hands-on managers. But executives’ achievements are hard to measure at close range and their durability is always in doubt.
Even Steve Jobs’s claim to greatness rests on how well he has paved the way for successors to advance his ideas, while the record of lesser talents can crumble over time. Chief Executive magazine used to present its “CEOs of the Year” with bronze busts made from “life-casts” of their heads. While it has dropped that tradition (along with a plan to create a CEO “hall of fame”), it still honours business leaders and made Ford’s Alan Mulally its 2011 winner. He seems a good choice, but among the last laureates to submit to having their crania wrapped in a sculptor’s quick-dry plaster were Sandy Weill of Citigroup (2002) and Maurice “Hank” Greenberg of AIG (2003), whose legacies were severely tarnished during the financial crisis.
Mr. Drucker called management “a liberal art,” because it dealt with the application of fundamentals of knowledge and leadership to people. A Nobel prize for management could sit alongside the subjective prizes for peace or literature. But judging management success is a never-ending task.
The risk is that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences would award a management Nobel prematurely – or not at all. Mr. Jobs’s relentless endeavour, virtually up to the day he died, is instructive. The last thing mankind needs is to give great managers an excuse to rest on their laurels.