Thinkers50 Declaration of Purpose

The theme for the Thinkers50 Awards Gala 2021 was Ideas with Purpose. In choosing it, we were inspired by the work and spirit of Peter Drucker, Clay Christensen, C. K. Prahalad, and other leading management thinkers past and present whose work we have celebrated and been inspired by during the last twenty years.

In his Harvard Business Review article ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’, Clay Christensen summarized a speech he gave to the Harvard graduating class of 2010, observing:

Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility, and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.

C. K. Prahalad drew our attention to the plight of the world’s poor. In his book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, he argued that businesses could help lift people out of poverty and enrich the lives of millions of the poorest in the world, not as an act of charity but through the pursuit of well-managed commercial opportunity and fulfilling a market need. His work inspired us and continues to do so. We are indebted to Deepa Prahalad and the Prahalad family for their ongoing support.

Peter Drucker, too, urged us to be intentional in how we think about business and management. ‘Doing the right thing… is more important than doing the thing right,’ Drucker said. ‘Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable.’

More recently, the work of our current number one-ranked thinker, Amy Edmondson, has alerted us to the need for managers to provide a work environment where people feel safe to contribute. ‘Psychological safety is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes,’ she says.

All of these thinkers are describing a type of intentional management in pursuit of a noble purpose, which was reflected in many of the sessions and conversations over the two days of the Gala.

We hoped that this could be a starting point for a conversation about the purpose and role of leadership and management in the modern world and were excited by those who expressed an interest in continuing this dialogue. In fact, it seemed to take on a life of its own.

Philip Kotler, recipient of our 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award, was one of the first to offer his support:

I am heartened by the growing number of companies that are enlarging their purpose. It is no longer satisfying for a company to say, a la Milton Friedman, that our purpose is to maximize profits so that the shareholders benefit as much as possible. In a world swirling with the problems of Covid, climate change, poverty, homelessness, and other ills, companies need to show concern, and if possible, impact. Our new generation of workers differ from their predecessors in two significant ways. They want a better relationship between work, family and friends. They also want to be in a company that shows that it cares about social problems and is pitching in. It is not enough for a company to make good products that sell well. It’s as important that the company shows that it cares about its people, partners, and communities as a whole.

Scott Anthony was another who stepped forward, sharing the Declaration of Purpose created by Innosight to honour Clay Christensen’s life’s work. Scott says:

‘The world has big problems. We have to figure out how to feed 10 billion people. We have to deal with changing climates. We have to bring education and healthcare to hundreds of millions of people who desperately need it. We have to grapple with the ethical issues of Artificial Intelligence and the employment issues of AI and robotics. There is no doubt that entrepreneurs have a part to play in developing solutions to these and related problems. Managers in existing organizations have a unique and vital role to play as well.’

With their input and others from the Thinkers50 community, we drafted the Declaration of Purpose. It was not intended to be a definitive statement, simply a starting point and rallying call. As we began to circulate it within the Thinkers50 community it seemed to strike a chord.

We were thrilled to receive support from across the business spectrum, including thinkers within academia, consulting, and the practitioner community. ‘I am inspired by your idea of making Purpose a central theme that all of us who study, research and teach management should be thinking about,’ said Ranjay Gulati, Paul R. Lawrence MBA Class of 1942 Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and author of Deep Purpose Organizations. ‘Having just completed a three-year immersion into the topic, including a two-year sabbatical, I can vouch for its importance.’

Those who advise and coach business leaders also welcomed the initiative. ‘Purposeful management is no longer just a noble aspiration reserved for the ‘good companies,’ executive coach and consultant, Ron Carucci, told us. ‘We now have plenty of evidence that the best companies lead with integrity, justice and purpose. After 15 years of research with more than 3,200 leaders and nearly 200 organizations, I am excited to see a bold declaration of the role management can play in making the world better.’

Experienced business leaders also lent their voices to the cause. ‘Today, more than ever, business needs to be about pursuing a Noble Purpose, putting people at the center, embracing all stakeholders in a declaration of interdependence, and treating profit as an outcome, not the goal,’ Hubert Joly, former CEO of Best Buy, board member of Johnson & Johnson and Ralph Lauren, and author of the Heart of Business, observed. ‘This is how business can be a force for good and how we can create extraordinary levels of performance, for the benefit of all stakeholders.’

We had begun by calling for a Declaration of Purpose for Management, but inevitably we were challenged on the distinction between management and leadership (thank you, C.B. Bowman) and were reminded by Todd Cherches of Peter Drucker’s famous maxim that ‘management is about doing things right; and leadership is about doing the right things.’

Drucker never said the two were mutually exclusive, of course. Most of us are leaders and managers at the same time, which is why for our Declaration of Purpose we decided to bracket the two together.

But as Todd Cherches helpfully pointed out: ‘We manage processes and systems; but we lead people.’ Since it is people who create meaning and therefore who create purpose, we decided to put leadership first. But we are equally convinced that without good management leadership alone is unlikely to deliver the desired impact.

As more and more people engaged with the initiative, a recurring request was to distil the Declaration down into a short, pithy, and memorable statement. Whitney Johnson encouraged us ‘to make it brief enough that it can be memorized’, and recommended Donna Hicks’ work on human dignity as useful starting point.



Short Version

  • We believe that all people have the right to be treated with dignity1
  • We believe that ideas can and do change the world
  • We believe people thrive in environments of integrity, justice, and belonging
  • We believe that when practiced well, leadership and management is the noblest of professions.

1 Dignity, Donna Hicks (Yale University Press, 2011). We subscribe to Donna Hicks definition of dignity as ‘the inherent value and self-worth all human beings are born with’; and endorse Hicks’ 10 essential elements of Dignity: Acceptance of Identity; Recognition; Acknowledgement; Inclusion; Safety; Fairness; Independence;
Understanding; Benefit of the Doubt; and Accountability.


Long version

  1. We believe that a purposeful, intentional and values-driven approach to leadership and management is essential to human affairs and has a vital role to play in creating prosperity, driving progress, and overcoming the wicked problems facing humanity.
  2. We believe that ideas can and do change the world, and that fresh thinking can help create a better future for all of us.
  3. We believe that all people have a right to be treated with fairness, respect and compassion in their work and other activities, regardless of their colour, creed or background, level of seniority, skill, education and social, political, or religious views.
  4. We believe that everyone deserves to feel physically and psychologically safe wherever and whenever they carry out their work, with the support of best training, equipment, and counselling services.
  5. We believe that people thrive and have their greatest impact when they work in environments of integrity, justice, and belonging.
  6. We believe the following values are essential to purposeful management.


Impact: We should never lose sight of the fact that management is about having a positive impact in the world. Purposeful leadership and management is about organizing human affairs in a way that serves a clear and worthwhile purpose, is effective and makes the best use of the resources available, while also securing the long-term well-being of the stakeholders it serves. Purposeful leadership and management also ensure access to resources in the future. That is not the same as creating unnecessary bureaucracy, nor should performance be measured simply in terms of efficiency. Purposeful management is about optimizing not maximizing.

Diversity: Good leadership and management recognizes and celebrates diversity on all its dimensions, including race, gender, sexuality, and religion. It requires us to solicit and listen to different voices and respect alternative viewpoints and lived experiences. Diversity is not about political correctness, but about the optimization of inputs to improve the quality of outcomes for all.

Inclusivity: Effective leadership and management seeks to harness the talents of all stakeholders. Diversity is about making sure that people from different backgrounds are welcome in the workplace, but inclusivity is about ensuring that they all are welcomed to contribute with a genuine sense of belonging, not simply to attend. Inclusivity is about ensuring and celebrating the active participation, collaboration, and engagement of all.

Curiosity: A ceaseless interest in the world around us and the people we meet is an integral element of good leadership and management and the creation of management theory. Clay Christensen was always looking to learn, especially about things that didn’t fit his research. The famous sign outside his office says it all: ‘anomalies wanted.’ Managers channel this curiosity by seeking to address questions that lack adequate answers.

Collaboration: No leader or manager or organization is an island. It is only by working with others that we can hope to find creative solutions to the challenges we face. Many of the problems facing individual organizations and the wider world transcend organizational and international borders. Collaboration rather than competition is the most effective way to address a growing number of these issues.

Ethical Use of Technology: The application of artificial intelligence and other new technologies should never be at the expense of human rights. Good leadership and management recognizes the rights of individuals to dignity and privacy as enshrined in law, including protection from bullying or coercion through intrusive or addictive technologies, or social media.

Transparency: Information is power. By making information more freely available and sharing what they are trying to achieve, leaders and managers can empower the people around them. The tendency for those at the top to hoard information is outdated and sub-optimal. Greater transparency opens the door to greater trust, which is integral to good management, supporting an environment of integrity, justice,
and belonging.

Social justice: Effective and inspiring leadership and management is built around a commitment to fairness and openness. This commitment does not come to an end at the office door. Management sets an example, a standard, for society as a whole.

Humility: Pride comes before a fall is a truism of management as well as life. Arrogance lies at the heart of a great many leadership and management failures and toxic workplaces. It is only by being open to the ideas of everyone we encounter regardless of their educational background or place in the hierarchy that we can hope to avoid hubris. A humble eagerness to learn something from everybody leads to unlimited learning opportunities.

Initiative: Initiative is the antidote to bureaucracy. By channeling aspiration, ingenuity, and endeavour, good leaders and managers realize human potential and give people agency. The entrepreneurial energy released in this way is the greatest asset available to organizations and to society.

Innovation: Ingenuity and the ability to translate new ideas into innovation are among humanity’s greatest attributes. They offer the best hope for heading off the climate crisis and addressing the challenges facing the world now and in the future. Innovation should not be seen as the preserve of a few but open to all. At its core, innovation is an optimistic activity. It is grounded in the belief that tomorrow can be better than today — and that tomorrow should be better than today. Today’s ambiguity creates tomorrow’s opportunities.

Respect for future generations: Purposeful leadership and management are about stewardship – taking care of the long-term interests of the organization and society. As leaders and managers we should seek to leave the world a better place than we found it, and to preserve the resources for future generations.  Purposeful leadership and management is grounded in a long-term view and a collective belief in a
better tomorrow.


The Ten Essential Elements of Dignity

-Donna Hicks

Acceptance of Identity – Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you; give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged; interact without prejudice or bias, accepting how race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. are at the core of their identities. Assume they have integrity.

Recognition – Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help; be generous with praise; give credit to others for their contributions, ideas, and experience.

Acknowledgement – Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating, and responding to their concerns and what they have been through.

Inclusion – Make others feel that they belong at all levels of relationship (family, community, organization, nation).

Safety – Put people at ease at two levels: physically, where they feel free of bodily harm; and psychologically, where they feel free of concern about being shamed or humiliated, that they feel free to speak without fear of retribution.

Fairness – Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way, according to agreed upon laws and rules.

Independence – Empower people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility.

Understanding – Believe that what others think matters; give them the chance to explain their perspectives, express their points of view; actively listen in order to understand them.

Benefit of the Doubt – Treat people as trustworthy; start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.

Accountability – Take responsibility for your actions; if you have violated the dignity of another, apologize; make a commitment to change hurtful behaviours.


What Next?

Several people asked what the Thinkers50 community could do next to advance the Declaration of Purpose. Ron Carucci commented:

‘As I read through the Thinkers50 Declaration of Purpose multiple times, I had flashbacks to reading the Business Round Table’s Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation and Business Europe’s statement of “prosperity, people, planet,” comprising 35 European nations. I studied both meticulously in my research and wasn’t surprised by the mixed receptions they received. Of course, nobody would disagree with their ideals. But less than a year after BRTs release, when faced with the first real test in the form of the pandemic, many companies that signed the statement reverted to old habits when the opportunity to do things differently was presented.’

So, how could the Thinkers50 Statement of Purpose be different? How could it be more than just lofty words? Was there a way, Ron asked, that it could be a tool for management, not just a declaration? Could it have teeth?

‘What if this became more than a guiding document, what if it became a powerful measurement tool? What if it became a way to bring the many great ideas of the Thinkers50 community to life? And what if one day, there was a Thinkers50 Management Ranking where companies applied to be recognized, presenting evidence of their adherence and role modelling of the values in the Declaration of Purpose?’

‘The Baldrige Award for years evaluated companies based on their quality standards. Today, places like Best Places to Work and Glassdoor evaluate companies as ‘great places to work.’ What if there was a Thinkers 50 Best Management ranking? And companies had to apply with rigorous evidence of their adherence? And what if members of the Thinkers50 community were part of the adjudication process? That way companies got valuable feedback from world class thinkers on ways to improve, whether they made ‘the cut’ or not.’

It is an intriguing idea and one we think merits further consideration. As ever, we would love to know what you think and welcome your contributions.

Des & Stuart

Excerpted from the Thinkers50 2021 Yearbook

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