Listen to this article
A list of just 50 leading business pioneers is bound to demand brutal choices. Perhaps as brutal as the methods that some will have employed to warrant their place in this group.
But this is no homogeneous list. There are many ways to be such a pioneer. Certainly, everyone on the FT tally of 50 combines a fine business mind with energy and action — all have done something shockingly new, caught the wind of their times and effected significant change. But the list includes quite different types of innovation and distinct contexts of economic development.
Some exploited stable environments in clever ways. They identified formerly unseen sources of value or benefited from an active and developing nation state. Others seemed to thrive in the complete absence of stability, exploiting rapidly changing business environments and showing others how to adapt to them. The scale of such pioneers’ contribution is evident in the endless flattery of imitation. It became normal to make cars on a production line, to go on package holidays abroad, to own a smartphone. Pioneers make the formerly invisible obvious.
They do so by operating in unstructured space. Across history, the age-old struggle between marauding nomads and static defensive farmers shows that innovation comes mostly from those who roam outside civilised space. Pouring westward across the Asian steppe, it was the nomadic Mongols and Huns who perfected mobile warfare and developed new forms of political order. Afterwards, of course, when the civilised wrote history, they claimed such innovations for themselves.
But it is in disordered territory that the pioneers really show their character. When the old is dead, when order has broken down, when the rules suddenly change or regulation is absent — this is when we see their almost pathological boldness and vision. Economic and political imperatives drive innovators to occupy and exploit empty space, like water surging on to a flat plain. Such places often lie beyond the reach of the state, as in the US frontier, or in the space left by the degeneration of states, as in post-Soviet Russia.
Before the international order of nation states came into being, tribal leaders and warlords ruled the world and drove its economic development. Though primitive in their social structures, with rigid hierarchies and brutal tactics, these warlords opened trade routes, transported knowledge between cultures and finally co-ordinated their actions in ways that put their nomadic past behind them. Once settled, they founded empires and states that were ordered, stable and civilised.
It is often said that business seeks a level playing field, but this is only when businesses feel the field is tilted against them. Genuine business pioneers are those who forge ahead over rough and pitted terrain, often cheating, borrowing and stealing, testing the rules and acting without morality. They are robbers who – almost by accident – change the world.
To exploit unexplored niches, pioneers must be idealistic, unrealistic and preferably also narcissistic. They must see the obstacles everyone sees and, quite unreasonably, imagine they can be overcome. They have an inner irritant that drives them beyond the status quo, rejects mere mimicry and conceives of the impossible. It is their inflated vision of their own capacities, their impatience with subordinates and their unbounded energy that makes them step forward from the ranks and risk the new. Charisma is what really marks them out.
The term “robber baron” was applied in the late 19th century to US businessmen who operated at the edge of the rule of law. They did this partly by influencing government and partly by finding ways to exploit labour and repress unionisation. Theirs was a space uninhibited by (adequate) regulation of monopolistic practices and they rushed in to fill it.
Such ruthlessness is familiar in the development of every civilisation. Examples can be found among Europe’s past empire builders, or more recently among Russian oligarchs and Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs. Indeed, it is so familiar as to be almost a required part of the development of every culture. Even when charisma shades into hubris, arrogance and even brutality, as it so often does, nomadic pioneers are eventually civilised, their crimes forgotten and the world forever changed.
This shaping of history is being repeated constantly. Modern business pioneers, like those who preceded them, now operate against the backdrop of a general-purpose technology revolution. As with the arrival of the horse, steam and then oil, the internet offers ample room for outrageous innovation, the indulgence of narcissism and hubris, unrealistic visions of the future and the creation of a new normal. Today we live in “neo-medieval” times. Even now, warlords and nomadic pioneers are fashioning a world we cannot presently see.
Ricardo Blaug is author of ‘How Power Corrupts: Cognition and Democracy in Organisations’ and is an associate professor at the University of Westminster, specialising in political psychology and democracy