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People are rightly suspicious of the “great man” (or woman) theory of leadership. Look at what happened after Sir Terry Leahy of supermarket group Tesco, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson or South African president Nelson Mandela stepped down. Did their successors’ poor performance show they just were not as good as their celebrated forerunners, or had the great leaders’ earlier achievements hidden many flaws?
The same problem applies to any attempt to identify great business pioneers. Their achievements are seldom theirs alone. Not only did they almost invariably have deputies, marketers and research and development staff backing them up, but other people, in other companies, were often working on the same innovations that they were. And sometimes, the subsequent performance of their innovations was disappointing.
All the same, and particularly with the benefit of passing decades, it is possible to identify people who changed business in ways that are now indisputable.
There are others whose role is more open to debate. The ethical business movement — the idea of doing well by doing good — has many parents. But Dame Anita Roddick and her Body Shop retail chain played a large role in making ethical consumption popular and part of the mainstream.
Similarly, flexible and part-time working are now part of many businesses. But Dame Stephanie Shirley, the British software pioneer, was one of the first to grasp what a valuable resource capable young mothers were. She built a large business out of that insight, employing women working, at least in the beginning, largely from home. She was not the only one, but she can rightly be described as a pioneer.
Sir Alexander Fleming was a doctor and medical researcher. But his discovery of penicillin laid the basis for huge developments in the pharmaceutical business.
Who would you describe as history’s greatest business pioneers?
Over the next few weeks, the Financial Times is asking readers to help us find the top business pioneers of all time. Based on your suggestions, and those of FT journalists, we will compile a longlist, which will be presented to our panel of judges. They will attempt to come up with the top 50, to be published on FT.com and in an FT magazine in March.
As well as telling us who you are nominating, please also tell us why.
We welcome nominations not just of the obvious candidates but also of business pioneers we may not have thought of — perhaps because they come from outside the usual countries, markets or industries, or because, while they were not business people themselves, their ideas had a profound effect on business. These could be scientists, inventors or doctors, like Fleming, whose innovations had profound business consequences.
Please send us your nominations – the process will be that much richer for them.