What do companies like Toyota, General Electric, Procter & Gamble and Shell have in common? Radical thinking, says management writer Art Kleiner.

“It’s not a coincidence that these companies have such long, healthy lives,” Kleiner explains. “Each has had problems, but they have one thing in common: a tradition of making some space for the heretical ideas that emerge within them.”

Ideas and practices that were once radical or countercultural are at the core of many of the business, management and leadership practices that are commonplace in today’s organizations. In his book The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management, Kleiner traces the roots of management ideas — including lean production, organization development and reengineering — and tells the stories of visionaries who pushed for change in large corporate cultures.

“Organizations — then and now — need people who can think and say radical things from inside their walls,” says Kleiner.

“Ultimately, The Age of Heretics is about a sensibility — a sensibility that understands the past, questions what is, and takes action within the system,” says Kleiner. “When heretics see a truth that contradicts the conventional wisdom of the organization, they don’t hide or run. They find a way to remain loyal to both the organization and to the truth.”

Many managers find themselves in this position today. The heretics of the past offer guidance for today’s leaders:

  • Operate self-consciously. Pay attention to the way you think and the patterns and rhythms of your conversations.
  • Draw people together. Synthesize ideas and expertise.
  • Examine power, authority and performance. Seek to understand organizational structures. Change as needed.
  • Persevere. Have patience and carry on in spite of setbacks or self-doubt. Don’t shortchange your efforts by expecting them to show results too fast.
  • Seek allies. Don’t go it alone.
  • Push for deeper insight. Don’t be satisfied with merely improving operations.
  • Seek inspiration. Scour the world for examples; then act.
  • Be outrageous. Deploy drama, not for its own sake, but in service of a higher cause.
  • Expect goodness. Embody basic decency and expect it from your organization.
  • Adapt. Allow your plans to shift as circumstances change.
  • Follow through.
  • Think the unthinkable. Face that which is difficult, significant or unfathomable.
  • Learn to see. Train yourself — and others — to see and think clearly.
  • Give voice to paradox. Recognize the interplay of faith and reason, emotion and rationality, the spirit of the healer and the spirit of the engineer.
  • Solve unsolvable problems. Dedicate yourself to the big problems, the collective challenges, the intractable global concerns. Try to change the world.
  • Take risks. Take stands.
  • Spread the word. Find a way to communicate your heretical message.
  • Find the love. Recapture your passion for business.
  • Exalt your employees, your customers and yourself. The money will follow.

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