Paths to Power: A book review by Bob Morris

Paths to Power: How Insiders and Outsiders Shaped American Business Leadership
Anthony J. Mayo, Nitin Nohria, and Laura G. Singleton
Harvard Business Press (2007)

I recently re-read In Their Time, co-authored by Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria, in combination with this book whose subtitle correctly indicates what Mayo, Nohria, and Laura Singleton set out to explain: how “insiders” and “outsiders” of big business (as Michael Useem explains in an insightful Foreword) presided “over our dominant organizations” and, in process, examine “which pathways lead to the apex – or which do not” for those who would also achieve such dominance.

Rather than limiting their attention to a set number of exemplary leaders – in chronological order — and then devoting a separate chapter to each, taking a linear approach to the material, the co-authors chose to examine the evolution of 20th century business leadership in terms of the ten decades, assigning to each following the first chapter an appropriate component (birthplace, nationality, religion, education, class, gender and race, etc.) while frequently cross-referencing throughout the entire century. For example, they juxtapose comparable individuals such as James Stillman’s presidency of National City Bank (1891-1909) and Sanford “Sandy” Weill’s of Citigroup (that National City Bank eventually became) a century later.

Mayo, Nohria, and Singleton’s role In Paths to Power is more that of cultural anthropologists than as biographers or even business historians. They create a social and economic context within a 100-year framework as they examine what separated outsiders from insiders in business leadership in the 20th century. In the city where I live, we have a number of outdoor markets at which slices of fresh fruit are offered as samples of the produce available. In that same spirit, I frequently include brief excerpts from a book to help those who red my review to get a “taste.” Here is a representative selection from the material that Mayo, Nohria, and Singleton provide.

On birthplace: “As a starting point in our examination of twentieth-century leader backgrounds, we thus come away with the decisive conclusion that even in the United States, the great land of opportunity, not every birthplace was created equal…While mobility between regions tended to increase later in the century, people with more prosperous family origins – origins that typically stemmed from birth in a similarly prosperous region of the country -retained an advantage when entering business in a new area. The distinguishing features of each of the country’s major regions, both as sources of and sites for leaders, will constitute an important backdrop for further discussions about leader characteristics.” (Page 54)

On education: “Yale’s popularity among business leaders like the Weyerhaeusers vaulted it to a preeminent position in the early part of the century: it was the most popular school for all of our leaders prior to 1950, educating thirty-two of them (about 15 percent of all that era’s college graduates). With twenty-seven leaders, Harvard came next, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ranked a distant third with fourteen graduates. Yale was a perfect fit for the era of the dominant Protestant establishment, to which the Weyerhaeusers, steadfast Presbyterians, belonged. Yale was seen as a bastion of conservative, faith-oriented values during this period, in contrast to the more intellectual and individualistic attitudes at Harvard. (Page 124)

On class: “With nearly 30 percent of the leaders consistently coming from relatively poor backgrounds and, because of their success, passing on wealthy or at least quite comfortably middle-class upbringings to their own children, genuine upward mobility is undoubtedly represented by almost one in three of these leaders. Still, countermeasures such as the GI Bill and trends toward professional management, rather than improving the chances of those from poorer backgrounds, appear to have only held the line against an inexorable advantage of those with advantages.” (Page 184)

In his Foreword, Useem explains this book’s unique importance. “Studies of the social origins of America’s business elite have been a long-standing research tradition, dating to such classics as W. Lloyd Warner and James Abegglen’s Big Business Leaders in America and Mabel Newcomer’s The Big Business Executive, both published in 1955. We have not had the benefit of a truly comprehensive portrait since those works of more than fifty years ago; now Mayo, Nohria, and Singleton have not only updated the picture but also produced the definitive portrait of our time.”

Those who share my high regard for this brilliant book are urged to check out the aforementioned In Their Time as well as Stuart Crainer’s The Management Century and Stewart H. Holbrook’s The Age of the Moguls: The Story of the Robber Barons and the Great Tycoons. (Obtaining a copy of it is well worth the effort.) In it, Holbrook examines a number of “lords of capital” who, in his words, “made `deals’ purchased immunity, and did other things which in 1860, or 1880, or even 1900, were considered no more than `smart’ by their fellow Americans, but which today would give pause to the most conscientiously dishonest promoter….They were a motley crew, yet taken together they fashioned a savage and gaudy age as distinctively purple as that of imperial Rome, and infinitely more entertaining.”

Holbrook’s account of 19th century robber barons and great tycoons “sets the table” for the “feast” of information and analysis that Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria with Laura Singleton so skillfully provide.


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