'Management is the gate' - but to where? Rethinking Robert McNamara's 'career lessons'

Leo Mccann

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Career narratives could make a potentially valuable contribution to an ‘historic turn’ in management and organization studies. This paper provides an historical narrative on the career of Robert S. McNamara, former President of Ford, U.S. Secretary of Defence, and Chairman of the World Bank. Based on a thorough exposition and deconstruction of historiographical and journalistic sources the paper makes two contributions. Firstly, it argues that McNamara - a major figure in the disciplines of history, politics, and security studies – has been given a somewhat superficial treatment in management history despite being one the most high-profile managers of his generation. Where McNamara appears in management literature the discussion has typically been historically inadequate, taking a simplistic line about his actions and approach, one limited to discrediting his ‘outdated’ forms of technique or management style and paying little attention to context and historiography. Secondly, the paper notes that management and organizations have in significant ways not moved beyond the McNamara approach now condemned by management writers. Many of the fundamental imperatives of commercial and governmental organizations that impacted McNamara’s career persist today, problematizing ideological prescriptions about ‘learning lessons’. The distancing of today’s ‘best practice leadership’ from the ‘bureaucratic’ forms of administration associated with McNamara in the 1960s is therefore more rhetorical than real; a typical manifestation of ahistorical business school discourse that the historic turn tries to address.
Original languageEnglish
JournalManagement & Organizational History
Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2015


  • Robert McNamara; Cold War; Vietnam War; Business Schools; Business History


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