The Puritan Gift – Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream

puritan-giftOnce again Peter Day has come up with a fascinating topic, this time on his Global Business radio show on the BBC World Service.

He interviews brothers Kenneth and and William Hopper authors of The Puritan Gift – Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream.

They claim to show where the Protestant work ethic comes from,  And how it enabled America to achieve such dominance in management for so long.

What I found fascinating was their analysis of the rise of the profession of management from the late 1950’s with the growth of business schools. This new set of managers lacked domain knowledge, which meant they knew how to manage business in theory, but did not understand the specific business they were managing. Following on from this was the rise of the accountants through the ranks to positions of power. These financial engineers who are obsessed with quarterly earnings figures have been bad news for American manufacturing industry, and have been a key factor in the decline of American business.

My favourite quote from the show compares companies use of financial debt to athletes use of steroids. “It enhances performance, but unless done in moderation becomes a risk to health.”

“The book is a compelling narrative history of American management practice, demonstrating how many of the distinctive Puritan practices moulded American companies and kept them on the straight and narrow.

American business (say the Hoppers) was driven by great purpose and organisation which owes its commitment to that bold voyage of the Puritans to New England in 1629, ten years after the Pilgrims Fathers arrived in some chaos and too late in the season. Half of their numbers perished.

The Puritans, under John Winthrope, who came later, were well equipped for a New World with a vision of what they wanted to build there and the abilities the skills they would need to make it happen. Hands on skills (and a love of tinkering) are a hallmark of American business leaders.

You may not like them but you know where you are with the Puritans. The Hoppers hint that when the Puritan disciplines started breaking down in business thirty years ago the way was laid for financial engineering (not the old fashioned metal bashing), big borrowings and outsourcing and many other things that have imperilled the whole American system as (as we now know) over the past decade.

Companies thrive when they are lead by engineers and inventors with insights in to the whole process of production.”

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