Most Influential Business School Professors Of 2021

·10 min read

What a difference 20 years makes!

Back then, AI was reserved for Sci-Fi fantasies and the sharing economy was more hippie than hipster. Consumers were receiving Netflix DVDs in the mail and realizing Amazon sold more than books and video games. And no one had migrated to the cloud or started living on their phones, either. The c-suite hyped being global and diverse, while the front lines remained mostly local and uniform. Of course, Big Data was relegated to gigabytes of information that everyone collected — and no one used.

Let’s face it: If you asked people what SEO meant in 2001, they’d probably assume it was self-help lingo: Stay Eager and Open or Seize Every Opportunity.

In 2021, alphas have been replaced with empaths who tiptoe around social fractures in 140 characters. With social media, everyone has become a brand — a distinct voice at best and a Tik Tok influencer at worst. Now, the world works, studies, shops, and entertains from their laptop. Thanks to the internet, any disruptor can turn their big idea into a unicorn (courtesy of Salesforce and HubSpot wizardry).

And you know who predicted all of this? Your friendly neighborhood business school professors!

Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson


They imagined it, researched it, shaped it, and taught it. They told us what to expect — and how to harness its possibilities. More than that, they connected these shifts back to basic fundamentals: service and messaging, making the right investments, and hiring the right people. In the process, they extended these concepts beyond the classroom and into the corporate consciousness.

How do you measure which professors have influenced business the most? That’s the job of Thinkers50, a 20-year old organization devoted to identifying the best business management ideas. Every two years, Thinkers50 ranks the 50 most influential business thinkers, a list whose names have included distinguished academics like Peter Drucker, Michael Porter, and Clayton Christensen — and practitioners like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs. In 2019, the top spot was claimed by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne, the INSEAD professors responsible for formulating the Blue Ocean Strategy. This year…

Congratulations to Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmundson.


Call it a long slog for Edmundson, who debuted at #35 in the 2011 list before winning the Thinkers50 2019 Breakthrough Idea Award for her book, The Fearless Organization, and the 2017 Talent Award for her research in psychological safety. The latter concept involves creating a culture where talent can feel comfortable expressing their views and being their authentic selves. In response, they are more apt to take risks, since the fear of losing career trajectory or status has been removed. It was topic, writes Columbia Business School’s Rita Gunther McGrath, that has touched a nerve with organizations everywhere.

“Before Google discovered it, and before the idea became a mainstream meme, Amy Edmondson discovered something really important about high performing teams: the people in them felt that they could raise difficult, risky, or controversial ideas without the fear of being shut down or punished,” McGrath writes. “She called it ‘psychological safety,’ and pioneered approaches to making it a reality in hundreds of teams. It is an idea whose time has triumphantly arrived. Edmondson’s new book is your guide to it.”

Thinkers50 was equally bullish on Edmondson’s intellectual prowess. “Amy is already a Thinkers50 Award winner and has risen steadily up the ranking over recent years,” writes Thinkers50 cofounder Des Dearlove in a statement. “Her work on teamworking is significant and more recently she has been the pioneer of the concept of psychological safety and author of The Fearless Organization, a ground-breaking blueprint on creating a fear-free culture. Her work is repeatedly cited by the practitioners we talk to as practical and inspiring. It combines practicality with intellectual rigour.”

INSEAD’s W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne


The Thinkers50 list is a mix of public input and panel review. From March through September, people could submit online nominations that included the names and qualifications of “thinkers” whom they believed should be on the list. From there, panelists reviewed each candidate against a 10-point criteria list that was broken into two categories: Viability and Visibility. The viability portion measures thinkers’ work against the 4 R’s: Relevance, Rigour, Reach, and Resilience. From there, Visibility covers academic citations and references, media coverage, public speaking profile and speaking fees, affiliations, communication skills, and tool and techniques (defined as practical applications). Thinkers selected are honored at the November Thinkers50 Awards Gala, which was held online this year from November 15-16.

The Thinkers50 has been described as the “Oscars of Management Thinking” by The Financial Times. This year, it was business school professors who were bringing home the gold. 7 of the 10 highest-ranked thinkers hailed from academia. After HBS’ Amy Edmundson, you’ll find Rita Gunther McGrath holding down the number two spot. A Columbia Business School management theorist, McGrath has finished in the Top 10 in the past three rankings, earning Thinkers50 Strategy Award for The End of Competitive Advantage in 2013. Rounding out the top three is INSEAD’s W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy — a concept that encourages companies to differentiate and innovate in lower cost, less contested markets with the potential for higher demand. Following the mantra of “Create, don’t compete,” Kim and Mauborgne urge leaders to shift from red ocean “cutthroat markets with bloody competition” to “wide-open blue oceans” with fewer rivals.

“Value innovation is the cornerstone of blue ocean strategy,” they write. “We call it value innovation because instead of focusing on beating the competition, you focus on making the competition irrelevant by creating a leap in value for buyers and your company, thereby opening up new and uncontested market space.”

Roger Martin


Yves Pigneur, who has taught at the University of Lausanne since 1984, ranks 4th this year in tandem with Alex Osterwalder. They created the Business Model Canvas, which enables innovators to map out the nine building blocks to design new ventures or transform existing ones. Placing 5th is Roger Martin, the former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School, a pioneer in integrative thinking. In Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, Martin famously wrote that defining problems differently means you can conceive alternatives that others can’t even imagine. That starts, Martin continues, by dispensing with either-or thinking.

The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

The remaining professors in the Top 10 include Wharton’s Adam Grant and Harvard Business School’s Linda Hill. It is also flavored with several MBA influences. Scott D. Anthony, a senior partner at Innosight and author of Eat, Sleep, Innovate, holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. At the same time, Whitney Jonson spent four years as an executive coach at Harvard Business School Executive Education. However, the Thinkers50 list deviates sharply from its traditional modus operandi this year. Rather than ranking all 50 thinkers, Thinkers50 alphabetically listed the remaining 40 thinkers who missed the Top 10.

“Events over the past two years really led us to question what we do and why we do it,” writes Thinkers50’s Stuart Crainer in a press release. “Arranging the Thinkers50 in this way fits more readily with our belief that collaboration and community lie at the heart of the Thinkers50—and organizational success.”

Next Page: The rest of the Top 50…and which professors is on the “Radar” for 2023

Once the chief psychologist at British Airways, Lynda Gratton is an expert on human capital and one of the world's best business school professors


Overall, there are 37 business school professors featured among the 57 thinkers profiled in Thinkers50 (seven were ranked alongside co-authors or partners). In many cases, they include classroom rock stars like London Business School’s Lynda Gratton, Columbia Business School’s Dorie Clark, and IMD’s Michael Watkins. On occasion, you’ll find a Hubert Joly: a former Fortune 500 CEO who made the transition to academia (Harvard Business School, in his case). Speaking of HBS, the school can crow about six faculty members being part of the Thinkers50 list, with INSEAD placing four more. MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School, and London Business School each had three faculty members on Thinkers50, while the Wharton School and Duke Fuqua had two representatives. Dorie Clark, who teaches in the executive education program for Columbia and Duke Fuqua, was included in both totals.

That said, you’ll find plenty of Thinkers50 talent who make a living outside the business school bubble. Heidi Grant heads up research and development learning at Ernst & Young, while Ming Zeng has risen to become chief strategy officer at the Alibaba Group. Some, such as Tiffani Bova and Daniel Pink, have carved out livings as authors, speakers, and influencers who aren’t weighed down by the ‘publish or perish” expectations of academia. Alas, the number of gurus who can live off best-seller royalties long-term are few-and-far-between. Truth be told, you don’t make money off racking up Forbes columns, Twitter followers, TedTalks, virtual panels, or Fox Business bookings. And who really wants to schlep for consulting bookings these days? For many of the best minds, business school is the place to be: a security blanket with flexible schedules and inspiring peers. As an added bonus, their MBA students provide an inside look at the practices and trends in the world’s top organizations.

Laura Morgan Roberts, University of Virginia (Darden)

This year’s Thinkers50 also represents the culmination of a long-standing trend. This year, women make up the majority of the list. There are also 10 countries represented on the list that also feature thinkers from 10 countries including the US, China, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, the UK, Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, and France). In addition, there are 15 new members of Thinkers50 in 2021, including Duke Fuqua’s Sanyin Siang, Harvard Business School’s Tsedal Neeley, and Wharton’s Katy Milkman.


The Thinkers50 is just one of the honors that business professors enjoyed in 2021. The organization also produces a list of 30 up-and-comers known as the Radar list. On this year’s Radar, you’ll find distinguished faculty members that include: Matt Beane (UC-Santa Barbara), Hamid Bouchikhi (Solbridge International), David De Cremer (National University of Singapore), Colleen Cunningham (London Business School), Matthew Gitshaw (Hult Ashridge), Laura Huang (Harvard Business School), Jackson Lu (MIT Sloan), Alyson Meister (IMD), Leon Prieto (Clayton State), Simone Phipps (Middle Georgia State), Laura Morgan Roberts (Virginia Darden), Luz Rello Sanchez (IE Business School), Keyvan Vakili (London Business School), and Dashun Wang (Northwestern Kellogg).

This year’s Thinkers50 Hall of Fame inductees include Mary Gentile (Virginia Darden), Reuel Khoza (University of Stellenbosch), and Sue Vinnicombe (Cranfield School). The 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Northwestern Kellogg’s Philip Kotler. Popularly known as the “Father of Modern Marketing,” Kotler has published 80 books, including Marketing Management — the most widely-used textbook in the field according to Thinkers50.


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