Leadership lessons untold: A new history of Robert McNamara’s World Bank

John Heath, Leo McCann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Leadership education can be reductionist and facile. Recent scholarship in management and organizational history has reexamined many of the most established business school concepts and literatures, rethinking the ‘lessons’ taught from - among others - Taylor, Maslow and the Human Relations School. This paper similarly uses historical methods (oral historical and archival) to analyse the career of Robert S. McNamara, a major figure often portrayed simplistically in leadership literature. McNamara is often characterized as a ‘good manager but poor leader’, notorious for failures associated with micromanaging by questionable metrics. While this picture is partially accurate it is far from complete. McNamara’s career – for all its management failures and weaknesses - also featured many traits associated with celebrated concepts of ‘leadership’, especially during his long tenure as President of the World Bank (1968-81). We develop an historical narrative that reevaluates and updates our understanding of this comparatively unexplored latter stage of McNamara’s career. The paper argues against the construction of simplistic ‘leadership lessons’ that suffer from three weaknesses: 1) a poor grasp of historical events, 2) a weak understanding of history as a discipline, and 3) a reliance on artificial constructs and dichotomies, such as leadership (good) versus management (bad). We suggest that there is much to learn from deepening the scholarly relationship between critical leadership studies and management history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)606-627
Issue number5
Early online date22 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021

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  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Management History
  • Metrics
  • Robert McNamara
  • World Bank

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