From 1900 until his death in 1952, Charles Clinton Spaulding helmed the largest Black-owned business in the US, the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, and championed a gentler, kinder form of capitalism that did not sacrifice growth. Despite the racist political and cultural forces working against him and other Black executives at the time, he turned a once-struggling firm into a prominent business worth nearly $400 million in today’s money.
Left out of mainstream business history books and courses on management, Spaulding has had little name recognition outside Durham, North Carolina, where he lived for most of his life and is a recognized figure of the city’s historic Black Wall Street. But decades after his death, he’s being saluted by Thinkers50, the London-based group behind the so-called “Oscars of the management world”: a biannual ranking of the 50 people making the biggest contributions to management ideas of the moment.
Spaulding will become the first African-American luminary to be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame, meaning his name and story will join those of gurus like the late Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker, along with a slew of management theorists who are still active today.
Interest in Spaulding’s business philosophy and management style has been sparked by the pioneering work of two researchers, Leon Prieto, an associate professor of management at Clayton State University, and Simone Phipps, an associate professor of management at Middle Georgia State University’s School of Business.
Five years ago, at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting, Prieto and Phipps presented Spaulding’s vision for a collective style of working and corporate responsibility to society. Since then, they have circulated additional studies citing his work and published the book African American Management History, which draws on the writings and speeches of Spaulding and many of his contemporaries.
“He seemed to be a very authentic person, a caring person, really wasn’t selfish,” Phipps says of Spaulding. “He was about making sure that other people were able to benefit from business as well. He cared about other people—their professional development and their wellbeing—and it showed in his practical leadership style.”
Two decades before similar theories about the functions of management by Henri Fayol, a French theorist and textbook mainstay, were translated for American readers, Spaulding suggested there were eight fundamental business concerns demanding managers’ attention: cooperation and teamwork; authority and responsibility; division of labor; adequate manpower; adequate capital; feasibility analysis; advertising budget; and conflict resolution.
“We’re really excited,” Phipps says of the Thinkers50 honor, “because finally we feel like he’s going to get the recognition that he deserves for being ahead of his time and being a visionary.”
Prieto, meanwhile, notes his elation is mixed with “a sense of relief. Finally, Spaulding is getting his just due.”
“Ahead of his time”
In the contemporary search for examples of more compassionate forms of capitalism, people often believe they need to look to Europe and particularly the Scandinavian countries, Prieto says, “when instead you could just look right in the United States, within the African American community during the golden age of Black business.”
Thinkers50 co-founder Stuart Crainer tells Quartz that Spaulding’s decades-old writings and arguments impressed him because of their enduring timeliness. “He talked about cooperation, for instance, and the most progressive organizations are focused on creating an arena for cooperation between employers, employees, and customers,” says Crainer. “He was ahead of his time and his messages are appropriate for our time.”
Prieto and Phipps, who are married, previously sent their research findings to textbook authors—a handful of whom updated their texts with sections on Spaulding. The scholars hope that the Thinkers50 recognition will bring Spaulding’s history to many more management and business school students around the US and the world, to spread recognition not only of his specific theories, but of the idea that not all great management thinkers were white Americans or Europeans.
This also is part of the mandate at Thinkers50, which Crainer launched in 2011 with Des Dearlove (both men are former UK business journalists and have taught at business schools). “Increasingly, we’ve been trying to get in touch with broader interpretations of management,” Crainer tells Quartz. “It just so happens, the history of management has tended to be dominated by corporate America, and that’s the lens we’ve tended to see the world through, and the lessons of corporate America have been repeated by American business schools.” That lens has essentially excluded non-white American leaders. What’s more, Crainer notes, there is “an entire back catalog of management wisdom in India, China, and Africa that is unexplored.”
Spaulding came onto the group’s radar after Salesforce executive Tiffani Bova, a Thinkers50 honoree, sent Crainer a Quartz at Work story from June 2020 about the work of Prieto and Phipps and the business leaders whose legacies they have surfaced.
Among the other inductees to the group’s Hall of Fame this year is the late Mary Parker Follett, a pioneering American sociologist who was one of the first theorists to write about people-oriented management practices, teamwork, and conflict resolution in the workplace.
The four additional inductees are George Yip, emeritus professor of marketing and strategy at Imperial College Business School in London, and currently a distinguished visiting professor at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, Northeastern University.
The class will be officially inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame on Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, at 3:40 pm UTC in an online, free-to-view ceremony to be live-streamed on YouTube.