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How to navigate the management rapids

Everybody seems to agree that the business world is more uncertain than ever before, and management writers certainly enjoy using metaphors. But the idea that modern management is akin to a white-water ride is perhaps pushing it a little.

True, executives are having to grapple with all manner of problems, to imagine the unimaginable and generally be fleet of mind. But that sounds more like life in a chemistry lab than in an inflatable raft. And then, of course, it is possible to argue that these managers are amply rewarded for putting up with all this excitement.

Despite the hyperbolic subtitle, though, The Future of Leadership, A White Water Revolution (Pitman, pounds 18.99) does have a few things to offer current and would-be leaders. In keeping with the current fad, authors Randall P White, Philip Hodgson and Stuart Crainer insist that they are not out to peddle a fad or provide instant solutions. Their objective, they say, is to identify "the skills necessary to ride the corporate rapids". Moreover, far from claiming to be a book that solves managers' problems, they say their effort "creates more problems in a corporate world already beset with problems".

After that not-so-helpful start, the authors set out the key skills - composed of three enablers and two channels. In the first group are: difficult learning - because only difficult learning will help individuals and organisations; maximising energy - being effective rather than just busy; and resonant simplicity - a fancy name for straightforward beliefs that mean something to the workforce rather than instant sound bites. In the second are multiple focus - which is self-explanatory - and mastering inner sense, which is less obvious, but means that managers should look inwards at things like knowledge as well as concentrating on tangible matters, such as reports, budgets and the like. According to White, Hodgson and Crainer, these five skills will help the manager of today and tomorrow cope with the environment in which they find themselves. But they stress that they will not make it go away. "Uncertainty is here and here to stay. Industries once regarded as stable and slow moving are now beset by the bubbling white waters of change," they write before offering a glimmer of hope. "Amid the confusion and messiness," they add, "some corporations and some leaders are seizing the new uncertainties and are making them work".

Their examples come from retailing, where, for example, WalMart is faring much better than its similarly named rival K-Mart; from accountancy, where Arthur Andersen is increasing revenues at nearly twice the rate of some rivals; and from the highly complex and turbulent world of pharmaceuticals.

But, as they point out, the same things are happening everywhere. "There is no escape from the maelstrom of change, innovation and fear." And the successes will be those that abandon safety and confront uncertainty rather than seek to avoid it.

Take, for example, the two ''wars'' described close to the end of the book. The first involves cola - traditionally dominated by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola of the United States. Then along came Cott Corporation of Toronto, almost unheard of until 1994. Its sales have mushroomed largely as a result of selling to Sainsbury's and Safeway in Britain, Ito Yokado of Japan and the aforementioned WalMart, each of which puts its own name on the cans.

Whether Cott will continue to prosper is open to question, but its rise owes a lot to the growing power of the big retailers.

But this itself leads to uncertainty, argue White, Hodgson and Crainer.

If the success of private label products leads to retailers marketing their brands in a similar way to Coke and Pepsi they could become locked in a marketing rivalry that threatens their price competitiveness and - as they say - what happens then?

The other ''war'' is the one that broke out between the detergent giants Unilever and Procter & Gamble of the US. The marketing disaster of Unilever's Persil Power has been obvious: the discovery that in certain conditions the soap powder rotted clothes led to the company announcing a write-off of more than pounds 50m.

But the authors argue that this debacle should not put Unilever off. Indeed, they argue that, if the Anglo-Dutch company squeezes dry this source of "difficult learning" it could emerge stronger rather than weaker - and that it should be P&G that is worried.

In other words, today you can be riding along on the crest of a wave, but tomorrow you could be caught in the undertow.