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Master Class

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This story appears in the February 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

After studying 1,000 of the last century's top entrepreneurs, managers and leaders, Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Anthony Mayo credited these paragons' prominence to a combination of who they were and the times they operated in. In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Harvard Business School Press, $35) details how the personal idiosyncrasies of leaders from Henry Ford to Sam Walton combined with their particular eras to create epochal economic success.

A Ford quote summarizes the authors' premise: "Had I worked 50 or 10 or even five years before, I would have failed." They buttress their case for the importance of circumstance with tales of entrepreneurs like Clarence Saunders, who revolutionized retail with his Piggly Wiggly self-service groceries, then failed repeatedly and disastrously with other concepts that were too advanced for his time. To be like Ford and unlike Saunders, study business history and learn what worked in the past. Read voraciously and travel widely to stay on top of regulatory, technological and political trends. In short, to master the present, think hard about both the future and the past.

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