Rewriting the Rules

Maybe “Seventeen Previously Written Rules of Management” just didn’t have the same ring?

According to the New York Times today, that’s the number of “unwritten” rules management guru William Swanson allegedly lifted from an engineering textbook — published over 60 years ago.

Swanson, the head of Raytheon, a military contractor, recently told USA Today the list was inspired by his personal and professional experiences with the company spanning 33 years.

“Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management” — a 76-page booklet written last year — has been praised by the likes of Warren Buffet and Jack Welch. About 250,000 free copies have since been distributed both in and outside the company.

A chemical engineer and blogger in San Diego, quoted in the Times, says most of the rules are cribbed from “The Unwritten Laws of Engineering” by W.J. King.

The question is: Can anyone claim ownership of such fortune-cookie aphorisms as “keep your feet on the ground,” “look for what is missing,” and “a person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person”? Yes, what William Swanson did was clearly plagiarism. But have we neared the end of anything original when it comes to management advice?