The Economist, in its 19 August 2004 issue, published an unusual review in the “Books and Arts” section. Instead of reviewing a single book, or two or three covering the same subject, they took on the entire business book genre. And they didn’t like what they saw.
The reviewer noted that there is strong incentive to write a powerful business book. Aside from book sales, there is considerable gain to be harvested from the resulting consulting and speaking engagements. Yet, the reviewer puzzles, instead of excellent work being drawn to the field by the promise of fame and fortune, most business books are, well, “bad.” Many are basically just “expanded PowerPoint presentations,” filled with peculiarly irrelevant anecdotes, sidebars, bullet lists, and a scattering of random thoughts shotgunned onto a single, mundane idea.
Particularly sharp was the reviewer’s attack on the faddy marketing of these books. Put a number in the title – recently, the higher the better: 51 of this, 1001 of that. Toss in an animal – better yet, change its color or call it one thing, but show a picture of another. When you have no real content, try to convince your business audience that it’s all about the packaging, anyway. Consider what Managing Leadership has to say about what this sort of “innovative” marketing suggests:
Once leadership became a business, the dynamics of business altered its nature fundamentally. As supply burgeoned, the product splintered and took on multiple forms according to the segmentation of the market, means of product delivery, and fashion, which changed as the overall market expanded and matured. Innovation became meaningless, as it was increasingly driven by the needs of the product’s suppliers, rather than its consumers.
As The Economist’s reviewer points out, the problem is that there appears to be a shortage of good ideas. But, the powerful rewards attending a best-seller still draw thousands of titles to the market each year. Supply burgeons, and “innovation” reflects their needs – not the reader’s – as these writers jostle, push and shout in an effort to win attention and become the next guru. In other words, the “innovation” is applied to marketing efforts intended to attract attention to the product, not to solid thinking that might serve the market, which would tend to draw the product to it.
As it happens, the most tolerable books out there may be those that simply attempt to recast historic or literary examples in order to draw entertaining lessons for modern business, a trend also noted in Managing Leadership. The Economist’s reviewer offers the consolation that, if you don’t learn anything new about business from such books, you might at least learn a little history.
However, if you do want to learn something new about business, organizations, and leadership, there are two things you can do. First, buy your copy of Managing Leadership. No numbers in the title, or animals on the cover. No stupefyingly simple-minded charts, not a bullet list in the whole book – how could you have not heard of it?
Second, look in the book’s “Suggestions for Further Reading” section for a list of some of the best books on business and management ever written. You can also find an updated version of this list here.
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Next up for discussion:
In upcoming weeks we will offer reviews of two of Professor Adair‘s books on leadership in organizations, discussing them in their own right, as well as comparing them with the concepts offered in Managing Leadership. We will also be discussing these concepts in the context of contemporary events in organizations in the news around the world. Stop in and join us!
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