Perhaps my favorite book review of all time isn’t, properly speaking, a review of a book at all, but a flogging of the whole category of business books. It was called How 51 Gorillas Can Make You Seriously Rich, and it was by The Economist magazine. The most interesting thing about it, though, is that virtually every book cited as an archetype of what is wrong with the genre was a best seller.
Why is that?
I was reading a particularly awful book a couple of years ago, by two economists who reputedly had found some success (ironically, according to a review in The Economist) in discerning the economic precursors for various forms of social organization – particularly, democracy and dictatorships. This latter word appeared in the book title, but early in the text, the authors apologized for it, indicating that they would henceforward replace it with the less judgemental word “nondemocracies.” There’s a warning sign, for you.
I struggled through pages of strained argumentation with tortured interpretations based on painstakingly screened historical anchoring points. I labored on, hoping I would find a sensible logical theme emerge at some point, due to my faith in the source of the recommendation. I finally hit the wall, though, when the authors cited a century-old “study” now broadly discredited which purported to prove that an economic analysis of the United States Constitution would reveal it to actually be, essentially, an aristocratic coup against the democratic aspirations of the people.
In a footnote, the authors acknowledged that the study’s methods and conclusions were “contested.” Still, they countered that despite this, “the general thrust of his argument is accepted by many scholars,” so they were staying with it.
That was on page 34 of a nearly 400 page book, and it was the last one I read. I closed the book, and went on to the next one on my list, never looking back.
I must say that it has happened again, with a more specifically business book I was reading. This one found it necessary to illustrate its points with political observations about controversial and complex issues that the author delivered with dismissively simplistic finality. Actually, even though it irritates me to see this sort of ill-disciplined ideological fervor emerge through a purportedly dispassionate portrayal of management process, I can suffer it if it doesn’t otherwise damage the main argument.
The problem is that it so often does. In this case, the thinly veiled political twaddle was followed almost immediately with a story about a regional manager who defied central headquarters policy in order to commit his firm to some opportunities that had apparently arisen, that would otherwise have taken what the manager felt – and the author, evidently, as well – “too long” to put in to effect, never mind to evaluate. This behavior was somehow presented as an exemplar of productive execution, as opposed to strategic naval gazing.
At least this decision point also occurred less than 10 percent of the way into the book. But it’s on to the next one, with no regrets. And it, like most of my reading, was also purchased based on a review, since I live overseas where I can’t browse well-stocked English-language bookshops. The review makes it clear that this one takes a pretty strong stance on the origins of a major theme of modern political debate. But, at least it doesn’t pretend otherwise, and argues its case, giving the reader the opportunity to evaluate that argument.
Who knows? Maybe I won’t make it very far through this one, either. We’ll see. But I have learned to insist that the author sell every page of his assertions and presentation to me. I won’t allow him to try to cow me into submission with a dismissive refusal to even deign to defend his case, relying instead on a supposedly intimidating reference to the high-minded approbation of his like-minded fellow travelers, as in the first example above, or on a sophomorically subversive effort to insinuate his conclusions into my thinking, as in the second.
Mind you, it is of great importance to expose yourself to arguments in support of conclusions you may be inclined to disagree with. You may learn something – you may modify your thinking somewhat, or even change your mind altogether. At the very least, you are likely to come away from it with a deeper appreciation of your own position. There is assuredly some value in that.
This does require, though, that the argument be made.
But what do you do in cases when it isn’t? To what extent should we view ourselves as a blank page, to be written on by others? Or, as wonderfully open-minded, not to be judgmental of others’ thinking or their efforts to represent it? Certainly, we can all hold what opinions we wish, with or without justification. After all, we do live in a non-dictatorship, don’t we?
But we can also choose how to respond to the cacophony. We can develop and take our own stand, and insist that others – rather than presume to tell us what our position ought to be – exert themselves to persuade us to abandon ours for theirs.
What is your response when you find yourself confronted with books – or advice proffered in any format – like these?
Today’s tip: You know, of course, that the sort who write all of those awful business books are the same who so many of us rely on to train our managers. Why does everyone complain about the latter, and not the former – and keep hiring both? Please see this demoralizing piece about awful managers by Nic Paton, of Managment-Issues.
Speaking of excellent business books, did you know that as a subscriber to this blog (by either RSS reader or email), you are entitled to a free download (.pdf format, 344KB) of the first chapter from Jim’s critically-acclaimed book, Managing Leadership? Download your free chapter now! (Even if you haven’t subscribed, yet – download it anyway!)
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