by Megan Santosus

Summer Reading: Cheesy Business Books

Jul 01, 20026 mins
IT Leadership

Now that it’s summertime and the living is (putatively) easy, it’s traditional to shift gears, kick back and pick up a good book. But if you’re the monomaniacal, workaholic type that can’t imagine ever diverting her attention from the job long enough to sample a mystery, thriller or any other sort of light beach reading, you can dip into one of the myriad business books now available that promise to educate as well as entertain. (And when I say you, of course, I don’t mean me. I wouldn’t touch any of these books with the proverbial 10-foot pole.)

History Comes Alive

The growing compendium of books about Jack Welch notwithstanding, a current trend in business book publishing is to hold up historical, military and sports figures as paragons of managerial acumen. One of the more intriguing recent selections is Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time, by David Baron and Lynette Padwa. I haven’t actually read the book, so I can’t begin to fathom how calling down a rain of frogs, afflicting your enemies with boils or parting a major body of water is analogous to any aspect of running a business. (Although it would certainly be handy. Imagine: one moment your employee is asking for a raise, the next he’s neck deep in frogs. Not to mention boils.) Yet the write-up on makes Moses sound like a real management genius, someone who has a lot to teach CIOs grappling with decimated budgets, inchoate strategies and demoralized employees. Moses apparently was a whiz at face-to-face negotiations (having the Angel of Death in your back pocket is, of course, an ace in the hole not available to most CIOs) and a master motivator. He also never saw a crisis he couldn’t turn into an opportunity for change management and empowerment. Sounds like a bona fide business guru to me.

If Moses is a bit too far removed from the here and now, maybe Alan Axelrod’s Elizabeth I, CEO: Strategic Lessons from a Leader Who Built an Empire will seem more relevant to our modern sensibilities. Again, I haven’t exactly read it, but good Queen Bess sure sounds like a dynamo. As both a coach and mentor, Elizabeth became adept at communicating a coherent management style (Do what I say or I’ll have your head cut off) and engendering loyalty (Do what I say or…). Perhaps not coincidentally, she enjoyed a 44-year tenure at the top. Not bad.

As an unmarried, childless, high-achieving executive woman, Elizabeth typifies the dilemma described in Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, by Sylvia Ann Hewitt. Hewitt profiles women who spend all their time and energy in their 20s and 30s establishing high-profile careers, only to end up single, childless and bitter by 40. Using Elizabeth’s story as an object lesson, it just goes to prove that such a fate is hardly a modern phenomenon but one that befell women back in the 16th century as well. Makes one cranky. Makes one want to cut off someone’s head.

War and Basketball

In today’s rough-and-tumble business world, the bejeweled image of Elizabeth I may not resonate. A better choice might be a slightly crumpled military man, someone like Ulysses S. Grant. In Cigars, Whiskey and Winning: Leadership Lessons from General Ulysses S. Grant, Al Kaltman reveals the Civil War general’s surprisingly modern management side. To illustrate Grant’s mastery of 250 principles of business success, Kaltman focuses on Grant’s career ranging from his West Point days to his generalship in the war with Mexico and the war between the states. Among the tips Kaltman adumbrates are Grant’s strategic planning prowess and his uncanny ability to learn from his mistakes, which, by the way, were legion. It’s rather a shame that Grant couldn’t translate his military successes into other aspects of his life. Before the Civil War, he was a spectacular flameout in commercial ventures, failing at real estate, farming and retailing. As president, he stood watch over an administration so corrupt and mired in special interests as to make the gang that ran Enron seem like a troop of Boy Scouts. (To be fair, it was never suggested that Grant himself was dishonest; he just made some poor staffing decisions.) But as a military man, Grant was indisputably a winner, a powerful and ruthless strategist: The sieges he levied at Vicksburg and Petersburg stand to this day as models for sticking it to the competition on its home turf.

Given the state of the world, I can certainly understand if a military-themed book doesn’t seem especially appealing. After all, and as we already stipulated, it is summertime. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of business books written by coaches and other mavens of sport. One recent addition to the genre is Leading with the Heart: Coach K’s Successful Strategies for Basketball, Business and Life, by none other than Duke University’s head hoops guru Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced, unaccountably, shuh-shef-skee). Running an elite athletic program, writes Coach K, is a lot like managing any business because talented individuals have to come together, gel and work as a well-oiled unit toward achieving a common goal.

During his reign of more than two decades as Duke’s head coach, Krzyzewski has certainly earned his reputation as a highly successful recruiter, motivator and organizer. Year in and year out, fans can see his Blue Devils at or near the top of the NCAA rankings. However, unlike just about any business on the planet, Coach K never has to contend with budget cuts or downsizing. He is never asked to win games with four players instead of five. One wonders how successful Coach K would be if he had to mold a winning team out of a bunch of clock punchers whose sole reason for showing up each day was to collect a paycheck. College basketball players, after all, sweat for glory, not silver.

Or perhaps I’m being naive.

So Many Books, So Little Time

If the above choices don’t light your reading lamp, don’t worry. There’s never a shortage of oddly themed business books. How about one about the criminal underworld (The Mafia Manager: A Guide to the Corporate Machiavelli) or the spy trade (CIA, Inc.: Espionage and the Craft of Business Intelligence), just to name two.

Still, as I settle in for a summer’s worth of reading, I can’t help but wonder why business can’t be a metaphor for other life endeavors, instead of the other way ’round. Wouldn’t you read Continuous Family Improvement: How to Fire Your Children, by Jack Welch, in which he recommends letting go of underperforming progeny? Or We Are the World 2.0, in which Bill Gates tells the leaders of the world how to get along by getting on the same platform.

Now those I would read.