Viewpoint -- Count Me Out Of The 60-Second Executive Book Club

Dec. 21, 2004
Most of the management books I receive are junk.

I am having an Andy Rooney day. And my topic today is books. I receive a lot of management books, as the FedEx, UPS and USPS delivery people can attest. But there are days I wish they wouldn't absolutely, positively make sure that these just-published or soon-to-be-released volumes promptly land on my desk. Most arrive with a press release touting the tomes as the best book published since, if not the development of movable type, the earliest version of Microsoft Word. And many of the press releases include the offer of a chance to actually talk with the author -- on the remote possibility that the quotations attributed to the author in the press release are not pithy enough. However, a quick glance at the book's contents is usually enough to tell me that even speed-dialing the author's number would be investing a disproportionate amount of effort. In a word, most of the management books I receive for possible review are junk. They are a waste of postage, time and space. About the only thing they are not a waste of is the author's talent, because in most instances little is in evidence. I am particularly unimpressed by what I dub the "60-Second Executive" books, those breezy collections of statements of the obvious that promise to make any under-performing person into a captain of industry, an executive of unequaled achievement, fame and wealth. Most aren't worth the 15 seconds it took to write them. I also take issue with management books built around one word, usually a word designed to connote speed or insight but more likely to be confused with the name of a shower soap. I have a single five-letter word for such books: GOOFY. And in just the past month, I was particularly disappointed by a book written by a former senior manufacturing executive now teaching at a leading American business school. He had been, the publicity material stated, chosen by that school's students as its best teacher. The students must have been brought up on MTV, for the book was entertaining rather than challenging and episodic rather than enlightening. Download this one to my iPod for in-car consulting while commuting? I don't think so. If there is a single failing of most of the books I receive for review, it is that they are formulaic rather than philosophic. They are absurdly reductionist rather than constructionist. They seize on the simple and ignore the complexity of the real world of management. Please don't get me wrong. I am not seeking a Schopenhauer of Six Sigma or a Liebniz of Lean. What I am looking for on my desk and in book catalogs, and rarely finding, are some social philosophers who probe the practices of business and economics in the larger context of capitalism, human values and ethics. Charles Handy, the former Shell Oil executive and London Business School professor, is one such person. "The Elephant and the Flea" and "The Hungry Spirit" deserve to be read and re-read. But Handy is the only person whose name comes easily to mind -- unless one is willing to include Studs Terkel, the oral historian of American workers. His book "Working" appeared three decades ago, but it's still a good and relevant and disquieting read. Well, there are three books for your summer reading and each is well worth the time. But I would hope you do more than read these books. I would hope you would think about the issues they raise in the context of your own company and all the people in its employ. It is one thing to study philosophy, another to philosophize, and still another thing to, as one of my philosophy professors put it, "do philosophy." The process is likely to take more than 60 seconds. But you and the workers are likely to really benefit. John S. McClenahen is an IndustryWeek senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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