A bear of very little brain

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What business book should you take to the beach? The Management Secrets of Winnie the Pooh – or the Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. John suggests alternatives.You have a wide choice of inspirational business books to take on holiday. You could try Winnie-the-Pooh on Management. From this you will glean insights such as “The manager, manager,/A leader must be./That’s most important,/As we all can see”. This apparently proved sufficiently helpful for the publisher to issue a follow-up, Winnie-The-Pooh on Success.

Those whose management style is different from Pooh’s may prefer Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. There is inspiration to be found from sports people. If you no longer want to try Leadership, The Sven-Göran Eriksson Way, David Carter and Darren Rovell’s On the Ball will tell you how to penetrate new markets with Tiger Woods, achieve branding like Lance Armstrong and emulate the turnround of the Dallas Cowboys.

Some authors specialise in deriving expertise from unexpected sources. Alan Axelrod is the author of books on business lessons from Queen Elizabeth I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the game of Monopoly. It will come as no surprise that Mr Axelrod is also a regular contributor to a series entitled The Complete Idiot’s Guides. The line between prescription and parody is a fine one in the business bookshop: God is my Broker is a spoof, but the intentions behind Jesus CEO are entirely serious.

It is possible to turn out these books because many human dilemmas change little over time or between activities. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his ox, nor his ass” was good advice in Old Testament days and, with appropriate modification, remains valid in the corridors of the Football Association or the Enron boardroom. Shakespeare’s Hamlet illustrates the personal and professional consequences of indecision, which can be as adverse in the executive suite as at the Castle at Elsinore. But no deep appreciation of theology, literature or business is required to make that observation.

Metaphor and analogy are powerful tools of explanation, but only when the parallels are subtle and extensive. Perhaps becoming CEO of General Electric is like winning the Master’s tournament at Augusta. But the nature and limitations of the comparison are so obvious that nothing is learnt by making it. “Business is just like a round of golf” would be interesting if it were true, but it is not. Good metaphors rest on more than a single point of comparison, and acquire their force from the appreciation of an overall situation created by such successive elaboration. My hopes were not raised by the title If Aristotle Ran General Motors. But, inside its covers, you find an entirely serious discussion of the implications of aspects of Aristotelian ethics for the relationship between a corporation and society. The elaboration of common elements between concepts of civic duty in ancient Athens and modern Detroit is less funny, but much more penetrating, than Michael Moore’s pursuit of similar issues in Roger & Me.

But it is easy to see the problem that confronted Tom Morris, a serious philosopher, when he set out to write that book. The multi-million sales of volumes such as Fish! and Who Moved My Cheese? show there is a large market for business books that is neither demanding nor discriminating, and attracts potboilers full of platitudes such as “Management is about leadership”. Differentiating your product – whether lightweight or not – from many apparently identical titles requires a gimmick, and attributing your thoughts to Lara Croft, Osama bin Laden or Aristotle is one means of grabbing attention.

Amid this desolation, it is reassuring that those popular business books that do have substantive content – Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Built to Last, Larry Bossidy’s Execution – continue to sell. There has been no similar book published this year. You could try Henry Mintzberg’s Managers not MBAs, a sceptical look at business education and business strategy. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers and Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works are not business books, but deal with issues central to understanding the business environment.

As executives head for the beach they could do worse than recall Pooh’s advice to the manager: “He delegates work/To those that he trusts/Objectives and organising/Are some of his musts”. But they could also do better.

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