I read more business books than anyone I know, which is ironic because I can’t stand most of them. That’s not to say I hate all business books — after all, I’ve written one — but 95% go on one of two lists: “if you don’t know this already, you should be working at the DMV” and “if you do these things, your company will become the DMV.”
A cynical view? I don’t think so. Here’s why.
First, most business books use stories to cover over their complete lack of insight. This week, I read a galley of a book that I hope will never come out. After some catchy anecdotes about hero CEOs, it advised, among other things, that leaders figure out what’s really important, then do those things. It went way out on a limb by saying that great leaders are remarkable at forming relationships. And (are you sitting down?) the best leaders are honest when a strategy isn’t working.
Are you kidding me? How about we add that true leaders can dress themselves, use full sentences, and bathe before work.
Second, the stories themselves often highlight the wrong message. Here’s an example. I mentioned Zappos in a talk I gave, and Tony Hsieh, the CEO, was kind enough to endorse my work. Now I get lots of emails asking for an introduction to him. I almost never pass them on. Why? Because Tony, like me, is tired of repeating what no one ever hears: the Zappos story isn’t about Tony. It’s about a group of people that aligned on the same vision of what that company could become and pulled it off by sacrificing, working hard, and participating. If people copy only Tony’s actions, they won’t end up with a Zappos; they’ll end up bankrupt.
Business success isn’t a checklist, and that’s the implied message from many business books: do these things and you’ll be the hero. Business success is a dance: with the market, employees, investors, customers, landlords, and creditors — not to mention spouses and kids.
Third, most business books are air sandwiches: empty in the middle. One of my mentors told me to read the first and last chapters of a book, because everything in the middle is either stories or takeaways so simple that watching Mr. Rogers is a better use of your time. I’m too obsessive-compulsive to follow this advice, but in 95% of cases, it would be better if I had.
Business leaders need a reboot on the ideas that make organizations run. Is your time best spent reading business books, or talking with people with radically different ideas? Put down the business book and go interact with ideas that challenge you, frighten you, or piss you off.
People often ask me what the best business books I’ve ever read are. Here’s my list: The Odyssey, Atlas Shrugged, and Ender’s Game. None are about commerce or strategy. Read The Odyssey to understand character, purpose, and discovery. Read Atlas Shrugged to clarify your own position on how the political economy should run. And read Ender’s Game for how genius and leadership pull people in opposite directions. (Two of the three are well written — you can figure out which is the outlier.)
None of these books have takeaways, or to-do lists. None preach. They will make you think.
Anyone brave enough to venture into these waters with me? What are your favorite non-business books that teach you a lot about business?
About Dave Logan
Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.