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Best Business Books 2005: Leadership

Monsters and Diplomats

Leadership books keep rolling off the presses as if their authors had something new to say. currently lists some 16,175 leadership titles. That figure can’t be right: A significant new theory of leadership hasn’t been advanced in years, and there are few serious research findings to report. Yet authors keep churning out books.

Things haven’t always been so. In fact, not until the 1980s was there an identifiable leadership niche in the business book industry. Since then, as the genre has grown exponentially with every passing year, authors have had to stretch further for themes and subjects. And every year your faithful correspondent for strategy+business’s annual “Best Business Books” issue has had to look further afield for interesting books to review. This year’s crop takes us as far away as South Africa in the 19th century, with stops in contemporary Washington, D.C., New York City, and 1970s New Orleans.

Drilling into Clay
The common denominator of Michael Lewis’s popular business-related books is the author’s remarkable facility to make his real-life characters appear ridiculous. Hence, I approached Mr. Lewis’s latest effort, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life (W.W. Norton, 2005), with expectations of a healthy dose of his patented cynicism. Instead, I found a small serving of treacle.

Small is an understatement: This tiny book is only 90 pages; 25 are given over to photographs, of which only two are directly related to the text. Needless to say, the book is a fast read! But the most remarkable thing isn’t the publisher’s chutzpah in charging nearly 13 bucks for a padded work that isn’t long enough to qualify as a feature article in the New Yorker. What truly amazes is that the author of the techie New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story (Norton, 2000) could have written a book with such old messages.

The coach in question is one Billy Fitzgerald, Mr. Lewis’s baseball coach at the private high school in New Orleans he attended some 35 years ago. Still on the job, Coach Fitz is a walking stereotype of a kind seldom found today: the tough Marine drill sergeant with a heart of gold. Old Coach Fitz loves his team to death, hollering at them, belittling them, throwing furniture, making them practice sliding into third base on a surface so hard it leaves them bloody and bruised — all in the name of “making them men.” This coach is an old-fashioned character builder: He is out to instill discipline in the unformed clay of youth.

When the young Mr. Lewis is on the pitcher’s mound attempting to get a batter out, Coach Fitz taunts him from the dugout about his recent “sissy” skiing vacation. Mr. Lewis reports that the razzing causes him to lose concentration, and, subsequently, he takes a sharply hit ball on the nose, breaking his beak in five places: “Grim as it sounds, I don’t believe I had ever been happier in my adolescent life.” Why? “Immediately, I had a new taste for staying after baseball practice, for extra work. I became, in truth, something of a zealot, and it didn’t take long to figure out how much better my life could be if I applied this new zeal acquired on a baseball field to the rest of it.” Mr. Lewis implies that if Coach Fitz hadn’t terrified the crap out of him, he might still, in his 40s, be behaving like a feckless teenager.

Coach Fitz’s message, the author reminds us, isn’t about baseball or even about winning. “He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure.” It doesn’t occur to Mr. Lewis that it is far from self-evident that those are, in fact, the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life (what about arrogance, dishonesty, cruelty, the inability to love?). Nor does he seem aware that there are other ways of “getting [discipline] into adolescent heads” besides hurling furniture. He doesn’t consider the possibility that a young man raised on verbal abuse might one day end up being an abusive leader himself (or, say, an author whose modus operandi is to mock people). I could go on, but my commentary is getting longer than the book.

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