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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

Best Business Books: Biography

Life Lessons

David Nasaw
Andrew Carnegie
(Penguin Press, 2006)

Randall Stross
The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World
(Crown, 2007)

Richard S. Tedlow
Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American
(Portfolio, 2006)


The New York Times ran an article in 2007 by Harriet Rubin about the reading habits of successful CEOs. (See “Shall I Compare Thee to an Andy Grove?” by Harriet Rubin, s+b, Winter 2007.) It turned out that they read almost everything but business and management books. Yet if there is one type of business book that deserves to be read by everyone, it is biography — that is, the biographies of corporate titans written by respected business historians, management scholars, and journalists (as opposed to those written by the infamous or to the self-congratulatory variety). Not all business biographies are great, but when they are good, they are very good. In fact, one can find more useful information in a well-written biography of a business giant than in a shelf full of management texts and how-to leadership books. This year’s crop of business bios includes studies of the careers of three corporate icons — Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, and Andy Grove.

The Wizard of Self-Promotion
I approached Randall Stross’s admirably concise biography of Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World, with great expectations. Edison is the perfect avatar of today’s Silicon Valley techno-geniuses: He is credited with inventing the incandescent lightbulb, the phonograph, and the electric chair, and he was founder of the predecessor of today’s General Electric Corporation. Edison accumulated more than 1,000 patents and started numerous companies over his long life. In his time he was, and today he remains, the quintessence of that peculiarly American genus, the entrepreneur/inventor, the ranks of which include such notables as Henry Ford, George Westinghouse, Alexander Graham Bell, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.

However, the question remains open regarding just how great an inventor he actually was (he often claimed credit for work done by others). And there is little doubt that he was far from being a competent businessman. What is incontestable is that he was the most famous American of his era. As Stross reminds us, Edison eclipsed the name recognition of even Henry Ford and Theodore Roosevelt. Significantly, the book’s subtitle refers more to the wizard’s discovery of the uses of celebrity than to his contributions to the spread of electric power. Edison was the first to use his self-generated star status to advance his commercial agenda, much as Jobs today uses carefully crafted showmanship and media manipulation when he introduces the latest i-gizmo to adoring audiences.

Edison was a complex man. A genius tinkerer with a prodigious capacity for work, he was also a chronic dissembler whose own self-deceptions were perhaps even greater than his deceptions of a gullible public. He made wild promises of inventions that never materialized, faked lab results, and, according to Stross, “had no compunction about claiming credit for work done by assistants” and discoveries clearly made by others.

However, his was a manifestly curious mind, one genuinely excited by technical challenges and more interested in the satisfaction of inventing than in the money — and, perhaps, even the fame — that his inventions produced. He was doubtlessly telling the truth when he said, “Work made the earth a paradise for me.” A lifelong workaholic, he was routinely still in the lab at age 65, putting in six-day, 120-hour weeks. Stross depicts a colleague finding the young Edison in his lab “half-dozing at his desk,” and asking the wizard what he is doing there so late at night. “What time is it?” Edison asks.

 
 
 
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