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Published: November 28, 2007

 
 

Best Business Books: Biography

Carnegie, like Edison, was insensitive to the real needs of his workers, his managers, his business partners, his wife, and his daughter. He was a pathetic mama’s boy who met his bride-to-be when he was 45 and she 23, but was afraid to become engaged because he feared that his old mum — who lived with him — would disapprove. He waited until his mother was dead, 15 years later, before popping the question. He accumulated talented, powerful, and famous friends much in the same way he amassed capital, hobnobbing with Matthew Arnold, William Gladstone, and Teddy Roosevelt, never hesitating to offer them unsolicited wisdom and advice, much to the amusement and irritation of five presidents and two prime ministers. His friend Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) summed up what it was like to be in the company of the great Scot: “He never has any but one theme, himself…. I think he would surely talk himself to death upon it if you would stay and listen.” In a comment appropriate to so many of today’s top executives, Clemens noted that his friend sadly lacked the capacity of self-reflection: “Mr. Carnegie is not any better acquainted with himself than if he met himself for the first time day before yesterday.”

The book also helps us to understand the motivations driving the current philanthropic rage among wealthy Americans. To his credit, Carnegie eventually made good on his promise to give away his fortune, devoting much of the last two decades of his life to trying to die without a penny to his name. For the most part, he gave more carefully, thoughtfully, and wisely than perhaps any philanthropist prior to Bill Gates, and his largesse has benefited millions of people over the last hundred years. Yet, in what seems a fit and proper final assessment of the man, Teddy Roosevelt wrote that “if Andrew Carnegie had employed his fortune and his time in doing justice to the steelworkers who gave him his fortune, he would have accomplished a thousand times what he has accomplished” in his public and philanthropic activities.

The Polymath CEO
Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American is the only book among this trio of biographies written about a business titan of our own era. Had he not chosen a career in business, Grove most certainly would have found prominence in the field of science (he has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from U.C.–Berkeley, and some 40 technical articles to his name published in prestigious journals). Grove is also the author of a significant physics textbook, two respected books on management, and a widely praised autobiography. Somehow he managed to do all that scribbling while profitably leading Intel through several successive waves of product innovation in the fast-changing semiconductor industry. Given all that, it is a shame that Grove has not been better served by his biographer, Harvard Business School professor Richard Tedlow.

One of the most interesting aspects of this shamelessly adoring book is the account of Intel’s shared leadership in the firm’s formative years: the famous troika of techno-guru Gordon Moore, public spokesman Robert Noyce, and Grove the operations guy. Each of the three brought his own formidable strengths to Intel’s C-suite, complementing the others beautifully, and compensating for the others’ widely recognized individual weak spots. No one of them alone could have created the great company Intel would become. Wherever readers may stand in the corporate hierarchy, they can profit from learning about how such leadership teams, and not just single leaders, can succeed.

This point, however, highlights the book’s glaring shortcoming: Tedlow is too enamored of Grove and too dismissive of the Intel insiders who frequently voiced concern over his interpersonal failings. By all accounts, Grove’s intemperate, some say abusive, behavior drove Moore and Noyce nuts, and alienated others who worked for him. In 1984, he landed on Fortune’s infamous list of “America’s toughest bosses.” It seems that a streak of stubborn arrogance in Grove blinds him to the effect of his behavior on others. Like many larger-than-life intellects, Grove’s high-octane brain sometimes in­terferes with his ability to manage the messy feelings and power struggles that gum up the best-laid analytical plans. Certainly, he knew how to drive continuous innovation in a high-tech industry, but his mind for scientific precision reduced every organizational issue to a technical problem with a quantifiable solution. From a leadership perspective, that mind-set can be as self-defeating as trying to solve a technical problem in a T-Group.

 
 
 
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