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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Biography

Although exceptionally well researched and documented, Tedlow’s biography is so enamored of his subject that the author loses credibility. Compared to Nasaw’s magisterial and elegant prose in his study of our other “Andy,” the writing in Tedlow’s book, in some instances, is so amateurish that the reader is embarrassed for the author, particularly in his obsession with interpreting his subject’s every move as an unconscious reaction to being a Holocaust survivor. How many times do we have to be reminded that Grove is of Jewish descent? Enough, already, what about the semiconductors?

Like Edison and Carnegie before him, Andy Grove can probably expect to be the subject of future biographies. We can hope that the next one will be richer and more complete. In the meantime, readers could do far worse than to read Grove’s own fine books.

The Executive Ego
A theme running through all three of the biographies discussed above is the power — both for good and for ill — of the executive ego. In the cases of Edison, Carnegie, and Grove, their undeniable genius compensated more than adequately for their inflated sense of self-importance. Not so with Sandy Weill, whose recent autobiography (coauthored with Judah S. Kraushaar), The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy, is filled with far more ego than substance. Weill has spoken of himself as the modern-day Andrew Carnegie on the front page of the New York Times. Indeed, there are obvious similarities between the two: both are short, optimistic, gregarious men with an innate flair for blockbuster business deals. Weill’s choice of philanthropic pastimes — chairing the boards of Carnegie Hall and Cornell’s medical school — are manifestly in keeping with the old Scot’s interests (Carnegie served as a Cornell trustee). And there is no denying Weill’s record as a deal maker; he is the guy who acquired Shearson Loeb Rhoades and sold it to American Express and then, for his second act, turned Travelers Insurance and Citibank into Citigroup.

Given all that Weill has seen and experienced, one would expect to find at least a few profound insights about business and leadership in his autobiography, but, alas, Sandy Weill is no Andrew Carnegie. In this thin volume, he comes across as an empty suit, a man of little substance who has thought deeply only about his own undeniable accomplishments. He nearly breaks his arm patting himself on the back, page after increasingly tiresome page, interrupting the flow of first person pronouns only to praise his ever-beautiful, -charming, -brilliant, and -loving spouse. It is a good thing Weill took the initiative to write this autobiography; it is doubtful that any historian in the future will find the subject worthy of the effort. 

The conclusion we can draw from these quite different biographies is that a major source of the success of America’s most powerful business leaders — the power and focus that derive from their overweening egos and lack of self-reflection — is also a significant source of their weaknesses as leaders and human beings. That vitally important lesson, which inevitably emerges in biographies, is seldom adequately addressed in the popular management and leadership books.

Author Profile:

James O’Toole ([email protected]) is the Bill Daniels Distinguished Professor in Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and coauthor (with Edward E. Lawler III) of The New American Workplace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
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