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Published: June 10, 2008

 
 

Books in Brief


The Mormon Way of Doing Business: Leadership and Success through Faith and Family
By Jeff Benedict
Warner Business Books, 2007, 256 pages


Mitt Romney’s run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination brought Mormons and their beliefs closer public scrutiny than ever before. In The Mormon Way of Doing Business: Leadership and Success through Faith and Family, Jeff Benedict, himself a Mormon, has given us a timely insight into the style and habits of leading Mormon businessmen. His subjects are David Neeleman, CEO of JetBlue; Dave Checketts, former president of Madison Square Garden Corporation; Kevin Rollins, former chief executive of Dell; James Quigley, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu; Gary Crittenden, former CFO of American Express; Rod Hawes, founder of Life Re Corporation; and professor Clayton Christensen and former dean Kim Clark of Harvard Business School (Clark is currently president of Brigham Young University–Idaho).

The most striking features of these men are their focus, discipline, and persistence; it is further striking how well the Mormon beliefs and practices have prepared them for leadership roles. Faith and family are the warp and weft of the Mormon existence: All members must tithe to the church and, because there is no professional ministry, they have to perform the church’s many functions without pay. All young men are encouraged to start saving as teen-agers to go on a two-year mission to preach the gospel of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) in a foreign country and to learn the local language before going there. On their return, their ecclesiastical work supplies them with practical experience, role models, and mentors. Women may also go on missions and are encouraged to get college degrees. In the Mormon church, the central role of women is still that of mother.

Unlike so much of Western society, which pays only lip service to work–life balance, the LDS community has made such balance a pillar of daily life. To pull it off takes organization — focus, discipline, and practice. The weekend is for faith and family: Mormon businessmen will not work on Sundays and avoid working on Saturdays and weeknights. This means that they have to make productive use of every available mo­ment. When Clark was a professor at Harvard Business School, he would get into his office by 7 a.m. and talk to no one before noon. What any businessperson wouldn’t give for five uninterrupted hours, even just one day a week.

In their relentless focus on their priorities and their continual, conscious integration of faith, family, and work, the Mormons are reminiscent of the early Quakers and other nonconformists, small faith-based groups that played such a central role in the first Industrial Revolution. Benedict’s book makes us think they could easily play a similar role in any future economic or social revolutions.

 


The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking
By Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 222 pages

Ever since the publication of In Search of Excellence in 1982, the competition between theory and practice for the attention of management readers has been lopsided, with practice clearly far ahead. In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking, Roger L. Martin, former management consultant and dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, adds his considerable weight to the other side of the struggle. In his view, management action is too dependent on context to be helpful as a guide to others, and transferable learning comes from understanding how effective leaders think, rather than from understanding what they do. He uses the gleanings from more than 50 interviews with successful leaders to argue that they share a capacity for a “cognitive discipline” he calls integrative thinking. The opposable mind, he suggests, can be used to grasp complex situations and is an antidote to the either–or decision making characteristic of conventional thinking.

Experts in any field where the skills are tacit rather than explicit are notoriously inept at accounting for their success. It is up to researchers to identify the patterns and tease out the components. The holy grail is to make the expert’s methods explicit and teachable, and this is Martin’s goal. But it requires him to make two questionable assumptions that, in fact, are common enough to provoke much of the criticism of business schools.

The first is that effective action is, or should be, preceded by a conscious, context-independent process called “thinking”; the second is that training in this process can improve performance. Together, these two assumptions lead to an un­comfortable disconnect between theory and practice as the writer alternates between abstract conceptual frameworks and war stories from the field. For example, the elements of the thinking process are described as four stages, Salience, Causality, Architecture, and Resolution. According to Martin, it is a sequence that conventional thinkers negotiate in a narrow, linear fashion, whereas integrative thinkers make continual recursions, keeping their options open while searching for broader solutions. This may be so, but it is hard to see how the author derives this from the data. In addition, Martin’s research method will not pass scientific scrutiny. He studies only successes, and there is no consideration of counterexamples, either of integrative thinkers who failed or of conventional thinkers who succeeded. It seems unlikely, for example, that either Jeff Skilling, former chief executive of Enron, or fallen press baron Conrad Black failed because of their inability to think integratively.

John Dewey once wrote, “No thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another.” That may sound like a bleak point of view and one that business schools are unlikely to embrace, but it underlines the fact that the price of “context indepen­dence” is abstraction. In an effort to escape the use of abstractions when teaching business, there is a significant move toward the use of simulations — mini-experiences through which students learn without being formally taught. Concepts, if they are used at all, come up as interpretive frameworks rather than as guides to action. When we cannot reduce the tacit knowledge of experts to explicit, teachable concepts, the best we can do is understand how their practice and experience contributed to their success. We may then be in a position to replicate those experiences for others to learn from. The book’s stories of leaders such as A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, are interesting ones, but they would have been made more compelling if Martin had distilled the essence of their experiences rather than laid on what feels at times like a Procrustean conceptual framework. Practice may have once again trumped theory.

 
 
 
 
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