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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Biography and History

To Bennis, leadership is not a solo act, and certainly not a simple function of individual character; this is why he examines the role of leaders in the context of their organizations. Thus, he critically analyzes his own performance as executive vice president of SUNY Buffalo and, later, as president of the University of Cincinnati, in terms of his success at creating the organizational capabilities needed to meet the specific challenges those institutions were facing at the time. Bennis pulls no punches here, objectively analyzing the reasons for both his successes and his failures. With regard to the latter, he cites Alfred North Whitehead’s insightful words about meeting the challenges of change: “Every leader, to be effective, must simultaneously adhere to the symbols of change and revision and the symbols of tradition and stability.” Bennis then concludes, “We failed to master the culture of Buffalo before we tried to change it.” That’s a profound lesson Carly Fiorina could have applied profitably at Hewlett-Packard Company, where she failed to respect the depth of employees’ commitment to the culture created by the company’s founders.

In his landmark book On Becoming a Leader (Addison-Wesley, 1989), Bennis showed that one learns to become a leader by reflecting on experience. In the scant 177 pages of his memoir, he captures a lifetime of such reflection, and does so with good humor, often at his own expense. He tells one marvelous story after another; for example, about the time when he was an impoverished graduate student pinching every penny to undergo psychoanalysis (de rigueur in the 1950s for aspiring social scientists). When his mother asked him how much it all cost, Bennis explained he was paying $3 per session five times a week. After doing the math, she replied, “Son, I wish you had taken that money and spent it on yourself.” This is one book that I wish had been longer.

Hard Drink and Tough Lessons

The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was a stroke of singular national insanity. In 1919, a determined, self-righteous minority succeeded in forcing its extremist values on — and taking the liberty from — a compliant, hopelessly divided majority of their fellow citizens. In order to achieve the ends of the “great experiment” that became known as Prohibition, the federal government intruded further into the private lives of U.S. citizens than ever before in the nation’s history: Billions of dollars in private property were taken, in effect, without compensation, the federal income tax was created, and an army of (largely ineffectual) federal agents were loosed to police the behavior of millions of scofflaws and to control the unprecedented increase in organized crime that, perversely, the legislation spawned. In his beautifully told Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, this year’s best book in the biography and history category, distinguished journalist Daniel Okrent seeks to answer the obvious question: How the hell did it happen?

Superficially, the answer is simple: Americans (actually, American men) had for a century or more been among the world’s leading lushes, and the sober minority (particularly, long-suffering wives and mothers) were willing to resort to desperate measures in order to dry their men out. But that was only half of the story. The “drys” were, in fact, an unacknowledged coalition of “racists, progressives, suffragists, populists” and, especially, white Protestant nativists who saw Prohibition as a way of lashing out at the rising number of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe for whom drinking was an integral part of the culture. It didn’t hurt the nativists’ argument that almost all the beer brewers in the United States were immigrant (or first-generation) Germans, and something like half of those involved in the production and sale of hard liquor were Jews. Now, how many causes are there in which both Germans and Jews are easy targets — and in which the threat of African-American alcohol-inspired violence can be evoked, to boot? In all, Prohibition was a natural issue for the white, small-town, literalist-Protestant population that was grossly overrepresented in Congress at the turn of the 20th century, and that felt threatened by an increasing tide of “the other.”

 
 
 
 
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