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Published: October 1, 2001


Best Business Books: Beyond Business

If you prefer biographies, try Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994). It is an eloquent and personal evocation of the long decades of apartheid in South Africa, essential for any visitor or businessperson to understand before going there. It is also, of course, an example of courage and endurance in pursuit of a dream, a story to humble all lesser mortals. It is also an example of how one deeply caring person can influence enough people to change an entire nation.

A biography of another sort, of a city, Antony Beevor’s wonderful Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 (1998) tells the story of that city’s fight for survival against the Nazi armies in the Second World War, of the staggering loss of life among the Russians, and of their amazing fortitude. It is an engrossing read, one that helps to explain why Russia, having lost 20 million people overall in that war, will never want another one and has always overspent its resources to arm itself, surely not for attack but for defense. The book also stands as a case study of a strategy gone awry. It went wrong on the German side because they forgot that wars, whether of nations or of organizations, are ultimately fought by humans rather than machines, and humans, uncared for, die or give up.

Science or Science Fiction
Science or science fiction can help executives gain entry to a world that might be, if we don’t shape it ourselves. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s Player Piano (1952), published almost 50 years ago, is still a spine-chilling forecast of a world where top scientists and technocrats run society, while those with redundant or nonexistent skills are forced into the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps. Underneath the surface, however, revolution seethes. Proclaimed an instant classic of satirical, prophetic science fiction when it first appeared, Player Piano still rings uncomfortably true today.

Science has always been a missing part of my educational jigsaw puzzle. Luckily there are now some gifted writers, often journalists, who can help to fill that gap. The most fluent of them, perhaps, is Richard Dawkins. His book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design (1986) is a compelling description of a revolutionary theory. By the middle of it you begin to wonder why you bother getting up in the morning if everything is so preordered by our genetic inheritance. But Dawkins is at pains to emphasize that we are still masters of our actions, even if we are not masters of our inheritance. Knowing which is which becomes the real issue, and understanding of evolutionary theory is key.

Evolution is an old science, albeit still developing. Complexity theory, with its mix of physics, mathematics, economics, and, inevitably, computers, is a new and exciting area of science, and one that is increasingly relevant for people in business. I am hard put to understand complexity theory, but M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (1992) does an excellent job of explaining it, largely via stories of the people from the Santa Fe Institute. By so doing he gives this science a human touch, and also shows how the intellectual ideas of a few individuals can change the world. Ideas, we need to remember, last longer and can be more powerful than any regime or organization.

The Political Philosophers
Back in the world of human interactions, of political and economic ideas and ideologies, we often need to jerk ourselves out of our familiar ruts in order to see the world as some others see it, or have seen it. It is eye-opening to read Karl Marx’s first attempt to describe the reasons for Communism in The Communist Manifesto (1848), written in collaboration with his businessman friend Friedrich Engels. This 38-page pamphlet glows with indignation and helps one to understand some of the passions that the socialist creed can unloose. It is arguably the most influential political call to arms ever written, and the world has been shaken repeatedly by those who sought to make its declamations a reality. Too many of Communism’s enemies never read it, so never understood it.

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