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Best Business Books 2008: Miscellany

Uncategorical Insight

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Charles Handy
Myself and Other More Important Matters
(AMACOM, 2008)

Richard Sennett
The Craftsman
(Yale University Press, 2008)

Rakesh Khurana
From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession
(Princeton University Press, 2007)

Robert Coles and Albert LaFarge, eds.,
Minding the Store: Great Writing about Business from Tolstoy to Now
(The New Press, 2008)

In an era when even the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, it has become difficult to precisely define the business book. Should David Nasaw’s Andrew Carnegie (reviewed here last year) be shelved in history, biography, or business? Similarly fuzzy are distinctions between subcategories of business books. Is Lou Gerstner’s instructive tale of the transformation of IBM (Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?) a management book, a leadership guide, or a corporate history?

The fact is that many books of value to executives inhabit what novelist Michael Chabon described as “the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore.” Thus, this year, I take a look at four fine books that defy categorization and fall between the cracks. Each differs greatly from the others in terms of subject matter, but what they have in common is that they all are far better written than most books that can be set squarely on the business shelf. Indeed, it often seems as though many of those books aren’t written to be read at all; many are single-point articles inflated to fill the space between two covers and are written to facilitate skimming and summarization. In contrast, the books reviewed be­low need to be read carefully; they require the investment of thought. These are books you actually will want to read.

Autobiography (Sort Of)
My favorite and the year’s best border-spanning book is Charles Handy’s Myself and Other More Important Matters, which its publisher correctly, and unhelpfully, places in the business/
autobiography/economics/social science category! Handy is America’s favorite British management guru, the Peter Drucker of the other side of the pond, and for two decades, his books have inspired a common reaction among American business authors: envy. His prose is graceful, engaging, and literate in a manner to which most American business writers can only aspire. Warren Bennis, America’s best business writer (and in the spirit of disclosure, along with Handy, a good friend of mine), praises Handy’s “philosophical elegance and eloquence,” his unique ability to elevate the mundane concerns of commerce to a higher plane. He’s right; Handy’s books are gems of distilled wisdom. It is not that he comes to conclusions terribly different from those of his peers; he simply articulates them more crisply and with greater clarity. In a single paragraph, he can illuminate the essence of a complex idea that an American business professor would take a chapter to obfuscate.

Gifted as he is, Handy is humble. This is not your Sandy Weill “let me tell you how wonderful I am” variety of autobiography. Handy reveals only a few necessary details of his life. Instead of a chronology of his accomplishments, he offers a series of short chapters, each encapsulating the lessons he learned at the major stops along his life’s journey. Each chapter is a profound rumination on experience, imparting wisdom gleaned from a thoroughly and honestly examined life, which appears to have been a life well led, indeed.

Drawing on his experiences as an executive at Shell; a founder of the London Business School; a BBC commentator; and a son, husband, and father, Handy draws useful lessons for business managers. He makes compelling connections between the commonplace, on the one hand, and the great questions challenging corporate leaders, on the other. For instance, he uses a debate about whether it was better for his family to rent or own a home to illuminate how to determine the proper form of corporate ownership. (He concludes that the best society is characterized by extensive employee ownership.)

Handy uses an insight gained as a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management to suggest a shift in business school curriculum. “By the end of the program I realized that I had really known most of the important things all along,” he writes. “But I had to have gone there to find that out. By that I don’t mean to diminish the experience. We all go through life accumulating a bundle of private learning. Much of the time, however, we don’t know that we have it. It is lodged in our subconscious. To make it more readily available when we need it we have to drag it out into our conscious mind. That was what MIT did for me.”

Handy then briefly describes what a business school curriculum designed to educe that knowledge might look like — and that curriculum has few similarities to what is taught at most business schools. He explains the need to educate a new cadre of corporate leaders focused on the “why” rather than the “how” of business. In a mere 13 pages, he summarizes what those leaders need to know, distilling the wisdom that might be found in a review of the best management books ever written, and crafting it all into a coherent, practical whole.

Although Handy writes on an elevated philosophical plane, it is striking the degree to which his thinking is consistent with, and reinforces, cutting-edge organizational research. For example, he shows why organi­zational self-renewal is as necessary as individual human development, and how the two processes are similar. As he explains the connection, it becomes so obvious that the reader is left wondering why so few business leaders see it or act on it. In the late Sumantra Ghoshal’s apt phrase (originally applied to Peter Drucker), social philosopher Charles Handy is a brilliant practitioner of “the scholarship of common sense.”

Sociology (Kind Of)
Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman is about the old-fashioned virtue of doing a job well for its own sake. He addresses a fundamental question all employers should, but too often don’t, ask: What is “good” work? That is, what characteristics of a job make it motivating, interesting, rewarding, and, above all, developmental?

Sennett, a professor of sociology at New York University and the London School of Economics, searches high and low, far and near, past and present, to help us find answers. He moves effortlessly from Homer’s description of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and patron of craftsmen, to an explanation of the work done by Linux software engineers. He offers insights from Diderot, Ruskin, and Wittgenstein, as well as from Tom Peters, Robert Waterman, W. Edwards Deming, and Julia Child.

In these intellectually challenging pages, we learn what is lost in human terms when work is de-skilled, when the design of jobs wittingly or unwittingly breaks the “intimate connection between hand and head.” We come to see that workers are ultimately motivated by the opportunity to develop and exercise skill on the job, whether workers are carpenters, physicians, accountants, reporters, or Starbucks baristas. Were Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to read this book, he would discover why the quality of the coffee and service in his shops deteriorated when the company introduced automated espresso machines. When baristas have the ability to grind coffee themselves, tend to the entire process of brewing, and estimate the right amount of foamed milk in a cappuccino, they become skilled craftsmen (and women). In the process, they create both a better cup of coffee and more satisfied customers.

I don’t know if this book is history, philosophy, or social criticism, but its author is one of the last remaining in a distinguished line of broad-gauged sociologists that once included such “public intellectuals” as David Riesman, Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Bell, Robert Merton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Sennett’s closest precursor, C. Wright Mills. An entire generation of post–World War II undergraduates avidly read those learned generalists to discover why we lived in a society deeply divided by invisible barriers of class and caste. Those writers were domestic anthropologists exploring the mores of our own exotic culture, documenting our often unconscious striving for status in corporations and suburbia. Alas, the discipline of sociology is dominated today by technicians — statisticians rather than scholars — whose narrow writings are of interest mainly to their academic peers.

But Sennett’s book should be read by everyone who employs another human being or who is responsible for what is called “human resources.” In recent decades, corporate executives, HR professionals, and business professors have lost sight of what a previous generation — I think of Herman Miller’s Max De Pree, Nucor’s Ken Iverson, W.L. Gore’s Bill Gore — understood well: It is incumbent upon organizations to create “good work” for all their employees.

Sennett writes that John Ruskin “sought to instill in craftsmen of all sorts the desire, indeed the demand, for a lost space of freedom; it would be a free space in which people can experiment,” much as Bill Gore, 100 years later, gave all his employees time and space to develop their own innovative projects. When able to exercise such control over their own jobs, employees become empowered to develop their skills and to realize their humanity through their work. By putting the focus back on the profound issues of job design and the nature of work, Sennett provides a needed antidote to all those HR texts cluttering the shelves of managers on such trivial topics as outsourcing the firm’s dental plan, online recruiting, and “rocks and ropes” training.

History (Somewhat)
Sennett makes an ethical connection between being a craftsman and being part of a community, a connection that Rakesh Khurana finds almost entirely missing in the management profession. In From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Man­agement as a Profession, Khurana, a management professor at the Harvard Business School best known for his writing on leadership, has produced an instant classic.

Earlier this year I recommended this book to scholars and university deans and administrators; subsequently, I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of business managers who are reading and quoting from it. I believe this scholarly book has become popular because it describes the historical context in which graduates of the nation’s leading business schools ended up becoming perpetrators of fraud at companies like Enron.

Khurana has a simple explanation for why unethical business leaders aren’t condemned by their profession in the fashion of medical and legal malpractitioners: Management isn’t a profession. Unlike the “learned professions,” management lacks an established body of knowledge, a community of practitioners with standards of expertise and conduct, qualifying examinations, and “attitudes of communalism, disinterestedness, and a societal orientation.”

In essence, the malefactors at Enron couldn’t be read out of their profession because they were not, in fact, members of a profession to begin with — even though the convicted Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow held MBAs from prestigious schools of business. Rather than professionals, they are more accurately characterized as self-interested technicians and hired guns. And sadly, that’s what corporate executives are assumed to be by many leading scholars in top-tier business schools; by extension, that is how they are taught and, in many cases, how they end up acting.

But things didn’t start out that way. Khurana shows that the stated purpose for founding the first business schools a century ago was to educate a class of business leaders who were intellectually and morally equipped to address the nation’s fundamental social and economic problems. The founders of the business schools of the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, and Harvard were public-spirited men intent on turning management into a respected calling with a higher purpose in terms of public service — similar to law, medicine, and even theology. Khurana describes the near-religious beliefs those founders had about the potential for business leaders to make great contributions to society, if they were broadly and liberally educated and were socialized to see themselves as members of a profes­sional community.

That belief, or, more accurately, hope, remained alive until the end of World War II. Then the world changed, and with it the raison d’etre of the business school. Khurana explains how this “very ill defined institution” came to reflect both the changing social order of its times and the changing role of business in society.

As the U.S. sought to meet the scientific challenge presented by the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the country’s business schools were called upon to play a major role. The primary agent of change was the Ford Foundation, which used its significant financial leverage to encourage radical curriculum reforms. Drawing on the work of former Ford president and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his so-called Whiz Kids, the foundation provided incentives too rich to refuse to business schools willing to put management science at the heart of their programs. In the blink of an eye, almost all top-tier schools were teaching quantitative analysis, decision theory, model building, and operations management. The old professoriate — schooled in the operating trenches of big business — were ex­truded and replaced by a young generation of “quantoids” with degrees in engineering and economics.

To the degree this shift in focus and staff introduced intellectual rigor to the educational enterprise, it was positive; but the negative consequence was that the nonquantifiable stuff of leadership — judgment, ethics, people, Handy’s “why” — was lost. And out with the old went the original high purpose of the institution. From there it was a hop, skip, and jump to where we are today: topflight business schools that are recruiting grounds for investment banks and private equity firms whose myopic focus on short-term profit has led, more than anything else, to the behavior we now lump under the category “Enron.”

I have telescoped Khurana’s argument, perhaps making the book seem like a polemic. In fact, it is an evenhanded, comprehensive, and exhaustively documented work demonstrating how the history of the American business school is the history of American business, reflecting the evolution from 19th-century entrepreneurial capitalism to mid-20th-century managerial capitalism to today’s investor capitalism. Criticisms of today’s business schools abound, but Khurana provides the historical perspective needed to understand how those institutions became what they are.

Fiction (Mostly)
An enduring mystery of literature is the near-total absence of great fiction set in the world of business. There are countless examples of brilliantly crafted tales of men and women who work in hospitals, governments, universities, police departments, and military settings — and more than a few excellent novels concern machinations in legal chambers. But there is no War and Peace of the corporation. This is especially puzzling because more people are engaged in business than in any other form of employment, and there is obvious high drama involved in takeovers, turnarounds, and the Darwinian competition found in the C-suite. Logically, one would expect to find more than a few great works of business fiction; yet, in practice, that’s nearly a null set.

For the last three decades, I’ve kept an eye out for a great novel that deals seriously with men and women of the corporation, and the closest I’ve come is Cameron Hawley’s Executive Suite (published in 1952 and made into a film starring William Holden, Fredric March, and Barbara Stanwyck by MGM two years later). Hawley had a real grasp of what goes on at the top of large companies, and he largely avoided stereotyping executives. But he, his book, and the film are now dated and all but forgotten. This leaves us today with an empty field.

So I eagerly picked up Minding the Store: Great Writing about Business from Tolstoy to Now hoping that the editors, Robert Coles, the former James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, and Albert LaFarge, a literary agent and former deputy editor of DoubleTake magazine, had succeeded where I had failed and identified literary masterpieces that truly illuminate the lives of managers and the business challenges they face. I can report that the readings in this collection are, as billed, marvelously crafted examples of “great writing.” Sadly, though, none of the fiction, including works by such masters as John O’Hara, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Anne Beattie, Flannery O’Conner, O. Henry, Joseph Conrad, John Updike, and Leo Tolstoy, is truly about business.

These enormously entertaining stories — variously funny, insightful, profound, surprising — deal artfully with the human condition, particularly as it relates to greed. But the businesspeople portrayed turn out to be grifters, con men, and stereotypical used-car and traveling salesmen (along with a few “old misers”). You have to be more cynical than I am to believe this cast of characters is representative of the business community.

Only the three nonfiction pieces — personal accounts by William H. Whyte, Jill Nelson, and Gwendolyn Parker of their youthful initiations into the corporate world — deal with the world that the readers of this magazine would recognize as business. It’s my guess the editors were forced to include these factual reminiscences after they discovered that great fiction about business is nonexistent. Even the excerpt included from Sinclair Lewis’s classic Babbitt — often cited as the quintessential business novel — merely serves as a reminder that babbitry is a synonym for narrow-mindedness, and that the novel’s eponymous hero could just as well have been a postal clerk as a businessman.

Although the readings in this collection didn’t provide me with the holy grail that I seek, I intend to assign the book to my MBA students because of the important ethical questions raised by the authors. For example, O’Hara’s “The Hardware Man” presents a truly challenging dilemma about the ethics of firing embezzlers. The story deals with two employees who are clearly stealing from the trusting owner of the store at which they have worked for years. When a new owner takes over, he fires the two. Of course, we conclude, they had it coming. But O’Hara then reveals a bit more information, and, suddenly, the reader’s certainty about the justice of the embezzlers’ fate is put in doubt. The author shows that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the bad guys are, and not always clear how to deal with them. I also plan to give copies of the book to friends who love fine literature. As for finding the Great American Business Novel, I shall continue my enduring quest.

Author profile:

James O’Toole is the Bill Daniels Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business and coauthor, with Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman, of Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor (Jossey-Bass, 2008).
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