I am an avid reader, devouring everything from classical literature and history to modern day thrillers and the whimsical. Interspersed between the creaking, sagging bookshelves at home and in my office are over a hundred business and management books; from the weighty, academic tomes to the light and breezy “Top Ten Tips” type. I have learnt something from all of them: I’ve sought excellence and aspired to greatness, but my scorecard, whilst balanced, would suggest that aiming for good is a stretch goal in itself. I’ve re-engineered myself, my family and anyone who will let me near them, applying all of Deming’s fourteen points but, like assembling IKEA furniture or removing my daughter’s Barbie doll from its complex packaging, I seem to have some left over at the end. I revelled in the Goal’s inherently simple, yet elegant explanation of “Drum, Buffer, Rope” but smile to myself, thinking it would make a great school yard game. From this, one can assume that delving into my habits is probably inappropriate, suffice to say they are not always effective and I lack the first discipline, let alone the fifth.

The common theme: the surest way to guarantee non-sustainable performance is to be featured in one of these books. So many of the corporate paragons of virtue, lucky enough to survive the gruelling research of the authors, seem to hit a bump in the performance road relatively shortly after publication.

So why waste your time reading this stuff? How do you learn the valuable lessons but avoid disappointment when, what you thought was a profound insight turns out to be the one thing that actually led to a cataclysmic corporate failure. My suggestion is to save your time and money and turn to literature. Many of the same lessons and insights are there and in most cases the books are either free or significantly cheaper than the management alternative, better written and far more entertaining.

Here’s my top 10 to start with:

No.10: Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll 1865
When you tumble down the corporate rabbit-hole your eyes are opened to a magical, mysterious and confounding world; one day you feel 10’ tall, the next 2” small, everything you hold to be true is turned on its head in one big, high-stakes game of chess:

“Curiouser and curiouser”

No. 9: The Metamorphasis, Franz Kafka 1915
With arguably the most famous opening sentence in 20th Century literature, the lesson here, for all those hellbent on transformation, is be careful what you wish for:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

No. 8: Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe 1719
Know your numbers and make sure you have the resources to see a task through before committing:

“… and now I saw, tho’ too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost; and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it.”

No. 7: Code of the Woosters or anything by, P.G. Wodehouse 1938
Smart leaders hire people smarter than themselves:

“There was a sound in the background like a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside. Jeeves sailing into action.”

On another note, when faced with adversity and the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting dimmer, a quick romp through Wodehouse is sure to brighten the soul:

“Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, ‘So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?’”

No. 6: The Odyssey, Homer 8th century BC
Believe in yourself, don’t shy away from the challenges, keep the end in mind and stay true to your purpose:

“Take courage, my heart: you have been through worse than this. Be strong, saith my heart; I am a soldier; I have seen worse sights than this.”

No. 5: Germinal, Emile Zola 1885
Plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose; disruption is not new:

“This sounded the death knell of small family businesses, soon to be followed by the disappearance of the individual entrepreneur, gobbled up one by one by the increasingly hungry ogre of capitalism, and drowned by the rising tide of large companies.”

No. 4: The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 1943
On dealing with the show ponies in corporate life:

“But the conceited man did not hear him. Conceited people never hear anything but praise.”

And the most rewarding aspect of leading, coaching and nurturing a team:

“‘People have forgotten this truth,’ the fox said. ‘But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.’”

No. 3: The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli 1532
So many lessons here:

  1. Change is hard – “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”
  2. Adapt or die – “A man who is used to acting in one way never changes; he must come to ruin when the times, in changing, no longer are in harmony with his ways.”
  3. On leadership style – “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”
  4. The good guys don’t always win – “Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”


No. 2: The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus 1942
No one said it was going to be easy, resist the temptation to give up, resilience is everything and keep pushing:

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

No. 1: Winnie The Pooh, A. A. Milne 1926
And finally, for those who work all hours and quietly seethe and fume when they are overlooked for promotion, in favour of a perceived less-than-deserving candidate, realising that the corporate world is not a meritocracy:

“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.”

The Facts

For those of you keen to understand why there may be a valid alternative to the received wisdom of mainstream management texts and the rationale for this irreverent hypothesis, I would suggest the following excellent books:

The Management Myth – Matthew Stewart 2009

The Witch Doctors – John Micklethwait, Adrian Wooldridge 1996

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