75 authors under one cover make book a worthy read

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One month of 2015 is behind us. And what of the New Year’s resolutions you made? You’ve probably forgotten most of them by now, but maybe you’re still working on one or two.

Well, a former client sent me a book to read and bet that I would not finish it by the new year. I could not let him win, so I spent numerous hours between Christmas and New Year’s Day reading (and eating leftovers, I must admit!)

The book is one that many managers would benefit from and is not of the usual “how to do your job” variety. It’s a look behind many of today’s hottest ideas.

“The Ultimate Business Library” (Capstone Publishing, U.K., 2007, second edition) is a collection of brief summaries of 75 books that have, in essence, shaped management thinking over the years. (An earlier version that looked at 50 books was published by the American Management Association in 1997.) There are several other compendiums of business books, but this is an excellent, reasonably priced one (Amazon, $20, softcover).

Some business leaders are voracious readers and read every new book that comes out — and they are coming fast and furious as the environment becomes more uncertain. Those who try every new idea usually burn out fast and lose the regard of their management team. Many training managers at large companies seem to jump on the latest bandwagon. However, it can be instructive to look at the foundations of many popular ideas and perhaps even sense an application for your organization.

In this compendium of 75 books of the 20th century, the authors attempt to whet readers’ appetites and motivate many of them to read further in the original books, where they could find novel ideas and decide how the historical ones might be used in a particular environment. Each business “theorist” has a clear message for leaders in general and managers in business. If you attended business school or are an MBA grad, you will recognize many of the writers from classes and cases. Consider some of the following as limited evidence of why you should read the book.

Two pre-20th century authors offer important thoughts on strategy: Sun Tzu (“The Art of War”) and Nicolo Machiavelli (“The Prince”). For example, Machiavelli’s 16th century work is the equivalent of Dale Carnegie’s work in the 20th century. The qualities of a good prince are enumerated, and it is suggested that although a prince may not possess every quality, other people must see the prince — the leader — as possessing them.

Above all, Machiavelli is the champion of leadership through cunning and intrigue — often referred to as the triumph of force over reason. To quote the writer, a leader “should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands.” Yes, Machiavelli has a rather dismal view of human nature, but do you know of leaders in every walk of life who hold this philosophy as their own? (Note that power has many forms.)

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1937) seems at times to border on the manipulative, but it is a warm-and-fuzzy-salesperson kind of manipulation. (Carnegie did begin his working life selling bacon, soap and lard for Armour & Co. in Omaha, Neb.) Even today you can find a paperback of Carnegie’s work at airport newsstands. It was an early form of self-help book, which today is in strong demand as a genre.

There are many stories of people who read the book and/or attended a workshop on Carnegie’s formulas and went on to great success as senior managers. We all search for magic formulas, and he was a pro at offering us that formula. Why not read it?

What might now be viewed as a contrast to Carnegie is a book published a year later, “The Functions of the Executive” (Chester Barnard). Barnard was a successful business executive before he became a management theorist; he began work at AT&T as a statistician and later was president of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Co. and worked at times as special assistant to the secretary of the Treasury.

Barnard did not view the executive as a dictatorial figure geared to simple short-term achievements. The senior manager must nurture the values and goals of the organization (its culture.) He writes, “The distinguishing mark of the executive responsibility is that it requires not merely conformance to a complex code of morals, but also the creation of moral codes for others.”

In essence, he advocates corporate domination of the individual and regards loyalty to the organization as paramount. He was thus an early advocate of business ethics and social responsibility. Some of his ideas may have shaped the so-called “religious right” in today’s society. Read his work and see what you think. You will doubtless find valuable lessons for your executives.

Moving ahead to the 1950s we see the decade of motivational ideas with the works of Abraham Maslow “Motivation and Personality,” 1954) Frederick Herzberg (“The Motivation to Work,” 1959) and Douglas McGregor (“The Human Side of Enterprise,” 1960). Ideas from each of these works can be seen almost daily in speeches, articles and newer books.

Most readers will recall the suggestions that we must first provide food and drink before providing recognition and that people do not even recognize they have certain needs until they have other needs satisfied. And some readers will recall the idea that “money per se does not motivate.”

No one can read any of these works as a novel and not come away feeling they have a world of ideas to try to see whether they will work. Certainly reading any one of them will create a buzz if all managers read it and discuss it among themselves. This can be called “organization learning.”

Quality became a significant variable in many works on the 1980s. Two authors derived their ideas particularly from work they had done during World War II in Japan. Edwards Deming (“Out of the Crisis,” 1982) and John Juran (“Juran on Planning for Quality,” 1985) offered complementary ideas about the importance of quality in the overall business success model. Both had a world of theoretical experience and they offered to apply it in Japan after the war. At that time, U.S. large-cap companies rejected it as unneeded.

Wow, did they make an impact in growing a Japanese economy that was focused on quality and the customer and became a competitor and role model for U.S. manufacturing. The 1980s brought Deming and Juran to the popular stage as they began to extoll what they had been preaching abroad, and wow did the U.S. market grab hold.

The customer focus became a mantra of American business; note the Elephant Auto Insurance TV ad, which epitomizes this focus even in 2015 — decades later. Deming had a more inviting approach and if you have not read his book, I suggest you will appreciate his ideas, many of which have not yet been popularized.

Following up on the introduction of quality as a significant ingredient, Tom Peters, with “In Search of Excellence” (1982) and “Liberation Management” (1992), and others followed with popular versions and a training consulting blitz. Peters is famous for suggesting that company policy manuals were useless and should be shredded, with new ones allowed to evolve.

So go to Amazon.com or your favorite local bookseller, order “The Ultimate Business Library” and take one very abbreviated book each day and read it for 10 to 15 minutes and see what you can learn from that one. Some will have little meaning, but others will excite you.

You may be encouraged to read some of the original books. You may even learn to enjoy reading more. Happy New Year, and make reading a belated resolution.

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue.

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