The real knowledge economy—reading great books

Stefan Stern offers his views on the business benefits of reading management books and other literature.
Stefan Stern
Jun 22, 2018

Key takeaways:

  • The best business books are timeless and worth making time to read.
  • Self-help ideas might grate but can stimulate fresh thinking.
  • Literature, history and philosophy also yield business insights.
  • Learn to spot phony or flabby thinking and discard it.

Speaking in London 20 years ago, management guru Tom Peters recognised a loyal customer in the front row. On learning that this was his seventh time he had come to hear him, Peters declared: ‘one of us must be doing something wrong.’

It was not the author who was at fault. At 75, he has just published his 17th book, The Excellence Dividend, a nod to his original, co-authored management blockbuster, In Search of Excellence.

His new, typically energetic and forthright, work contains familiar Peters messages about paying attention to your people, experimenting, getting out of the office, and getting things done. But the context is different. As the ‘march of the machines’ accelerates, anxious executives need their organisations to become ‘cathedrals for human development.’

This book will be gratefully received by Peters’ followers. But can the same be said for the avalanche of management books (disclosure: including my own) hurtling towards busy executives every year?

Too many such books over-simplify the complicated business of leading and managing, as they offer their key steps to success. In truth, these are generally article-length ideas stretched into book form with numerous case-studies to support a flimsy thesis. This is a demand-led business, driven by eager managers presumably killing time at airport bookshops.

Time well spent

The best business books, however, have a timeless quality, even if their examples inevitably age. Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect is a sceptical blast against the mythology of business success. Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee’s Why should anyone be led by you? asks pertinent and practical questions about leadership. Margaret Heffernan’s Wilful Blindness analyses how and why good organisations turn (and stay) bad.

For those seeking practical ‘self-help’ there’s much more choice. Although some suggestions will grate on readers, others contain valuable fresh thinking. Eric Barker’s Barking Up The Wrong Tree and Sally Bibb’s The Strengths Book are helpful personal primers. Readers seeking inspiration might consider biographies of significant figures, such as Jack Welch. Even a rigorous academic book, such as Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy can stimulate serious reflections. Luke Johnson’s Start it Up offers a well-written combination of practical self-help and inspiration. In addition, he draws on history, philosophy and literature to make his case.

‘Good business ideas can be found on the bookshelves, and not necessarily in the business book section.’

Indeed, good business ideas are not always in the business book section. History, biography, philosophy, economics, political science and novels may yield unexpected benefits. Ascent, Sir Chris Bonington’s memoirs about his mountaineering exploits, says more about leadership and management than many leadership titles. Leaders, he says, must believe passionately in the mission and be utterly committed to it. They should be interested in the success and well-being of everyone involved in the expedition.

Great fiction and drama can also bring home the force of a story in ways that business books cannot. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, for example, conveys the pressures in business that lead to poor moral choices.

In his new book, Tom Peters recalls one investment superstar, telling him: ‘Do you know what’s the number one failing of CEOs? They don’t read enough.’ As another great investor, Berkshire Hathaway’s Charlie Munger, once said: ‘In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time.’

Readers notes:

  • Make time to read real books. It works the brain in ways that PowerPoint cannot. In particular, read business classics—they are classics because they contain timeless lessons and insights.
  • Be a sceptical and ruthless reader. Learn how to spot the phony or the flabby – and discard them fast. You can avoid wasting time and intellectual effort by reading summaries and reviews first to get a sense of what’s between the covers.
  • Read widely and beyond your comfort zone. Bring new ideas into your business from other fields, including literature, to help understand other ways of thinking.
  • Write your own book. If you can’t find the book which asks the right questions or describes your world, write one yourself. If nothing else, the pain and discipline of doing so will test the validity of your own ideas.