Year-end is the time for a clear-out of the business books I haven’t read and those I never finished.
We get sent dozens of business books to review, but I have got through very few over the years. Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma has stayed with me. Confronting Mistakes: Lessons from the Aviation Industry when Dealing with Error by Jan Hagen, which I am reading at the moment, may do so too.
Many other management books are overenthusiastic, lacking in nuance or too impressed by current fads to stand the test of time.
I think the best books for business are non-business books, and the best of those provide at least one important management insight. You probably have your own. These are mine:
●The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers. This guide to how “to get an idea as exactly as possible out of one mind into another” will mark its 60th anniversary next year.
I bought mine from a second-hand book sale in the English harbour town of Dartmouth, but it is still in print. As a guide to clear communication it has probably not been bettered. The purpose of writing, Sir Ernest said, is to affect people in the way that you wish them to be affected.
“It is wise,” he said, “not to begin to write until you are quite certain what you want to say. That sounds elementary, but the elementary things are often the most likely to be neglected.”
●The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. This book explains how scientists develop paradigms – theories that explain the world. When anomalies appear, believers in the paradigm try to ignore them or explain them away. Eventually, if sufficient anomalies emerge, a rival paradigm attracts enough adherents to replace the previous one.
Business does not work quite like this: if anything, people are too credulous about the latest fashion. But Kuhn helps explain the fierce attachment people develop to ways of doing things.
How to talk them around can be learnt from my next choice.
●Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. No sooner had Mandela died than the emails arrived: would I be interested in this or that business expert’s view on the leadership lessons to be learnt from South Africa’s departed president?
No, I would not. No manager is Mandela. Even Mandela wasn’t always Mandela. He tolerated corruption and incompetence in his ministers and was, very occasionally, silly – he proposed lowering the voting age to 14.
The Mandela lesson managers can learn is that the way to get people to follow you is to tell them, in detail and in good faith, what they have told you. If people feel you have listened and taken their opinions seriously, they are more likely to agree to do something different.
And if two parties do the same to each other, they have a good chance of reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement. When he was taken from prison to meet FW de Klerk, Mandela congratulated him on becoming president. “From the first, I noticed that Mr de Klerk listened to what I had to say. This was a novel experience,” Mandela wrote.
●Blind Watchers of the Sky by Rocky Kolb. This is not just a marvellous history of how we developed our understanding of the universe. It also shows how peculiar some of astronomy’s pioneers were. There was Tycho Brahe, who lost his nose in a duel with a cousin over which, legend had it, was the better mathematician; and Johannes Kepler, who described himself as someone who “barks at wrongdoers” and “has a doglike horror of baths”.
As a manager, you need to put up with the occasional eccentric and protect them from the human resources department. They may be annoying but, every now and then, they may tell the truth no one else dares to utter.
●Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Everyone I have recommended this wise book to has raved about it and bought copies for their friends and family.
A Viennese psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Frankl taught that one could find meaning in the most unpromising places.
You should be able to find meaning in your work, and your central role, as a manager, is to help the people who work for you find meaning in theirs. That meaning might come from making the world better, or it might mean earning enough to provide for others. Frankl said that everyone had to find their own meaning. But if work doesn’t provide it, he was clear that you should, if you can, go and do something else.
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