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The best business books are not actually about business

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HERE is a question I once asked myself while browsing in a modest-sized bookstore, one of my favorite things to do: If I had to read all the books in the store section by section, which one would I enjoy the most — and which the least?

For me, the second question is easier: I am not a fan of self-help books and business/management books, two genres that have all too much in common. Granted, you can find some good advice in these books. But too often the exhortations are cliched or lacking in context. It is only a matter of time, I predict, before the most popular author in these genres is ChatGPT.

I thus have a modest proposal for anyone interested in business books: Read books about specific businesses or industries that you already know a lot about. That way, you will have enough contextual knowledge for the book to be meaningful. Of course, many people don’t work at a company or industry big or famous enough that there are books about it, so I have a corollary proposition: You will learn the most about management by reading books about sports and musical groups.

Most people have favorite musical artists, athletes, or sports teams. Often, they have been following these people and institutions for years. That gives them enough context to make sense of the management stories — how the teams were put together, how leaders emerged, how people dealt with setbacks and failures, and so on. All these are business-relevant topics.

I have learned a great deal about management and group dynamics, for example, by reading books about the Beatles — especially ones that cover their origins, breakup, or both. You can see the importance of a good manager (Brian Epstein, until his death), competitive pressures from other musicians and intragroup rivalries, such as the eventual ascent of Paul over John, due to Paul’s superior work ethic. Because I know a lot about the background, the stories make sense to me, and I can ferret out some general principles to apply to other business or small-group settings — such as the importance of getting new projects off the ground, which is something Paul excelled at.

My point is not that you should read about the Beatles. It’s to find for yourself what the Beatles are for me. I have also learned a great deal from reading histories of the Byrds, who were less successful than the Beatles, and the British punk group XTC, who never made much money from their music at all. Failures and lesser successes are also worth studying, but traditional business books tend to focus too much on villains and scandals rather than attempt a sympathetic understanding.

One of my favorite “business books” is a scintillating autobiography by Alex Ferguson, the famous coach of Manchester United. It was written with Michael Moritz, who used to be a journalist and later became a venture capitalist. It is one of the best books I have read on how to understand and seek out talent.

To understand the concept of team loyalty and how to build it, I have also relied on Jerry Kramer’s Green Bay Packers memoir Instant Replay. Both Manchester United and the Packers are businesses, of course. Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules poses the question of whether a charismatic leader, in this case Michael Jordan, can push other workers too hard. I look forward to good, detailed biographies of Magnus Carlsen and Steph Curry, two of the most impressive achievers, both obsessed with continual self-improvement.

Many music and sports books are not only written for obsessed fans, but also written by obsessed fans. Traditional business books, in contrast, are frequently written to get consulting work or on to the speaker’s circuit. The incentive is not to offend anybody and to put forward some “least common denominator” insights, rather than say anything truly original that might be complicated to explain. The end result is a bookstore section that would be mind-numbing to have to read.

And which section of the bookstore would I be most keen to read through? I suppose I should speak up for my profession, but books about economics have too much repetition (how many critiques of “neoliberalism” must one plough through?) and doomsaying (which sells better than optimism). Instead, I would pick the history and biography sections. Those books typically are rich with context and detail, and vary in mood.

Business books can be found almost anywhere in a bookshop — once you know where to look. The trick is to know that the very best business books tend not to be written for reasons of … business.


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