• The Arc of Ambition
    by James Champy and Nitin Nohria (Perseus, 2000)
  • The Visionary's Handbook
    by Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor, and Howard Means (Harper Business, 2000)

"Consider Peter the Great," say James Champy and Nitin Nohria, authors of The Arc of Ambition: Defining the Leadership Journey. They're using ol' Pete to illustrate their principle of "change or die," one of the stages on what they call the "arc of ambition."

Good example, that. When he was merely 10 and presumably known as Peter the Pretty Impressive, the great-man-to-be succeeded his father and went on to become one of the most historically significant of the Russian czars. Credited by the authors with "pulling his reluctant country out of medievalism into the modern age," Peter the Great is just one of the big-time ambitious folk that they trot out to help them make a point.

And here it is: to succeed we need to be ambitious. Such ambition has three stages: a rise, an apex, and a decline. To successfully realize that ambition we must 1) see what others don't; 2) follow a steadfast path; 3) seize the moment; 4) temper ambition; 5) inspire with a greater purpose; 6) never violate values; 7) keep control by giving it up; 8) change or die; and 9) leave gracefully. Actually, much of the process is explained in quite practical terms, including the observation that "dreams alone are not enough. Acting on one's dreams -- that is the hard part."

There's one more hard part: reading this book and wading through one damn ambitious person after another. Peter the Great, Ted Turner, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Meg Whitman, Sam Walton, Ray Kroc, Thomas Jefferson -- and that's just a sampling. Hard to agree that Walton and Kroc are on the same plane as Gandhi and King.

The authors' advice, while not startlingly new, is refreshingly commonsensical. So why muddy the waters by retrofitting all these historical figures (oh -- Leonardo da Vinci, too) to advise CEOs of growing companies? And are we really surprised that "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, the fallen CEO of Sunbeam, is one who didn't temper his ambition?

At least The Arc of Ambition is based on sound advice that has some practical application. If only that were true of The Visionary's Handbook: Nine Paradoxes That Will Shape the Future of Your Business, by Watts Wacker, Jim Taylor, and Howard Means. Talk about self-empowerment jargon. You can tell right off that this is supposedly a "big think" book, because it tells us we should "live today not in one tense, but in two," the present and the future. The way to do that, the authors write, is by compartmentalizing your future tense from your present tense. That might best involve outsourcing, since your "Fool Box" might otherwise unduly influence your "Future Box." Then list all of your "neotribes" to figure out which one bonds most closely to your corporate values.

Dig hard enough here and you may find one salient piece of visionary advice: "You have to tell yourself the story of what you are going to be and retell it again and again until you believe it absolutely and until there's not a thread of inauthenticity left in what you aspire to."

Sound advice, perhaps, but it still seems pretty thick.