LEAD

Straight to the Source

Reviews of eight new business books -- five on leadership secrets from historical figures, one chronicling the story of the first computer, and two delineating the art of dialogue. Plus: What Ronald D. Martin, director of Catalyst Ventures, is reading.
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BOOK VALUE

Why bother with a knockoff? Go to the original

  • A Child's Machiavelli, by Claudia Hart (Penguin Studio, 1998)
  • Machiavelli on Modern Leadership, by Michael A. Ledeen (St. Martin's, 1999)
  • Patton on Leadership, by Alan Axelrod (Prentice Hall, 1999)
  • Leadership Lessons of The Civil War, by Tom Wheeler (Doubleday/Currency, 1999)
  • Shakespeare on Management, by Paul Corrigan (Kogan Page, 1999)

Thank you so much, Attila the Hun. Ever since your leadership secrets graced the best-seller lists, in 1991, publishers have unleashed a torrent of wisdom tapped from the psyches of historical figures. (See the list below for some of the latest.) You know the trend has hit bottom when they release products with titles like A Child's Machiavelli: A Primer on Power. Any owner, manager, or leader wanting to become familiar with the thinking of Niccolò Machiavelli, General George S. Patton, Shakespeare, or Lincoln would be better served by going straight to the source.

Instead of reading about Machiavelli, pick up The Prince, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams (Norton, 1992). If you're pressed for time, go directly to chapters 15 ("On the Reasons Why Men Are Praised or Blamed -- Especially Princes") through 18 ("The Way Princes Should Keep Their Word"). In those pages are found Machiavelli's famous advice on whether 'tis better to be loved or feared. (He casts his vote for feared.) You'll come away with a clear understanding of why Machiavelli's words resonate with readers as strongly today as they did in 1513.

And instead of relying on Alan Axelrod to distill General Patton's views on leadership, why not get some strategic lessons straight from the pens of soldiers? Two titles come to mind: Hope Is Not a Method: What Business Leaders Can Learn from America's Army, by General Gordon R. Sullivan, the former U.S. Army chief of staff from 1991 to 1995, and Colonel Michael V. Harper, former director of the U.S. Army's Strategic Planning group (Broadway Books reprint, 1997), and Warfighting, by General Alfred M. Gray, the 29th commandant of the U.S. Marines (Doubleday/Currency, 1995). Both books are superb takes on leadership and management from men who describe how they made life-and-death decisions, often while having to rely on incomplete information. The books are the real thing: direct, believable must-reads for anyone looking for the best in military wisdom.

You might break the primary-source rule to peruse the Pulitzer Prize&-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, by Gary Wills (Simon & Schuster, 1992; reprinted by Touchstone, 1993). Wills uses Lincoln's own words as a starting point to explain the powerful message the president was trying to get across. The scenes of battle carnage are as vivid as the words Lincoln used.

As for Shakespeare, if you want to read just one play with a strong leadership message, Henry IV, Part I is probably your best bet. Set before Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, the play shows how Hal mingles with the common man (his buddy Falstaff, among others). When he's made king, he is a stronger ruler for having already established a relationship of trust with his people -- no small feat for the leader of any kind of organization.

Computer refuters

  • ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer, by Scott McCartney (Walker, 1999)

This book is not really the story of ENIAC -- the world's first digital electronic computer -- so much as it is about the two men who created it: John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. You've probably never heard of either of them, but you should have.

The two met in 1941 at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. There they developed the concept of a computer that used electricity rather than mechanical movements to solve complex mathematical problems. Their break came during World War II, when the U.S. Army funded their work to build a machine that could calculate missile trajectories. At the time, words like entrepreneur were seldom used, and computer referred to a person who sat at a desk and did repetitive calculations with, essentially, a very good adding machine.

Scott McCartney's small, well-written book is a gripping tale of two visionaries who fought massive egos, inert bureaucracies, and the coldhearted realities of the commercial market to see their invention thrive. They achieved astounding triumphs, including CBS's use of ENIAC to predict the winner of the 1952 presidential election.

Mauchly and Eckert also experienced crippling losses, both business and personal, such as the death of Mauchly's wife, Mary, who drowned when the couple went for a midnight swim off the New Jersey shore. Famed mathematician John von Neumann stole the lion's share of the credit for their most inspired inventions. Later IBM overpowered their company with sheer competitive muscle. Both men spent much of their lives defending their patents for ENIAC. "They never got rich from their invention," McCartney writes.

In the end it was a lack of management skill that sank the inventors. "For all of their creative genius," McCartney observes, "the builders of the first computer turned out to be lousy marketers and poor businessmen."

That shortcoming, and the price the inventors paid for it, may represent the most telling lesson of all.

I don't want to talk about it

  • Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together by William Isaacs (Doubleday/Currency, 1999)
  • The Reflective Practitioner, by Donald A. Schön (Basic Books, 1983)

One of the "most fundamental struggles for any leader stems directly from the separation that most of us feel between who we are as people, and what we do as practical professionals," writes William Isaacs. Isaacs goes on to draw a sharp distinction between discussion, in which we seek closure, and dialogue, which explores the nature of choice. It's the latter that can lead to new ways of thinking.

Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together offers new ways to approach problem solving and decision making. Isaacs argues that simple exercises like holding your next meeting without chairs or a table -- so everyone must stand in a circle talking -- will have a profound impact on what you "say and think and do."

Isaacs, a cofounder of MIT's Center for Organizational Learning, was a student of the late MIT professor Donald Schön. Isaacs cites Schön's observation in The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action that perhaps professionals need to spend as much time in finding the right problem as they do in trying to solve the problem at hand.

Schön observed that the field of management has "long been marked by a conflict between two competing views of professional knowledge." The first is that the manager is a technician. The second is that the manager is a craftsman who recognizes that management can't "be reduced to explicit rules and theories." Schön described how the craftsman manager is better prepared to make decisions in an increasingly uncertain business environment.


EXECUTIVE READER

RONALD D. MARTIN
Director of Catalyst Ventures, in Chicago

ON HIS DESK NOW
The Profit Zone: How Strategic Business Design Will Lead You to Tomorrow's Profits, by Adrian J. Slywotzky and David J. Morrison. "It gives you a framework for evaluating business models, including a technique called a 'strategic-control index' -- a novel way to look at a company's competitive advantage. Interestingly, the authors rank having a well-known brand as being of only moderate importance," says Martin.

FAVORITE BIOGRAPHY
The Making of a Blockbuster: How Wayne Huizenga Built a Sports and Entertainment Empire from Trash, Grit, and Videotape, by Gail DeGeorge. "It has almost a day-to-day accounting of how Wayne Huizenga leveraged his relationships to acquire businesses and grow his companies, from Waste Management to Blockbuster Video to the Florida Marlins."

LONGTIME FAVORITE
Martin swears by a textbook he discovered while working on his M.B.A. at Northwestern -- Marketing Strategy: Planning and Implementation, by Orville C. Walker Jr., Harper W. Boyd Jr., and Jean-Claude Larreche. "I often go back through the book to refresh myself on certain topics, and sometimes I show it to the folks in my portfolio companies. It's very fundamental." -- Mike Hofman

Last updated: Dec 1, 1999




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