How Bosses Should Write Books
VSSENIOR LEADERS are not, of course, the most natural writers in the world. They do not reach the top without a laser ambition, a trait that rarely leads to literary reflection. To be successful, they must murder their outspokenness and master the corporate twaddle instead. They don’t need fame or fortune – the main reasons writers go through the agonies they go through. And when they write, as one economics editor admits, you often “cry for the trees.” Just think of Jack Welch’s tribute to great leadership (ie his own) called “Winning”. His first pearl of wisdom is: “Winning in business is great, because when businesses win, people prosper and grow. “
It is therefore with apprehension that Schumpeter celebrates the flourishing of a genre that would thrill most book lovers: the CEO memory. It is true that it has its drawbacks. The perpetrators are mostly white, male, and middle class. They are neither Hemingway nor Dostoyevsky. There is no sex, no drugs and only average rock ‘n’ roll. And they can afford the best niggers, so it’s hard to say how much their work is anyway.
That said, the genre has many benefits, especially when the writers are the founders of successful companies who by definition have mastered the art of telling a good story. He recently made his way with the books of Phil Knight, who co-founded Nike, in 2016 and Stephen Schwarzman, co-creator of Blackstone, in 2019. His latest addition is “Play Nice but Win”, the story of the way of which Michael Dell builds the computer a company named after him that would eventually change the way computers were made and sold. Ignore the title of Boy Scout. The book is sour, funny, biting, and quick. He’s also fortunate to have a central cast villain: Carl Icahn, activist investor and publicity dog, whose sparring with Mr. Dell gives the story some bite.
Moreover, for those interested in business, such accounts provide a first place to observe some of the great dilemmas of the last decades: to remain private or to go public; give priority to shareholders or stakeholders; construction hardware or software. In a world of unreadable business books and overpriced business schools, it’s worth taking CEO briefs seriously. If nothing else, they help expose what most so called business gurus are wrong.
The first trait the books celebrate is competitiveness. Memories bristle with it. These are not win-win businesses created to make the world a better place. Business, as Mr. Knight puts it, is a “war without bullets”, fought one sale at a time, which someone must inevitably lose. In 1988, when Mr. Dell was 23 and Compaq was his biggest rival, he placed a billboard outside his headquarters in Houston, Texas with an arrow pointing west. to Austin, where his own four-year-old business was based. “158 miles on occasion,” one reads. In “Shoe Dog”, the former boss of Nike writes about the importance of being the first in China to gain an advantage over your competitors. “What a hit that would be,” he wrote. “A billion people. Of them. Billion. Feet.”
The second factor is how character affects business. In most of these books, the personality is overshadowed by bloodless abstractions: visions, stories, missions. In reality, businesses are built by people with strengths and weaknesses of flesh and blood. Of course, all entrepreneurs strive for success. But part of Mr. Dell’s genius lay in the realization that his triumph would come to complement his arrogant young self with older colorful statesmen who understood the pitfalls of building a lightning-speed business. . Mr. Knight’s laconic sidekick was Jeff Johnson, an eccentric so enthusiastic about selling sneakers that he wrote endless letters to his exasperated boss. He never got a response, but the affection between the two helped make Nike what it is. A cast of Wall Street characters light up Mr. Schwarzman’s book. One of the most memorable is Bear Stearns boss Jimmy Cayne, who stubbornly refused to write a check that years later could have saved the bank from collapse.
Third, the franchise. Be honest about both failure and success. Starting a business always comes with what Schwarzman calls “the moment of desperation”: when you think you are a master of the universe, but no one else is. In Mr. Knight’s case, it was the word his banker uttered that crossed his mind as he slammed his pillow at night: “fairness,” that is, hard cash that he needed to inject into his business. He didn’t. For Mr. Dell, it was the frustration to have Mr. Icahn, a master of soundbite, accusing him of grossly underestimating Dell when he tried to deprive him in 2013. He did. equates to “being slapped in the face with a flounder”.
Finally, the context. The books all channel the cacophony that surrounds businesses, coming from employees, customers, competitors, lenders, investors and regulators. It makes it so hard to stay focused on success. When Dell went temporarily private in 2013, Dell silently bids farewell to “legions of whiners, backyard drivers, curbside experts, rearview mirror thinkers and second guessers.” Mr. Knight takes issue with what he calls the “bland and generic banner” of the company itself. “What we were doing seemed so much more. Each new day brought 50 new problems, 50 tough decisions… and we were always keenly aware that a thoughtless move, a bad decision, could be the end.
Over to you, Jeff Bezos
The appeal of self-aggrandizement remains. Mr. Schwarzman ends his book with name drop pages. Mr. Dell falls into the piety of doing good for the world. Refreshingly, Mr. Knight, who later in his life studied creative writing, wraps up before his tale turns into a boring tale of Nike’s success. And the genre has room to develop. Soon the middle-aged tech barons of the West Coast will be eager to tell their story. The world can wince less if the CEO the scribes remember the four VSs: competitiveness, character, openness and context. And if they need a nigger, remember the business hackers who, unlike superstar bosses, work in the dark. ■
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “How Bosses Should Write Books”