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Harry Potter and the Corner Office

Management lessons from unusual sources.
Joseph McCafferty, CFO Magazine
November 1, 2006

Who would make a better CEO, Harry Potter or Moses? Should you run your company like the New York Yankees, even though the team just failed again in the clutch? What can Formula 1 racing teach you about developing talent? Does Attila the Hun still speak to would-be masters of the universe, or is Captain Picard a better role model for the 21st century? And what would Jesus do with an underperforming subsidiary?

These are the kinds of questions raised by recent additions to a thriving literary genre: the pop management book. Such books typically present leadership role models from history, fiction, religion, sports, or popular culture. They put new spins on old metaphors: business as a game, sport, or war to be won; business as a spiritual undertaking; business as an exercise in building or growing.

The most popular pop management books match their role models with the business mood of the day. Thus, one of the earliest, Wess Roberts's Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, debuted in the greed-is-good era of corporate raiders and LBOs. For those who grow faint at the sight of blood or Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, books such as Jesus, CEO; and Moses on Management eventually followed.

Peter Drucker these books are not. Most of them are long on the softer side of management, such as motivation, honesty, and team-building, but short on specifics, such as strategy and effective decision making. That doesn't mean they lack value, however. Apart from being entertaining, more or less, they can tempt managers to think about business in new ways.

Neil Witmer, an executive coach and organizational psychologist who runs the talent-management consulting firm Witmer & Associates, says these books "create contrasts from the routine way of thinking." New ideas come when managers go outside their usual frameworks and look back in, points out Witmer; that's why companies shell out thousands of dollars to send executives on management retreats. So why not save the money and buy a few books instead?

It's less important which particular role model or analogy or metaphor a book uses, says Witmer, than that it provide a perspective from outside the normal scope of business. That said, some models seem to work better than others. Don't count on seeing Management Secrets of Paris Hilton anytime soon — although, given the celebrity's success at self-promotion, you never know.

Earning Your Pinstripes
Sports analogies have been a favorite in business for as long as "team" has been spelled without an "I," so it's not surprising that authors would seek insight on the playing fields of America.

One new book that might tempt Big Apple executives is Management Wisdom from the New York Yankees' Dynasty: What Every Manager Can Learn from a Legendary Team's 80-Year Winning Streak. The Yankees's secret weapon, confides author Lance A. Berger, is not a bottomless pot of money, but rather a sophisticated talent-development system. That seems plausible on one hand, given that Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter, and Bernie Williams were all developed internally; and less so on the other, given that Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Roger Clemens, and most of the team's current lineup were not.

True to its subtitle, the book's emphasis is not on the team's recent results (the Yankees haven't won a World Series since 2000), but rather on its long history of excellence. The team, notes Berger, seeks to motivate current players by promoting that history. "The Yankees tell their stories, publicly celebrate past heroes and legends, and use their past success to persuade current and prospective players to believe that they are destined to win," Berger writes. It's an example that many companies could follow.

In Performance at the Limit: Business Lessons from Formula I Motor Racing, authors Mark Jenkins, Ken Pasternak, and Richard West explore similar themes of developing talent and getting employees to perform at high levels. Of the pop management books that use sports as metaphor, this one nearly laps the field, offering plenty of useful insights (as well as the usual clichés, such as "When teams take their eye off the ball, they are vulnerable to competitors who are more focused"). Perhaps the best section is on the power of informal processes, networks, and relationships. Knowledge management experts are just starting to study how these relationships work inside a business. Performance at the Limit, in short, is worth more than just a brief pit stop.

Those who enjoy more-sedate pastimes might check out Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Monopoly, by Alan Axelrod. The author discusses the strategy of playing the game and draws some obvious parallels to the business world.

One of the better takeaways from the book is his advice on not letting the prestige factor of an investment outweigh its real worth. In Monopoly, the probability of landing on the blue properties of Boardwalk and Park Place is the lowest of all color-coded properties. "No one is saying that Boardwalk and Park Place are bad investments," Axelrod writes. "[They] are designer brands, and all that glitz will blind you to the numbers."

Axelrod is a frequent writer in this genre, having penned books on the leadership lessons of Elizabeth I, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. But as a former college professor, he can also write his history straight. Indeed, one of Axelrod's most recent books — Patton: A Biography — may be a more satisfying read than his earlier pop management book on the general, Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare. Axelrod's brief narrative of the brilliant but flawed general's life is a page-turner, offering lessons aplenty (both positive and negative) on training, preparation, speed, motivation, and teamwork.

No Magic Required
Tom Morris, a former philosophy professor, has hitched his pop management star to one of the world's best-selling fictional franchises, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Somewhat disappointingly, though, the lessons in If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of the Wizards have little to do with magic. One might expect the young wizard to boost GE's stock by building a better broomstick, say, or opening an alchemy division, or giving Rubeus Hagrid a late-night talk show on NBC. Instead, Morris says Potter would run the world's largest industrial company by drawing not on his wand, but rather on his sizable reserves of courage, honesty, and intellect.

Morris, whose previous book in this category was If Aristotle Ran General Motors, covers six tests of ethical action, including the "can-you-look-yourself-in-the-mirror" test and the Golden Rule. A section on lies presents some insight into why people fib, and when it might be OK to be deceptive. Fans of Harry Potter might find this book an entertaining refresher course on business ethics. Then again, they might not.

Another alternative to the win-at-all-costs mentality of sports- and war-related business books is What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature. The book proposes a "new model of business" that is based on business as a living organism, as opposed to "the machine model." Authors Tachi Kiuchi, CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America, and environmentalist Bill Shireman draw parallels to evolution and adaptation to show how companies can create stable systems and achieve sustainability. (Perhaps companies could return the favor and help keep the world's rapidly shrinking rain forests from disappearing.)

For those who want to look beyond Earth for business lessons, there is Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek the Next Generation by Wess Roberts and Bill Ross. The book examines numerous situations from the long-canceled TV series, at a level of detail that may thrill Trekkies but not others. Not all of the wisdom is worth beaming up. To wit: "One officer equipped with technology and tools that he cannot competently use has little, if any, advantage over another who possesses inferior devices and instruments."

"Most of these books are based on a type of pop leadership," comments Gene Klann, senior faculty member at the Greensboro, North Carolina, campus of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit institution. "I'm not convinced there's a lot of value to these books. They are very superficial." (Klann's own, latest book, Building Character: Strengthening the Heart of Good Leadership, will be published in December.) Klann believes that managers can learn more by reading straight biographies and autobiographies and extracting business lessons themselves. He says that often the real lessons are lost when they are filtered through a management framework. And Klann says managers can frequently learn more from examples of bad leadership than of good leadership.

Coming soon to bookstores everywhere: Management Secrets of FEMA's Michael Brown.

Joseph McCafferty is departments editor of CFO.

Pop Ten

Everything I Know about Business I Learned from Monopoly
By Alan Axelrod. Running Press Book Publishers, 2002

If Harry Potter Ran General Electric: Leadership Wisdom from the World of the Wizards
By Tom Morris. Currency, 2006

Jesus, CEO: Using Ancient Wisdom for Visionary Leadership
By Laurie Beth Jones. Hyperion, 1995

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun
By Wess Roberts. Warner Books, 1989

Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek the Next Generation
By Wess Roberts and Bill Ross. Pocket Books, 1995

Management Wisdom from the New York Yankees' Dynasty: What Every Manager Can Learn from a Legendary Team's 80-Year Winning Streak
By Lance A. Berger. Wiley, 2005

Moses on Management: 50 Leadership Lessons from the Greatest Manager of All Time
By David Baron. Atria, 1999

Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare
By Alan Axelrod. Prentice Hall Press, 1999

Performance at the Limit: Business Lessons from Formula I Motor Racing
By Mark Jenkins et al. Cambridge University Press, 2005

What We Learned in the Rainforest: Business Lessons from Nature
By Tachi Kiuchi and Bill Shireman. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2002