Harry Potter and the Corner Office

Management lessons from unusual sources.
Joseph McCaffertyNovember 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

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

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.

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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
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
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

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
— may be a more satisfying
read than his earlier pop management
book on the general, Patton on Leadership:
Strategic Lessons for Corporate
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

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
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
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

“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