Monday, November 2, 2015

Best Business Books 2015: Managerial Self-Improvement

What a Character!

by Theodore Kinni

strategy+business, November 2, 2015

Illustration by Gérard DuBois

David Brooks, The Road to Character (Random House, 2015)

Fred Kiel, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015)

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time(HarperBusiness, 2015)

In 1859, as Great Britain’s Victorian era steamed into its third decade, a Scotsman named Samuel Smiles published a book titled Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct. In it, Smiles preached “the practice of the virtues of industry, frugality, temperance, and honesty,” copiously illustrating its transformative power with “the instances of men, in this and other countries, who, by dint of persevering application and energy, have raised themselves from the humblest ranks of industry to eminent positions of usefulness and influence in society.”

Self-Help was a hit in England and farther afield; the aspiring entrepreneurs of the Meiji Restoration made it a bestseller in Japan. The book catapulted 47-year-old Smiles to gurudom, and, as is the wont of gurus, he wrote several volumes that capitalized on the popularity of his boot-strapping thesis over the next four decades. Thus, Smiles played an instrumental role in launching the broad category of business books under consideration here: self-improvement books for managers.

In addition to the literary impetus Smiles provided to would-be gurus, he anticipated this year’s most notable managerial self-improvement theme by about a century and a half. In his book Character (1871), he wrote, “In the affairs of life or of business, it is not intellect that tells so much as character — not brains so much as heart — not genius so much as self-control, patience, and discipline, regulated by judgment.” Character building and its rewards are the principal focus of two of this year’s three best business books on the theme of self-improvement for managers. The third — the best of the bunch — reminds us to take the first two with a grain of the rest of the essay here

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