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Monks, moms, and metaphors
It's hard to hold a business audience. Scores of books, magazines, newspapers, and even entire cable networks are out there competing to get - and keep - the attention of people in business. For today's "content providers" in the media industry, the worst imaginable fate is not an investigative report that turns out to be inaccurate or a stock tip that ends up wildly wrong; it's boredom.
In the never-ending quest for fresh approaches to business subjects, some authors are taking a page from the metaphysical poets of the 17th century: trying to bring a topic to life by associating it with something entirely unexpected. This gambit doesn't always achieve any better results for today's scribes than it did for John Donne when, four centuries ago, he tried to use a flea as a symbol of romantic love. But when the metaphorical approach does work, the result can be a compelling business book. Witness the success of this month's featured titles:
Randy Komisar sounds a little like the Buddha: bald, contemplative, and sought-after as a source of wisdom. And no wonder. In The Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur (with Kent Lineback; Harvard Business School Press, $22.50, 1578511402), Komisar presents a fictionalized narrative drawn from his career as a Buddhism-inspired venture-capital guru and "virtual CEO" of numerous companies in Silicon Valley. His lead character, aspiring online-funeral entrepreneur Lenny, is apparently a composite of the ambitious dot-comsters who, in real life, beat a constant path to Komisar's door, or rather to his table at the coffeehouse he uses as an office. Lenny shows up full of big ideas and marketing jargon that leave Komisar cold, but the high priest of speculative finance detects a trace of true passion behind Lenny's overdressed stage presence. As the story progresses, Komisar prods Lenny to rekindle that fire, to rediscover why he wanted to start his business in the first place, and to abandon careful corporate planning in favor of a risky quest to build a company as deeply laden with meaning as a Zen koan.
The Monk and the Riddle is valuable on several levels. It seems to offer an authentic glimpse into how things are done in the alternate universe that is Silicon Valley today - an insider view worthy of attention at a time when the New Economy centered on the Valley is reshaping American life in unpredictable ways. But it is also an essential resource for anyone who needs to understand the psychology of professional investors in today's business climate. Take Komisar's monkish musings to heart, and you may even come away more focused on your true passion in life.
What can business honchos learn from a failed attempt to cross an icy wasteland more than 80 years ago? More than you may suspect. For proof of that premise, look to Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition , by Dennis N.T. Perkins, with Margaret P. Holtman, Paul R. Kessler and Catherine McCarthy (Amacom, $24.95, 0814405436).
In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton and the men under his command sailed from England on a mission to make the first crossing of the Antarctic land mass. The story of the disaster that followed - a nearly two-year struggle for survival during which the ship broke up in ice floes and the men spent four months marooned on a barren island before being rescued - has been told in an amazing seven competing histories just since 1997. (Such is the enthusiasm for adventure-survival narratives in the wake of blockbusters like Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.) But Leading at the Edge is not another history of the expedition. Rather, it's a thought-provoking effort to identify the leadership qualities that enabled Shackleton to get all of his men out alive, and it's an invigorating exploration of how those qualities apply to leadership in the workplace.
Author Perkins draws on his own leadership trial-by-fire as a Marine Corps officer who saw combat in Vietnam, as well as his interpretation of Shackleton's experiences and other examples. He yokes together disparate (and often desperate) situations and shows convincingly what lessons they hold in common for people in business. For instance, he draws a parallel between the self-satisfied command practices of Britain's 19th century Royal Navy, which taught Shackleton how not to lead, and the "Success Syndrome" that afflicted many large American corporations in the early 1990s, costing more than a dozen high-flying CEOs their jobs. And from the surprising fact that Shackleton had never so much as pitched a tent or slept in a sleeping bag before he set off for the South Pole, Perkins extracts the principle of "cultivating poised incompetence" - the idea that we all begin as novices at any task, and we shouldn't let fear of small failures bar us from pursuing great successes.
Leading at the Edge demonstrates that executives who want to stretch the bounds of organizational inertia have much to learn from those who have tested the limits of human endurance. In addressing Shackleton's adventure and business leadership, Perkins combines two subjects over which much ink has been spilled in recent years - and yet he has managed to synthesize that material into a distinctive work filled with remarkable insights.
Like Perkins, James D. Murphy draws on military experience as an analogue to the civilian workplace in Business Is Combat: A Fighter Pilot's Guide to Winning in Modern Business Warfare (ReganBooks, $24, 0060393254). Here, though, the focus is less on leading troops than on maximizing personal efficiency in a world of ever-spiraling complexity, myriad responsibilities, and warp-speed competition.
Think about it for a moment: If you were CEO of a large company, would you put a 26-year-old in sole charge of an extremely complex asset worth tens of millions of dollars? Would you send him or her out to face your competitors with the job of making split-second decisions that can dramatically impact the future of your enterprise? The U.S. military grants that level of authority every day to its flyboys and flygirls. Murphy has been one of them, and he now trains F-15 pilots for the Air National Guard as a sideline to his career as a sales and training expert.
Murphy doesn't have to stretch his analogies far to make his case. There's no question that "intelligence," meaning good knowledge of the other side's capabilities and goals, is just as vital an edge in business dealmaking as in war. The concept of "task saturation," a fatal form of tunnel vision that blinds a pilot to the fact he is about to crash, has obvious metaphorical applications in our working lives. And Murphy makes a cogent argument about the value of debriefing, making a suggestion that would meet with sheer horror in many organizations: Let's sit down after every major group endeavor and hash out exactly what went right and wrong.
The battle-tested advice in Business Is Combat speaks with refreshing clarity to issues that vex would-be high-flyers in organizations of all kinds. Take it aloft on your next sortie.
If Murphy's machismo leaves you a little overwhelmed, have a nibble of Chris and Reina Komisarjevsky's Peanut Butter and Jelly Management: Tales from Parenthood, Lessons for Managers (Amacom, $16.95, 0814470629). A title like this one (or the similar Wear Clean Underwear: Business Wisdom from Mom , by Rhonda Abrams [Dell, $12.95, 0440509076], a paperback edition of a 1999 book) does raise the issue of whether a manager should really think of employees as though they were children. But even if you leave aside the fact that some workers clearly merit being put in time-out or sent to the woodshed on occasion, PB&J Management demonstrates that a little parental nurturing can go a long way toward building a successful team in business as well as family life.
The authors certainly have impressive credentials in the categories of both business and family: They are the parents of nine, count 'em nine, children, and Chris Komisarjevsky is CEO of the giant PR firm Burson-Marsteller. The parallels they draw make this an entertaining series of object lessons in employee empowerment, goal-setting, strategic human resource planning and a host of other topics. They also address overcoming adversity: In several deeply moving passages, the parents share the story of their family's ongoing efforts to cope with the loss of a young child years ago.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Management holds moments of wisdom for businesspeople and parents alike. In its own wry and understated way, this too is an adventure book, a resource for those entering the great unknowns of corporate leadership or parenthood.
Surviving indentured servitude on Wall Street is the subject matter of the vindictive, outrageous and hilarious Monkey Business: Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle (Warner Books, $24.95, 0446525561). Authors John Rolfe and Peter Troob skewer the masters-of-the-universe lifestyle they briefly enjoyed as peons at a major investment bank.
On the serious side, in More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, $35, 0195046463), economic historian Robert M. Collins dissects a political mania that has been hidden in plain sight for a half-century: our national commitment to supporting economic growth as an instrument of the common good. We have not always taken this premise for granted, and Collins raises provocative questions about it.
Journalist E. Thomas Wood is product-development director for the www.Champs-Elysees.com family of language-and-culture publications.