Surprise, Someone Else Doesn’t Like Business Books

I am always amazed by the love/hate relationship that media outlets have with business books. In 2008, Fast Company ran an op-ed that described business books as “the modern era’s second worst promulgator of intelligence reduction,” and in my letter to the editor, which was published, I describe how misguided the arguments were.

In the past few weeks, BNET’s columnists have chosen a similar hate stance to business books.

Dave Logan in his Tribal Leadership column wrote a post on August 25th that set Twitter abuzz titled 3 Reasons Why Business Books Are Bad for You.

He says 95% of business books “go on one of two lists: ‘if you don’t know this already, you should be working at the DMV’ and ‘if you do these things, your company will become the DMV.'”

This is the “if you are overweight, you deserve to be overweight” argument. It in no way accounts for where people are based on their education and their backgrounds. I know the college students I spoke to last month at the University of Illinois-Chicago, aren’t dumb and were going to be helped by being exposed to a new set of ideas through the business books they were going to be reading for the course in competitive strategy. I don’t think that is an isolated group in the world of business.

Logan suggest you avoid business books because most lack of insight, their stories offer messages that can easily be misinterpreted and their middles are made mostly of “air.” These are dangerous arguments for a business book author to make given the ease at which one can pick up their work and hold it to the same criteria.

In the case of insight, I could point to the striking similarity between the Tribal Leadership’s Five Levels of Leadership and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Does that similarity point to lack of insight? Does the same similarity that exists between Maslow and Gallup’s Q12 survey mean that First, Break All the Rules is not worth reading? Someone needs to be exposed to the insight to begin with and I think it is perfectly fine that Maslow appears in multiple ways across the business book genre (but I wish authors acknowledged the shoulders on which they stand a little more).

Logan ends his column with three best business books he’s ever read:

  • The Odyssey by Homer
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • Ender’s Game by Oscar Scott Card

Reading great books is a steadfast recommendation to understanding better how the world works, but these are not business books and no one would refer to them as such. Business books have a specific audience and a very different intent. Again Aristole, Shakespeare, and Thoreau are all great works that should be read, but these folks did not write business books.


At the Sales Machine this week, Geoffrey James starts off his article titled The 10 Ten Worst Business Books of All Time, with the line:

“Most business books are mediocre; some are even useful. However, there are a few business books that are either so idiotic in concept that it’s incredible that they got published.”

In a Dave Letterman style countdown, James says:

#10: Reengineering the Corporation

#9: Jesus CEO

#8: The Fifth Generation

#7: Radical E

#6: Countdown Y2K

#5: Dow, 30,000 by 2008

#4: The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush

#3: In Search of Excellence

#2: Corporate Magick

#1: Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun

Here is the thing with doing a list like this: the reader needs to know the material. That is the only way for it to be funny or relevant. I, someone who reads more books than almost anyone, only know half of these books. If you want funny, read this.

And to callout In Search of Excellence and Reengineering the Corporation is just insane. Peters and Waterman’s book still provides the best, most accessible summary of the theory of organization behavior that I have read. And the eight practices are still practices that we should pursue.

As for Hammer and Champy’s book, this is what I said in my review in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time:

“Reengineering became the magic managerial term of the 1990s. Cover stories in business magazines touted Mi- chael Hammer and Jim Champy as the strategic gurus of the moment. Companies like Deere, Ford, and Duke Power all found huge success using the concepts. Even Lou Gerstner, in his autobiography Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, calls out re- engineering as having played a role in his turnaround of IBM. The trouble with every fad is the ridicule that follows.

In the 1990s, the term “reengineering” became an easy substitute for the prior decade’s “reorganizing,” “restructuring,” “delayering,” “down- sizing.” The popularity of the term gave embattled executives needed cover when faced with media scrutiny and stock market pressure. The mere mention of a new reengineering initiative acknowledged the severity of a problem and indicated to shareholders that proper steps were being taken. But the actual results varied widely, and business leaders and journalists were quickly off to find and report on the next silver bullet. What’s left is general ambivalence for one of the most important business concepts in the second half of the twentieth century.”

In many ways, Reengineering the Corporation was a book that allowed the lean production concepts to be accessible to the entire corporation. Remove waste. Get rid of queues. Make small teams responsible for all aspects of a workflow. How exactly is that bad?

So, James and I agree on the ridicule; just not whether it was deserved.


I’ll admit that I might sound a little snippy here, these argument for why business books are trash are weak.

If you are interested in compelling critique of the business book category, read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenweig.

3 thoughts on “Surprise, Someone Else Doesn’t Like Business Books

  1. If someone else can step forward to lead this session it would be great. … BarcampMilwaukee: The Science, Art, and Business of Search Engine Optimization …. In the days of self-publishing and living-in-the-past publishers, books are … Although our industry doesn’thave a rag like the New England Journal of … 

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