The Five Universal Themes of Business

What happens when you spend 18 months reading the best in business literature? In our case when The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, two things happened—one expected, the other quite unexpected.

The expected was the creation of the list that made up The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, a book that was published in 2009 (and whose updated paperback edition was just released).

The unexpected came as we uncovered a number of meta-themes the books share that exist beyond any predictable grouping by subject matter. For example, Michael Useem’s The Leadership Moment has surprising connections with as Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System and Gary Klein’s The Power of Intuition.

Ultimately, we found five persistent meta-themes across our selection of the 100 best business books. Each meta-theme appears horizontally across traditional publishing categories, bridging such divisions as sales, management, narrative, and finance. Each meta-theme also scales in a vertical sense, applying to individuals, teams and organizations equally.

So profound are these meta-themes, we argue, that these five universal insights act as the foundation for anyone dealing with any aspect of business, whether starting a new job or developing the next year’s corporate strategy.

  1. Clarity of Purpose: Purpose provides direction and brings clarity to all work. For the individual in pursuit of purpose, author Po Bronson asks the ultimate question in his book, What Should I Do with My Life? Organizations struggle with the same kind of question when they craft their mission statements and massage their marketing slogans.
  2. Wisdom in Decision Making: The process of making decisions is often overly deliberate or completely unconscious. In both cases, we base our decisions on past experience and judge our successes only on the outcomes. In Influence, Robert Cialdini alerts us to how we use unconscious routine to make even the smallest decision, while in The Power of Intuition, Gary Klein provides a map to some of that scripting and shows how we can improve our gut instinct.
  3. Bias for Action: Tom Peters and Bob Waterman pointed out in In Search of Excellence that a quality of excellent companies was “the bias for action.” This assertion that action trumps all appears in many great books, so what keeps us from taking action? Author David Allen (Getting Things Done) would say a person’s focus is misplaced on time and priority, rather than action. Authors Jeffery Pfeffer and Bob Sutton (The Knowing Doing Gap) would say organizations suffer from a gap between knowing and doing.
  4. Openness to Change: Understanding change is essential because change affects individuals and organizations constantly. Sales is about change. Marketing is about change. Corporate strategy about is about change. Lou Gerstner says it was changing IBM’s entitlement culture that was his biggest challenge. In The First 90 Days, new job guru Michael Watkins describes the waves of change that new managers must create. In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffery Moore shows how products are adopted and what different constituents need to accept change.
  5. Giving and Getting Feedback: Imagine throwing a baseball in a dark room. Imagine not being able to see the trajectory the ball took or where it landed. Our success depends on feedback. Did we make the right choice? Did the action have the intended effect? Are things changing? Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) says self-reflection is a form of feedback and an essential piece of emotional intelligence. Engineering professor Henry Petroski, author of To Engineer is Human, says failure is a critical part of learning. And in Secrets of Closing the Sale, Zig Ziglar says listening is the most important part of selling.

These five meta-themes are not only important on an individual level, but they also overlap and reinforce one another. For instance, Peter Drucker said in The Effective Executive that decisions are not truly made until someone is doing something different than they were the day before. And it is clear that feedback determines the success one has with any and all of the other meta-themes.

The five meta-themes feed into each other as well. Clarity of purpose provides wisdom in decision-making, which informs action, which creates change, while feedback makes everything work better. They also resonate with the stages of the “hero’s journey” made famous by mythology scholar Joseph Campbell. The archetypal heros of myth and popular culture walked more or less the same path as Jack Welch.

It’s painfully obvious that companies continually fail to absorb these simple lessons. The question is, what will it take for us to internalize the insights won by our heroes?

One thought on “The Five Universal Themes of Business

  1. A refreshing read.
    I believe that the theme “Clarity of purpose” is there in almost all business books, and not just that, it is the main crux of most of the self-improvement book (that explains why I’ve stopped reading self-improvement books).

    Also, after this article, I think the readers should make a book purchase based on the meta-theme coz books with the same meta-theme will have the same impact on your thinking.

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