Two underwhelming books: “Success Built to Last” by Jerry Porras + others, and “How” by Dov Seidman

I’ve stated before that I am a massive consumer of books about what to do with one’s potential for leadership and fulfillment; this summer, I read two more. I was, however, disappointed by both.

Success Built To Last“, by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson, builds on hundreds of interviews with highly successful people to discern patterns in their motivation, their thought processes and their action styles. When I say “successful”, the bar is quite high: we’re talking about Sir Richard Branson, Nelson Mandela, Michael Dell, Maya Angelou and even the Dalai Lama. That’s the kind of crowd you meet in Davos, if you’re invited.

Yet, as much as I love all Stanford authors, this time I have to say that Professor Porras hasn’t convinced me. Although supported by rigorous analysis and an ambitious survey, at the end this boils down to biography as an attempt at inspiration. We already know that truly successful people are the ones who love what they do, who find deep meaning in the mission they have discovered for their lives, and who would do the same things they do today even if they didn’t make any money doing them. We also know that they are relentlessly optimistic and resilient in the face of failure. We know they are like that. We can try to model our thought processes and action styles on theirs. But will you learn anything new about success from reading this book? No matter how well thought out and documented, the actionable advice in here boils down to following your passion, and adopting certain habits of thought and action while you pursue it. The fact that this book comes with a full range of five-star reviews and was in the top 3 editors’ picks in the business category of Amazon’s Best Books of 2006, in my opinion, only reflects rather poorly on the 2006 crop of such books – or on the standards of the Amazon editorial staff and the community of reviewers.

How” by Dov Seidman, a book about how ethics is changing the rules of business for the better, was another disappointment. More personal, more based on “war stories” from the author’s career, which makes it somewhat interesting at times; yet, full of extremely superficial summaries of the way the world has changed from the Industrial Revolution up to today (if you want to read “The World Is Flat“, I suggest you read “The World Is Flat”, and not Seidman’s reductionist synopsis); of pseudo-evolutionary biology talk about why trust develops in human societies (again, much better: read “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley); and of rants about the lack of such values as transparency and trust in today’s business world.

Maybe I’ve been lucky, but that’s not my experience: the world is not all Enrons, WorldComs, or Parmalats. On the contrary, I’ve always been able to work in organizations that were guided by sound values and constantly reinforced them (my previous employer even used to hold an annual worldwide “Values Day”), and where people mostly trusted each other – not trusting each other was simply not feasible (you would die under avalanches of work, among other effects). Even today, I am regularly evaluated on both results and behaviors, and I evaluate my team on their results and their behaviors. And, we do not backdate stock options – that is simply not done around here. So, that “how” we do things (meaning, our behaviors) might be a source of key advantage in today’s business world strikes me as a somewhat naive proposition.

Perhaps this can be a useful book if you’re either very young, or very cynical about the value of personal and institutional integrity. If you’re neither, this is a book you can skip without regrets.

4 thoughts on “Two underwhelming books: “Success Built to Last” by Jerry Porras + others, and “How” by Dov Seidman

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