Some go by book in learning to lead


The secret of business leadership is turning away from the crowd. Or investing in relationships. Or looking for the good in your problem. Or maybe it's learning to welcome risk. Or doing all of these things.

If nothing else works, ask yourself what Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, would do if he were in your shoes.

Publishing industry analysts say there is an insatiable appetite for advice on leadership and management by managers and would-be managers, even after so many books have been published that there wouldn't seem to be anything new to say.

New titles appear on bookstore shelves year after year, and at any given moment on's continuously updated top 100 best sellers list, there are a few books about management and leadership tucked among the diet guides, novels and odes to the family dog.

There are leadership books that state the obvious, like the one instructing executives to "seek solutions instead of placing blame." Another warns "tears can be career-ending."

There are books that offer up inspirational figures to emulate, like Joan of Arc or Napoleon, even though the latter died in exile and the former was burned at the stake.

And there are a couple dozen books, most of them fawning, about Welch, formerly of General Electric.

A new Welch book seems to come out every year.

But if the question is whether you can learn to be a great leader from reading a book, "the general consensus is no," said David Wilcox, CEO of MeansBusiness Inc. of Boston.

Wilcox's company consults on books sought by businesses.

"You have to learn leadership through on-the-job experience, through successes and failures," Wilcox said. "But you can use books and experts to help you through those experiences."

Nielsen Book Scan, which measures book sales, does not track sales of business books on the topics of leadership and management. But people in the industry say it is a growing sector of publishing, mostly because it makes money.

"Leadership is an evergreen topic," said Jeff Krames, a vice president in the business book division of McGraw-Hill. "There always seems to be strong demand in books for leadership."

It wasn't always so. Until about 25 years ago, there were relatively few guides to management.

Krames said all that changed in the early 1980s when In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies came out, along with The One Minute Manager and Iacocca: An Autobiography.

All were major hits.

"Iacocca was the best-selling business biography in history," Krames said. "Before that, we had Peter Drucker, the inventor of modern management."

"He wasn't sexy," Krames said of Drucker, who died in November. "He wasn't hip."

The demand for leadership books defies economic trends, said Ed Gubman, the Chicago-area author of The Talent Solution and Engaging Leader. Even when business books are hard to sell, he said, management titles can succeed.

"Leadership and innovation are the two hot topics today," Gubman said. "Everyone is obsessed by those two things."

There is, of course, no standardized definition of a book offering business leadership skills.

Herman Melville, for example, isn't usually regarded as a business writer. But on one level, Moby Dick is a cautionary tale about what happens when a charismatic business leader allows emotions to enter into decision-making. The ship sinks.

And even the Soviet Union published leadership books, of a sort. In 1950 the Communist functionary V.M. Molotov, of Molotov cocktail fame, authored Stalin and Stalin's Leadership. It is out of print.

However, The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, published in 1985, continues to be recommended by management trainers.

Some leadership books are semi-autobiographical. R. Philip Hanes, the former chief executive officer of Hanes Cos., talks about his tactics in the field of fund-raising for worthwhile causes. His book is titled How To Get Anyone To Do Anything.

Some leadership books are written for specific groups of people, women for example.

In their book Leading From the Front, former Marine officers Angie Morgan and Courtney Lynch warn female leaders not to habitually apologize for the most minor of mistakes.

Morgan and Lynch observe that "When most men talk, they don't apologize."

And some leadership books offer pointed advice for common problems.

Bob Pritchett, in his book chillingly titled Fire Someone Today, explains concisely how to get rid of people.

Jack Covert is president and founder of, a Milwaukee-based company that sells business titles across the nation.

Covert defends the usefulness of leadership books.

"I believe that yes, you can learn [leadership] from a book," Covert said. "You can learn anything from a book."

That said, the book has to be good. "Business and self-help are not dissimilar subjects," he said. "A business person who reads a business book is looking for help. Ninety percent of self-help books are not very good."

"The fact is that there is garbage written about everything," Covert said.

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