Business leaders squander helpful wisdom through disdain of the past
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THE BUSINESS WORLD is handicapped by a failure to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom.
By and large, business leaders display a form of ADD. New books become blockbusters and provide the buzzwords of the day, but as fads typically do, they reach a peak and decline into oblivion. The result is the failure to retain and apply wisdom from the past; often worse than that, to despise it. If a book is ten years old or more, it is considered a dusty relic.
C. S. Lewis called this mentality “chronological snobbery”: The mistaken notion that because the accumulated knowledge of mankind and technology grow ever greater, we are somehow becoming more intelligent than people who lived before us.
Neither science nor history supports such a view. There is no evidence whatsoever that we are any more intelligent than people who lived thousands of years ago (consider how you would build a pyramid without modern technology and tools!).
Knowledge grows and is superseded
We see the growth of accumulated knowledge happening almost daily. Having grown up in a world where electronic technology is commonplace, my children take it for granted. Having produced my college papers on a manual typewriter, my perspective is a little different.
My grandfather, Robert K. Stevenson, was the Chief Financial Officer for a paper company. I remember him working in his home office using a hand-cranked adding machine. My other grandfather, Arthur Lancaster, was a Senior Engineer at the Armco Steel Corporation for 43 years. He used a slide rule among other tools.
In the 1980s I became friends with an older man who was a cardiologist. He had done his medical training in the 1950s. Dr. Brown said to me one day, “The volumes I studied in medical school are like comic books today.” Advances in medical knowledge had rendered them completely obsolete. Imagine what he would say today.
Despite thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, there are some things which have not changed. Knowledge grows, and can be superseded and made obsolete. Wisdom, however, endures. It does not grow stale, wear out, or corrode. You can, certainly, grow in wisdom and be corrected regarding misconceptions, but valid wisdom is forever.
Wisdom is more than knowledge of facts or mechanics. Wisdom is the art of applying knowledge. It means using good judgment in decision-making.
Human situations and problems have not changed. Students of history are well aware of this. The details, places, and names change, but certain problems endlessly recycle themselves. This is why the 3000 year-old book of Ecclesiastes famously says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Chief among things which have not changed is human nature. That means leadership is a form of applied wisdom.
That’s why I am a fan of old books. I have always been an avid student of history, philosophy, and theology, and have practiced mining the greatest minds of past centuries. I’m quite happy to gain wisdom from someone who lived 1000, 2000, or 3000 years ago. Their language, culture, and lifestyle might be miles away from mine, but they share the same kind of human nature as I, and have dealt with the same kinds of problems and dilemmas as people alive today. That’s why if someone has wisdom to speak, my ears are open, whenever they lived.
The same true in business
Would I go back to a hand-cranked adding machine to do my accounting and pay bills? No. But wisdom available to my grandfathers is still valuable today. Business methods of past decades may come and go, but business wisdom is valuable and endures.
“But don’t older books contain ideas that are out of date?” some people ask. Yes they do, I answer, but that’s not a problem. Because we have the perspective of distance and time, their erroneous ideas are easily identified and sifted out. You are much more likely to be led into error by reading only books of the current day. You share the same assumptions and premises as their authors, and their errors (to be exposed only over time) will be invisible to you.
I have many older business books on my shelves and have benefitted from them. The following list is not comprehensive, but as a personal list of favorites it may serve to illustrate what I’m talking about.
Old books worth a look
The Peter Principle by Laurence J. Peter (1969)
Groundbreaking and hilarious examination of perpetual problems in hierarchical organizations. The key principle: In a hierarchy, everyone rises until he hits his level of incompetence. A common illustration is the star salesperson who is promoted to Sales Manager, where the requirements of the role are very different. He hits his limit and his advance up the ladder stalls. The overall joke of the Peter Principle, then, is that all the important jobs in a corporation eventually are held by incompetent people! Funny, along with many valid insights.
Up the Organization by Robert C. Townsend (1970)
The leader of American Express and Avis shares unconventional and skeptical views on how corporations work and don’t work. Easy to read and insightful.
Managing by Harold Geneen (1984)
Geneen was definitely old-school, the kind of manager my engineer grandfather would have known. Be aware: he is certainly no role model in regard to work-life balance.
He did, however, lead ATT when it was the world’s largest conglomerate in the 1960s-70s, and teaches principles of managing that remain highly valuable. You can learn a lot from him, while letting some of the less healthy attitudes and practices slough off.
What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School by Mark McCormack (1984)
Interesting read full of practical applications by a successful entrepreneur. He covers both “hard” and “soft” skills important for leading a business. It’s an opportunity to learn from someone who’s done it successfully.
The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (1966, revised 1985)
Drucker was the management guru of the 20th century and produced a whole library of works. This small volume (174 pages), however, should be considered essential reading for anyone in organizational leadership, packed with content and chock full of wisdom. He addresses issues that are as relevant today as when it was written. Don’t miss it!
The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge (1990)
A mind-blowingly profound work and the most challenging read on the list, this book is relevant for any high-level leader who is dealing with great complexity. It is about learning and applying a “systems approach” to leading organizations, where real problems can actually be improved, rather than symptoms being endlessly recycled or worse.
The West Point Way of Leadership by Col. Larry R. Donnithorne (Ret.) (1993)
A former instructor at West Point and university president explains how the United States Military Academy builds leaders. Any organization interested in leadership development can learn from this truthful and wise book.
Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras (1994)
Collins and Porras led a research team investigating the whys behind long-lasting successful companies, and identify the principles which are common denominators. All remain valuable insights for today.
A potential competitive advantage
The above examples are just a few valuable books of the past worth checking out. Notice that all are more than 20 years old. There are many others worth reading in the 10-20 year-old category. In this internet age, old out-of-print books are easy to find.
You live in an ADD business world that thinks anything more than a decade old is passé. That means opportunity! Because so many people around you are ignorant of these volumes and therefore of their insights, you can develop a genuine competitive advantage by digesting them.
Don’t fall into the superficial attitudes of the present. There is wisdom available to you for little cost and for little effort beyond regular reading and study. Li