Books: Heroes squeezed through a template

Snippets, cliches and namedropping are offered here, rather than real character studies of achievers, says Nigel Nicholson.

by
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Success Built to Last
Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson
Pearson £14.99
To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

This is an entertaining but ultimately depressing, frustrating and misleading book. It will sell extremely well. How could it fail? It trades on the association that has bred two worthy bestsellers - Built to Last (James Collins and Jerry Porras) and Good to Great (Collins) - and focuses on the irresistible theory that if you talk to enough successful people, you'll unearth the secret of personal success.

It is depressing that such an apparently huge database of interview material should be reduced to this exhausting parade of snippets, homilies, cliches and relentless name-dropping, masquerading as systematic analysis. Jerry Porras and his team have gathered interview material from more than 200 'remarkable' and 'talented' people in public life (almost all American) so that they can spin out a menu of exhortations for readers thirsty for the secrets of success.

The blurb foretells the book's future as a bestseller in the style of time-honoured hucksterism: you too can transform your life, like these assorted heroes. Just buy this book to get 'the secret formula'.

Yet it's frustrating to be harangued by platitudes and bite-sized stories that only intermittently connect with each other. These form a patchwork to decorate the skeleton of themes that Porras and his team claim as the secrets of success. Many of the stories told are diverting, just right for short commutes, but reading this book from cover to cover is deflating.

A few relatively unknown figures are included, but for the most part, it epitomises the contemporary obsession with celebrity and fame.

It's misleading in the sense that it is based on a fundamentally flawed premise. The excellent Built to Last made a controlled comparison of firms that had achieved lasting success with others in their sectors that hadn't.

Good to Great examined the elements, including leadership, that bring companies over the cusp from mediocrity into excellence. Both books contained a wealth of analysis and observation.

Porras et al claim to follow a similarly rigorous methodology here, though they lack any controlled comparison. Rather, the authors perform a mysterious distillation that labels all their subjects as 'builders' - people who are 'compelled' to 'make a difference'.

There are two major flaws in this reasoning. First, only recorded successes are considered; one wonders what happened to the 'builders' who failed, or what screwups might happen to these people down the line. The second flaw is the assumption that all successful people have something in common. Of course, what a lot of them have in common is a big dose of good fortune - a concept that doesn't get much of a look-in here other than in the reassurance, in the manner of the Victorian do-gooders, that we 'earn' our luck.

What made the two Collins-led books so compelling was the consistent convergence of the identity of the organisation and its development over time. This Porras-led book discards the lives of the great people it has assembled in favour of abstracting from them whatever features, utterances or incidents fit the thesis that all these 'builders' have shared heroic characteristics.

In their breathless pursuit of this goal, the authors have no time to do more than tell anecdotes and draw speeded-up biographical sketches.

One gets no sense of life journeys and the connecting tissue between life events and minds. There is no character analysis that would lead to genuine insights. Everything is subordinated to the relentless pumping out of the book's themes.

And the themes are these: 'Builders' find lasting success by having an individually defined 'meaning', creative 'thoughtstyles' and effective 'actionstyles'. You don't have to be a genius in logic to spot the circular argument here. The book is like an expanded collection of aphorisms, though much less succinct and devoid of wit.

But despite its pretensions and vacuity, the book is entertaining in its parts, if not the whole. There are tantalising glimpses of the lives of such luminaries as poet Maya Angelou, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, former US president Jimmy Carter, and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Many illustrations and stories are engaging and the writing style fast and lucid. Shame about the content.

Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is author of Executive Instinct: Managing the human animal (Texere).

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