I once asked (Lord) John King, who is an avid reader, what management books he had read. It was a cheeky question, not intended for answer since I already knew, and he knew I knew. Instead of rising to it, he sent me a book, Barbarians at the Gate.
This chronicles a high tide of corporate excess during the battle for control of RJR Nabisco. RJR had everything such a book would need: products of low ethical standing (cigarettes); executives who believed in marketing above all else; corporate expenditure on private jets and suchlike that makes Greg Hutchings seem saintly; and larger-than-life Wall Street players.
In the flysheet, King inscribed: 'For Bob, 'NB', John.'
After that, he would often ask me in relation to a banker's proposal or approach from a glib executive of an expansionary airline: 'Was he in the book?' It was surprising how many were.
Jeffrey Garten's book reminded me why I don't read management books either (Dilbert and Lucy Kellaway excepted). They give the impression they are written for the benefit of the writer, not the reader. They aren't funny or exciting.
And it is difficult to remember what they have said. (Unlike, I suspect, most of the CEOs whose own words went into the making of this book.)
During 1999 Garten interviewed some of the western world's most prestigious business leaders and must have had a very good time doing so. Who would not have enjoyed and profited from an afternoon with the likes of Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch and Mark Moody-Stuart? Through their energy, determination, courage and the ability to take others with them, these people have fulfilled their dreams. They happened to have their dreams at the end of the 20th century, when the world trading system, world capital markets and world communications networks opened many opportunities. My guess is that they would have seized opportunities at other times too.
So why is this compilation of these interviews a disappointment? Partly because it is just that, a compilation, and partly because the thoughts of the people interviewed are regurgitated with almost no critical comment and with very little to bring the book up to date. Where, for example, is the post facto critique of Jurgen Schrempp's ill-timed foray into the US motor industry? Or the impact of the bursting of the e-commerce bubble?
Garten's point seems to be that the job and expectations of a CEO in the modern global economy are too great. 'Mission Impossible' is how he put it at Davos this year. I don't agree with this. He appears to believe a CEO's job is equivalent to leading a government, but it's not - it's just running a business. That's not to say it isn't difficult, but it's not impossible. It was interesting that the CEOs at Davos didn't agree with him. Nor, I suspect, would those in this book.
The greatest liberalising force in human history has been trade. To be successful in trade needs an understanding of the market. Those who have this understanding succeed. The market for any business is as big or as small as you choose.
When BP chooses to project itself as an environmentally aware oil company, this is not just because John Browne is conscious of his responsibilities in the wider community or feels there is more to managing a joint-stock company than paying dividends to shareholders; he thinks it is good for BP in the long run.
The best parts of the book are when you can actually hear the people Garten interviews. For example, when Rupert Murdoch explains his father's point that 'in the media you must always be prepared to challenge the status quo and particularly to challenge the elites'. And Jack Welch's arresting use of the metaphor of the hand grenade to encourage his audience to be willing to destroy all existing structures in out-of-date organisations to rebuild for the future.
Free trade and free movement of capital with outstanding business leaders of high ethical standing, reading their markets well, is a good recipe for freedom. But as the poet Cavafy wrote: 'What shall become of any of us without any Barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.'