UK: THE BOOK PAGE - HEROES OF FIELD AND BOARD. - Professor Tom Cannon, chief executive of the Management Charter Initiative, ex-director of Manchester Business School and Everton fan, ponders the springs of success in sport and business success in sports

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Professor Tom Cannon, chief executive of the Management Charter Initiative, ex-director of Manchester Business School and Everton fan, ponders the springs of success in sport and business success in sports and business

The Way to Win By Will Carling and Robert Heller Little, Brown; 328pp; £16.99

I am sure there is a good book to be written about the lessons that business can draw from sporting success - and vice versa. Unfortunately Will Carling and Robert Heller's The Way to Win is not that book. Nor are the authors helped by a publisher whose approach to quality standards and production undermines their entire argument.

The text contains too many errors that should have been removed before the book reached the shops. My favourite occurs just as the authors introduce one of their recurring themes - the importance of heroes. In a reference to Titans like Churchill, they posit that 'only Churchill depends largely on wartime achievements for his Titanic achievement'. Or was that capital T intended to carry some subtle metaphor about Churchill hitting an iceberg?

These days, the notion that businesses can learn from sport has many adherents. Companies want people to work effectively in teams, they want high levels of personal commitment and to achieve a competitive edge. But the authors offer little substantive analysis of these issues. Only three team sports are examined at any length - rugby union, sailing and cricket. And even these are not closely scrutinised for how they achieved and sustained excellence.

To describe Geoff Cooke's approach, or to praise one-off victories against the Springboks, is meaningless without some comparison of his methods with those of other coaches. Mike Brearley's cricketing successes only magnify the problem. The collapse of English cricket in the post-Brearley era deserves at least as much discussion as his decision to switch Bob Willis from one end to the other in the 'Headingly Test'. Their preference for such war stories reinforces the impression that the authors subscribe to the 'great leader' theory of history. But nor do they give much guidance on how either firms or sports administrators might find, develop or deploy these leaders.

Sir John Harvey-Jones may be a worthy hero, but he did not re-invent Imperial Chemical Industries as suggested by comments like 'ICI ran into a massive crisis that required a massive turnaround - which Harvey-Jones achieved decisively.' Much of the credit goes to his predecessors, and to boardroom colleagues like Bob Haslam who worked to establish the systems that brought the group through the crisis.

The reference to ICI highlights an essential difference between sport and business. The former is characterised by short, sharp, bursts of competition, out of which winners and losers usually emerge with startling clarity. Business is a jockeying for position in an ongoing struggle that seldom ends in unqualified success or any assurance of lasting victory. The failure to make this distinction is a fundamental weakness. Again, there is no explanation as to why some people's visions are turned into action while others are not. Adrian Moorhouse's inspiration from watching David Wilkie win a gold medal is mentioned several times. But why did Moorehouse go on to win gold himself, while millions of other TV viewers simply went on watching TV? The best explanation is that he possessed an exceptional talent, and was able to find the resources for coaching. However the authors don't tell us.

There's a class of management writing which regularly fails to distinguish between cause and coincidence. The Way to Win is predicated on the assumption that causes give rise to effects, but it's not always clear what the effect is supposed to be. Take the section headed 'Leading by Example', about building up empathy with colleagues and subordinates, which contains the following story about Soichiro Honda. 'A bolt that had been tightened by a young worker made a few more turns when Honda did it himself, "You damned fool. This is how you're supposed to tighten bolts," shouted Honda as he hit the employee over the head with a wrench.' I'm confused about the lesson that executives are supposed to draw from this. But I'm also dubious about the value of anecdotes and war stories in general as a substitute for serious investigation. The importance of training, and the contribution of mentors, tend to be understated. Great sports people accept the need to train. In business, by contrast, it is often difficult to persuade people to keep up their training once they have reached the top. The authors make little attempt to explain this difference.

Sporting success is invariably associated with unusually talented people pursuing activities of their own choice. Management is normally about getting ordinary people to excel in work chosen by others. Preoccupation with gold medal winners and national teams seems to blind the authors to the problem of how to get the best from lesser material. Nor do they investigate any of those rare examples of individuals who have succeeded brilliantly both in sports and in organisational life.

I was left feeling that this is a rushed, unedited, first draft of a potentially useful book. Teamwork between one of Britain's most perceptive management writers and England's most successful rugby captain should have produced a classic. But great individuals don't always make great teams. They were let down by failings that the book claims to tackle: poor execution, lack of attention to detail, failure to follow through. Vision is not enough. Success also depends on effective implementation.

The Top Ten Business Hardbacks

1 Company Man: The Rise and Fall of Corporate Life By Anthony Sampson. HarperCollins; 416pp; £20

2 The State We're In By Will Hutton. Cape; 352pp; £16.99

3 The Way to Win: Strategies for Success in Business and Sport By Will Carling & Robert Heller. Little, Brown; 328pp; £16.99 4 Re-engineering Management By James Champy. HarperCollins; 256pp; £17.99

5 The Warren Buffet Way By Robert G Hagstrom Wiley; 288pp; £17.95

6 Being Digital By Nicholas Negroponte. Hodder; 243pp; £12.99

7 Re-engineering the Corporation By Michael Hammer & James Champy. Nicholas Brealey Publishing; 223pp; £16.99

8 The Naked Manager for the Nineties By Robert Heller. Little, Brown; 390pp; £17.50

9 The Leader in You By Dale Carnegie. Simon & Schuster; 288pp; £16.99

10 The City of London: Vol 2: The Golden Years 1890-1914 By David Kynaston. Chatto; 400pp; £25.

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