strategy+business




Best Business Books 2008
by Phil Rosenzweig, Nell Minow, Catharine P. Taylor, Michael Schrage,
Jon G...
S
                                                                                                              BUSINESS
 ...
Contents s+b’s Top Shelf
                              3 Strategy
                            BOOKS

                     ...
A
     Fast Competition




                08
     AND Flat Denial
    STRATEGY


    BEST
     William P. Barnett,      ...
competition is that through BOOKS
                                                                                        ...
08
            When the logic of competition changes,
       capabilities that were essential in one environment
         ...
BEST
                                                              to devise organizational process- BOOKS            08

...
S
                                                                            Master Class IN
                            ...
STORIES
                                                                                                                  ...
08
     Lincoln, and especially with her 815-page biography          recognized business as America’s singular strength.
 ...
more important than party affiliations or platforms. He
kept his legislative agenda private because it allowed him
to nego...
Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff,    Lucas Conley, Obsessive
                                                                 ...
W
  Brand’s                                                                                                        08
New ...
08
      momentum generated by consumer wants, needs, opin-                about its responsiveness rose to the top ranks ...
It may seem disingenuous to choose a book for this
essay that was written by an author I know and that was
published under...
08
              “By redefining a visit to the toilet as a
        branding opportunity, Charmin has placed its brand
    ...
A
    Art OF
Influence
THE
                                                         Robert Schlesinger, White       Bill L...
08
      Arthur, has a keen ear for quotes that capture the              vital aspect of that presidential process, from t...
sonal, speechwriters become de facto policymakers
rather than superior wordsmiths. The question of
whether “policy should ...
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
s+b's Best Business Books 2008
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Topical essays on the best business books of 2008 by a highly expert group of reviewers. It was a pleasure to edit this and work with them.

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s+b's Best Business Books 2008

  1. 1. strategy+business Best Business Books 2008 by Phil Rosenzweig, Nell Minow, Catharine P. Taylor, Michael Schrage, Jon Gertner, Marc Levinson, Sally Helgesen, Margaret Wheatley, Carole Schwinn, David K. Hurst, and James O’Toole from strategy+business issue 53, Winter 2008 reprint number 08408 Reprint
  2. 2. S BUSINESS BEST 1 ocial critic John Ruskin once wrote, “Life being very best books 2008 contents short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books.” Agreed, but that’s easier said than done when the production output of business books exceeded 7,600 titles last year. Our annual review can help. It whittles the towering the Western economic perspective and globalization. stacks down to three dozen books, covered in 10 essays The theme reemerges in Kishore Mahbubani’s The written by a stellar group of commentators, including New Asian Hemisphere, a selection of former distinguished newcomers to this magazine like Economist editor Marc Levinson in his essay Margaret Wheatley and seasoned veter- on globalization, and then surfaces ans like James O’Toole. again in Pankaj Ghemawat’s Re- In choosing the year’s best business defining Global Strategy, a selection in books, we made long lists of likely can- the strategy essay by IMD Professor didates, but each writer selected which Phil Rosenzweig. works to read and review for himself or The business ramifications of digital herself. That makes the connections and technology echo through Catharine P. contradictions between these essays all the Taylor’s insider’s review of marketing more unexpected and interesting. books and the essay on innovation by New For example, Nell Minow, cofounder York Times Magazine contributing writer of the Corporate Library, points out that Jon Gertner. And it returns again in Clayton biographies and memoirs are always subject to inherent M. Christensen’s Disrupting Class, a selection in the essay bias in the selection and presentation of facts. We see on books about human capital by strategy+business this bias in the contrast between Ted Sorensen’s mem- Contributing Editor Sally Helgesen. oir, Counselor, one of Minow’s selections, and the por- Ultimately, choosing best books in any genre is a trait of Sorensen that Robert Schlesinger paints in wonderfully subjective pursuit in which the only opinion strategy + business issue 53 White House Ghosts, one of Michael Schrage’s picks as a that really counts is that of the individual reader. You may best book on rhetoric. agree or disagree with our choices for this year’s best busi- Another example: Wheatley and Carole Schwinn’s ness books, but be assured they are all worthy of your passionate and provocative essay on capitalism and quiet hours. community reviews books that explore the collision of — Theodore Kinni
  3. 3. Contents s+b’s Top Shelf 3 Strategy BOOKS Phil Rosenzweig 07 Life Stories Nell Minow 2008 Strategy William P. Barnett, The Red Queen among Organizations: How Globalization Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of 111 Marketing Competitiveness Evolves Global Power to the East Catharine P. Taylor (Princeton University (PublicAffairs, 2008) Press, 2008) 116 Rhetoric Life Stories Human Capital Michael Schrage Willie Brown, Basic Brown: Clayton M. Christensen, My Life and Our Times Disrupting Class: How 120 Innovation (Simon & Schuster, 2008) Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Jon Gertner 2 Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008) 125 Globalization Marc Levinson Marketing Capitalism and Community Charlene Li and Josh Muhammad Yunus, 130 Human Capital Bernoff, Groundswell: Creating a World without Winning in a World Poverty: Social Business Sally Helgesen Transformed by Social and the Future of best books 2008 contents Technologies (Harvard Capitalism (PublicAffairs, 135 Capitalism and Business Press, 2008) 2007) Community Margaret Wheatley and Rhetoric Management Carole Schwinn Robert Schlesinger, White Grant Gordon and Nigel House Ghosts: Presidents Nicholson, Family Wars: and Their Speechwriters Classic Conflicts in Family 140 Management (Simon & Schuster, 2008) Business and How to Deal David K. Hurst with Them (Kogan Page, 2008) 144 Miscellany James O’Toole Innovation Miscellany John Kao, Innovation Charles Handy, Myself and Nation: How America Is Other More Important Losing Its Innovation Matters (AMACOM, 2008) Edge, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do to Get It Back (Free Press, 2007) Illustrations by Noma Bar
  4. 4. A Fast Competition 08 AND Flat Denial STRATEGY BEST William P. Barnett, Sea-Jin Chang, Pankaj Ghemawat, The Red Queen among Sony vs. Samsung: The Inside Redefining Global Strategy: Organizations: How Story of the Electronics Giants’ Crossing Borders in a World Competitiveness Evolves Battle for Global Supremacy Where Differences Still Matter (Princeton University Press, (Wiley, 2008) (Harvard Business School 2008) Press, 2007) 3 BOOKS best books 2008 strategy by Phil Rosenzweig thought. Many suffer from a fatal flaw: They feature companies that have achieved remarkable performance — whether great success or colossal failure — and then explain those outcomes using simplistic ex post facto rationalizations. In doing so, they fail to appreciate the real uncertainties facing managers as they make deci- sions. And they ignore the fact that it is just as easy to select a handful of successful companies and conclude that they prevailed through dogged persistence and s in the past, many of the books about strat- focus as it is to pick a set of companies whose egy published in the last year employ success seems to be based on their willingness to scrap a familiar set of buzzwords. They advise us the conventional and do something radically different. to “think big,” to “outsmart,” and to “break After the fact, it’s always possible to tell one story or through”; they urge us to “break the rules,” “change the the other. game,” and strive for speed, agility, and focus. As for words like agility and resilience, they describe strategy + business issue 53 Managers may find a useful idea or two in each wonderfully aspirational qualities that also tend to be of these books, but few of them are fundamentally per- observable only in hindsight. Show me any successful suasive or insightful. Most are long on admonition and company, and I can make a case that it is agile and exhortation — Be innovative! resilient; show me any less-successful company, and I Be bold! — but short on critical can argue that it lacks those qualities. But unless we can
  5. 5. competition is that through BOOKS BEST 08 Red Queen Competition define these concepts as we observe them, rather than central insight of Red Queen infer them from past performance, they provide little more than retrospective storytelling. Which is not a bad competition itself, firms learn about rivals, about cus- way to describe many strategy books. tomers, and about the competitive context — and there- Corporate strategists deserve better, and the good fore become stronger. Yet as companies become stronger, news is that 2008 saw the publication of a number of rivals learn from one another and emulate the leader’s strategy books that are in fact better. For the past two winning ways, leading to a narrowing gap between the years, the focus of strategy+business’s essay on best strat- best and the rest. That’s the nature of Red Queen egy books was growth. But strategy is fundamentally competition — companies have to run faster to avoid about choices made in a competitive setting, and this falling behind. year, a few books bring competition back to center stage. How then should a company pursue a strategy? In 4 a riposte to so many formulaic books, Barnett writes: “There is no one best strategy. Rather, organizations The most ambitious and important new strategy book must perform better than their rivals according to the is The Red Queen among Organizations: How Com- context’s logic of competition.” What works best is petitiveness Evolves, by William P. Barnett, a professor context-specific; change the context and the company’s at Stanford University’s Graduate performance will vary. Some com- best books 2008 strategy School of Business. The book’s petitive contexts may be coarse- central image comes from Lewis grained — the results of competition Carroll’s classic children’s story are relatively few and far between Through the Looking-Glass, in which but of huge consequence, such as the Red Queen explains to Alice winning or losing a contract for a that in her country, “it takes all the new airplane or a bid for a major running you can do, to keep in the construction project. Others may same place.” be fine-grained, with payoffs that The driving mechanism of are frequent but less consequential, Red Queen competition is straight- such as merchandising a consumer forward. “Organizations learn in product in a narrow geographic response to competition, making region. But whatever the competi- them stronger competitors and so tive context, explains Barnett, “win- triggering learning in their rivals,” ning and losing in competition writes Barnett. Thus, performance is depends on whether organizations relative to competition, not absolute. A company can are well adapted to the specific competitive logic that run faster and fall farther behind at the same time. prevails in their contexts.” Despite our fondest wish to achieve high performance Barnett does not underestimate the uncertainty by following a simple formula — and despite the dozens that managers face in understanding their competitive of strategy books that cater to that desire — the realities contexts or the difficulties inherent in having to make of Red Queen competition are starkly different. inferences quickly on limited samples. “If, with the Barnett identifies two of these realities: “The threat- benefit of large samples seen in hindsight, those who ening effects of current-time competition, and the study organizations face indeterminacy, then even viability-enhancing effects of hysteretic competition.” greater uncertainty is faced by those who manage (Hysteretic refers to systems that, like thermostats, are organizations,” he writes. “After the fact, we can look slow to switch back to their previous state after a stimu- back over the evidence of an industry’s history and lus has been removed.) The danger of competition is recount with greater clarity the various logics of com- obvious: the greater its intensity, the greater the threat to petition as they have unfolded. Before the fact, how- survival. But the benign effect of competition is also ever, these logics are yet to be discovered.” important, although often overlooked: “Organizations Barnett’s view of fitness through competition is with more exposure to a recent history of competition borne out by sound and extensive analysis of two very are more viable and generate stronger competition.” The different industries: commercial banking and comput-
  6. 6. 08 When the logic of competition changes, capabilities that were essential in one environment may prove to be counterproductive in another. ers. Through an empirical analysis of commercial banks ing so well adapted to a given competitive context that in the state of Illinois over many years, based on exten- it is unable to adapt when the game changes. He also sive archival data, Barnett shows that banks that had raises the idea that seeking to break out of existing mar- BEST been exposed to intense competition became stronger kets and apply experience elsewhere may not be very A Tale of Two Competitors competitors. The same pattern is found in the comput- effective. Managers may think their experience will help er business: In several industry segments — mainframes, them thrive in new markets and conditions, when in minicomputers, and microcomputers — manufacturers fact the opposite is likely to be the case. discovered ways of matching technologies with cus- The Red Queen among Organizations is written tomer needs through the process of competition itself. in a style that is more academic than practical. Its main Observes Barnett: “The logic of competition that we thrust is theoretical, and the full implications for man- would come to understand in each market was discov- agers will likely not be drawn out for a few years. 5 ered by competing.” As for the performance implica- Nevertheless, it is the best strategy book of the year tions, it turns out that computer manufacturers with because of its main insights: Competition concerns rel- greater exposure to competition were also the ones more ative performance, not absolute performance; a com- likely to survive. pany’s competitiveness is context specific, and contexts Barnett’s findings have profound managerial impli- can change, giving rise to the competency trap; learning BOOKS cations. Many recent strategy books urge managers to comes about from competing, not isolation from com- best books 2008 strategy change the game, to search for blue oceans free of com- petition; and differentiation is desirable as a way to petitors, or otherwise to escape the rigors of competitive secure rents, but must be pursued in the context of com- rivalry. But as this author says, “Managers busily pursu- petition, not in the vain hopes of avoiding it. ing a strategy of isolation are especially challenged by this theory. If exposure to competition is what generates For an in-depth account of a specific competitive battle, capabilities, then the strategy of differentiation in order a laudable book is Sony vs. Samsung: The Inside Story to minimize competition is called into question.” of the Electronics Giants’ Battle for Global Supremacy, Analogies from sports often miss the mark in business, by Sea-Jin Chang, professor at Korea University in but here they seem apt. Competition brings out the best Seoul (and my Wharton classmate and research partner in athletes — and in companies. Records are set not in the 1990s). Chang paints a detailed portrait of in practice, but in head-to-head confrontations where Japan’s Sony Corporation and Korea’s Samsung rivals spur one another to do their best. Corporation as they engaged in a complex game of If isolating oneself from competition is not wise, cooperation and competition. surely the opposite is not recommended, either — walk- Chang’s approach differs from most not only ing into the buzz saw of intense competition, where because he had superb access to senior executives in both companies have little ability to differentiate their offer- companies, but because he refrains from easy inferences ings. Presumably the lesson for managers is to steer a based on performance outcomes. He begins by citing middle path, but Barnett does not offer many guidelines articles from leading business magazines that acclaimed for action here. Sony’s brilliance in 1999, only to blast CEO Nobuyuki Furthermore, when the logic of competition Idei as one of the worst managers just a few years later. strategy + business issue 53 changes, capabilities that were essential in one environ- Chang knows that people don’t become that stupid that ment may prove to be less so in another — or even prove quickly — and refuses to engage in the simplistic blame to be counterproductive. Thus, Barnett offers up the games that characterize so many books. notion of a firm getting caught Through interviews and the analysis of company in a competency trap — becom- data, Chang tracks the strategies, organizational process-
  7. 7. BEST to devise organizational process- BOOKS 08 The Global Context es, and leadership styles of both companies. He demon- strategic vision but for its ability strates how Sony’s strategy and organizational processes were well suited to analog technologies, to which com- es to execute that strategy; some years from now, when panies added value through imaginative new products. a new generation of technology or a different competi- At the same time, during the 1980s and early 1990s, tive context is in place, Samsung may well be eclipsed Samsung was little more than a component manufactur- by a new rival. Although we may justifiably applaud er, and unable to compete effectively against Sony. But Samsung for its recent successes, we should bear in mind as the rules of the game shifted in the late 1990s with the that the same elements that lead to success may sow the move to digital technologies, Samsung began to excel in seeds of failure when the competitive context shifts. a competitive context that rewarded low-cost compo- nents, while Sony struggled with a strategy that aimed to 6 combine content with hardware. Further, Sony’s superi- The battle between Sony and Samsung highlights the ority in televisions was lost when cathode ray tube tech- increasingly global nature of competition, a subject ably nology gave way to liquid crystal display flat screens, in addressed in Redefining Global Strategy: Crossing Borders which Samsung has now also overtaken Sony. Thanks to in a World Where Differences Still Matter, by Pankaj its strong position in components, Samsung passed Ghemawat, professor at IESE in Barcelona. (See “Pankaj Sony in market capitalization by Ghemawat: The Thought Leader best books 2008 strategy 2002, and by 2006 was twice as valu- Interview,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, able as Sony, leading its Japanese Spring 2008.) To the current crop of rival in both sales and profitability. authors who assert that the world is Chang concludes that the recent now “flat,” this title is a cogent re- performance differences between minder that global strategy concerns Sony and Samsung were not purely choices that are made in a more the result of their different strategies, complex world. but reflected the fit between those Ghemawat argues that the strategies and the companies’ organi- world is better described as “semi- zational processes and leadership. globalized,” and claims that it is There was nothing wrong with precisely the differences among Sony’s strategy per se, but Sony was countries that provide opportunities unable to execute that strategy owing for any global strategy to create to ill-suited organizational processes value. National differences, he says, and political infighting. Chang may exist along four dimensions: cultur- be correct. After all, Apple has been able to succeed al, administrative, geographic, and economic. Further, using a substantially similar strategy. the importance of these dimensions can differ by indus- But another explanation is possible, as well: It may try. For example, geography and culture may matter lit- be that Sony’s inability to adapt its organizational tle in the semiconductor industry, but for the food processes is not unusual, but indeed almost predictable. industry the implications of these two dimensions are Organizations often change more slowly than their envi- massive. Once these national differences as they exist in ronments, meaning that in time most organizations a given industry are understood, firms can identify ways become unfitted to their new contexts. That is, of to add value through the dispersion and coordination of course, very much the notion of the competency trap global activities, whether by adding revenues, decreasing described by Barnett in The Red Queen among costs, managing risk, or leveraging expertise. Organizations, and raises the question of whether success Ghemawat describes three ways that multinationals in one context tends to lead to failure in another. can deliver the benefits of a global strategy: by capturing Seen through this lens, the story of Sony and benefits of scale through aggregation; by securing bene- Samsung, rather than being the tale of one company’s fits of local adaptation; or through a mix of both, called decline and another’s rise, is one more illustration of a arbitrage. Readers familiar with the work of Christopher general tendency for high performance to fall over time. Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal, notably their landmark Thus, some years ago Sony was praised not only for its book, Managing across Borders: The Transnational
  8. 8. S Master Class IN Leadership A Steve Weinberg, Taking on the Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tragedy (Random House, 2008) Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (W.W. Norton, 2008) Ted Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History Willie Brown, Basic Brown: My (HarperCollins, 2008) Life and Our Times (Simon & Schuster, 2008) LIFE Solution (Harvard Business School Press, 1989) will find similarities here — aggregation and adaptation are simi- lar to global integration and local responsiveness, respec- tively, and arbitrage has a ring similar to the notion of transnational management. Yet by offering an updated framework to analyze global strategy, Ghemawat’s work is useful and practical. Indeed, it is the best treatment on by Nell Minow the subject of global strategy to appear for quite some time, and is a much-needed antidote to the simplistic treatments of flat-world management that are currently in vogue. 7 Redefining Global Strategy is a reminder that an effective strategy is not a blueprint that can lead to guar- anteed success. Rather, strategy is making choices that will improve the chances of success — and having to formance should be of interest to all strategists. + constantly make new choices to differentiate oneself from rivals in a bruising competitive terrain that is well best books 2008 strategy described as Red Queen competition. If the fortunes of Sony and Samsung, and other global companies, are subject to the inexorable logic of Red Queen competition, what are the implications for corporate strategists? Is any success, however brilliant it may seem today, fated to regress to some industry mean? Inevitably, the discussion comes back to words like agility and resilience, and to the ability of a com- pany to force itself toward renewal so that it might thrive in new contexts. Phil Rosenzweig (rosenzweig@imd.ch) is a professor at IMD in Not surprisingly, several current books claim to tell Lausanne, Switzerland, where he works with leading companies on companies how to be agile. But none of them made this tories of real lives draw their power from questions of strategy and organization. He is the author of The Halo list of best books, because they all fall into the common authenticity, engagement, and exam- trap of selecting a successful company and then attribut- ple. Whether these stories are told by the Managers (Free Press, 2007). ing its success, in retrospect, to something that they call subject, an insider, or an independent “agility.” To date, there is little work on agility or researcher who was not even born when the events resilience that does not suffer from this sort of rational- occurred, it is their reality that touches, teaches, and ization. Competition may be the topic of leading strat- inspires us. This year, the legitimacy of the genre repeat- egy books in 2008, but if these books are right — if edly came into question, but there were outstanding competition can be described as a Red Queen race in examples that reminded us of the singular importance of which capabilities that lead to success in one time actual life stories, honestly examined. period become a trap that makes subsequent success less Autobiographies filled the headlines in 2008, and likely — then one would hope that next year we will fea- not in a good way. Several highly touted memoirs were ture high-quality books about agility and resilience. revealed to be frauds — not just exaggerated but com- Although it may be impossible to defy gravity forever, pletely made up. More than 10 years after publication of devising actions that might forestall the erosion of per- Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by Misha Defonseca, an award-winning book about the author’s strategy + business issue 53 experiences as a Jewish child hiding out from the Nazis and for a time literally raised by wolves, it was revealed that Defonseca was a Catholic and that none of it hap- Effect...and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive pened. Love and Consequences, by Margaret B. Jones, a memoir of being raised by a foster mother and being a
  9. 9. STORIES 8 rest of us to believe, what McClellan said then or what he says now? A hint for parsing this genre: Look for the Setting the Bar subject of the verb. “In these pages, I’ve tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured,” writes McClellan. It does not count as “coming to grips” if the second part of the sen- best books 2008 life stories tence omits any clue to causation or sense of responsibil- ity. The treatment of mistakes and critics is another key indicator of validity and value in this genre. “It strikes me today as an indication of [the president’s] lack of inquisitiveness and his detrimental resistance to reflec- tion, something his advisers needed to compensate for better than they did,” writes McClellan. Shouldn’t that be “better than we did?” The real challenge to biographers and autobiogra- phers is not the outright frauds but the bias inherent in any selection and presentation of facts. Biographer gang member in South Central Los Angeles, was criti- Kristie Miller notes, “A biographer’s greatest challenge cally acclaimed, too — until it was revealed that Jones is not to put in everything he or she knows,” and she (real name Seltzer) grew up in a suburban family home quotes Lytton Strachey on how the craft of biography and attended private school. should aim for “a brevity which excludes everything that A credibility problem of a different kind arose from is redundant and nothing that is significant.” The the book that sparked the most Weblog posts of the appropriate proportion and context is just as essential as year: What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and the names and dates. Washington’s Culture of Deception, by former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. It is the most recent in a long, rich tradition of Washington self- The idea that biographies and memoirs should be true exonerating payback books, the kind that are read is relatively recent. In a fascinating March 2008 New index-first inside the Beltway. It is also an un-spinning, Yorker article titled “Just the Facts, Ma’am: Fake or perhaps re-spinning, from a professional spinner that Memoirs, Factual Fictions, and the History of History,” directly contradicts much of what McClellan told the Harvard Professor Jill Lapore shows that the separation press and the American public. of fact and fiction, and the idea that facts should be The memoir elicited many a smug “we told you so” objective and documented, is only about 150 years old. from those delighted to hear a “Bushie” admit the pres- This confirms “muckraking” journalist Ida Tarbell as a ident was uncurious and more focused on politics than pivotal figure in the genre. reality. And there were howls of outrage from the White Tarbell (1857–1944) helped establish our modern House, insisting that the book was just sour grapes from notion of a biography with her meticulously researched a man who was pushed out of his job. But what are the and documented books about Napoleon and Abraham
  10. 10. 08 Lincoln, and especially with her 815-page biography recognized business as America’s singular strength. of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Com- Weinberg shrewdly notes that both Tarbell and Brown versus Bush pany. That book not only led to the enactment of the Rockefeller “established new paradigms for their callings BEST antitrust laws and the breakup of Standard Oil, in life. Their reliance on facts was born of the rational- it transformed our notion of leadership in the private ism and scientific outlook that had arisen during the sector. Explicitly premised on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s industrial revolution.” assertion that “an institution is the lengthened shadow For both, an almost messianic seriousness of pur- of one man,” The History of the Standard Oil Company pose and rectitude bolstered their focus and vision. But (1904) laid the foundation for current notions of corpo- Rockefeller’s goal was money and power, and Tarbell’s rate and political leadership and the impact that leaders was justice. His goal was structure and stability; hers was have on their organizations and the larger economy and adventure and social change. 9 culture. Her book on Rockefeller was personal without An even more significant distinction between the being gossipy, critical without being shrill. two was their approach to criticism. Rockefeller was Investigative journalist Steve Weinberg, in Taking offended by it. Despite her firm convictions and sense on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. of purpose, Tarbell welcomed criticism, even insisted on Rockefeller, explains how Tarbell raised the standard for it. That is not only the best guarantee of the validity BOOKS research, documentation, and objec- of her assessments, but the most best books 2008 life stories tivity and took character-driven important lesson from her exam- narrative and political/cultural cri- ple. It is an audacious undertaking tique to a new level. Her innovative to do justice to Tarbell, a superb approach, insisting on attribution biographer, but Weinberg’s book and primary sources for her informa- would surely earn the approval of tion, helped define the new concept even the steely and judgmental of investigative journalism — in author herself. essence, creating Weinberg’s profes- sion. Perhaps most important, she established an expectation of in- Reading Basic Brown: My Life and depth scrutiny of public figures and Our Times, by Willie Brown, the institutions, even corporations, that famously flamboyant and always led to the development of an entire impeccably attired four-term mayor profession directed at guiding and of San Francisco and speaker of the molding public opinion: public rela- California assembly, is like sitting tions. Her work also led, of course, to dozens of CEO down for a master class in politics with a large and small autobiographies from would-be Lee Iacoccas. p. It is also invaluable for anyone trying to steer any large Tarbell chose Rockefeller as a subject because he was organization of disparate people who hold even more “the Napoleon among businessmen” and because her disparate interests. This is the best playbook for business observation of the impact of his monolithic oil company leaders of all biographies or memoirs published this year on competitors and communities inspired her to write and certainly the most entertaining. about “the processes by which a particular industry Brown was consistently criticized as a wheeler- passes from the control of the many to that of the few.” dealer but was also consistently reelected by his con- There was also a more personal reason: Rockefeller’s stituents. His response to criticism about his tactics or market-dominating practices ruined the prospects of about standard career killers, such as having a child with Tarbell’s father’s company. But Ida Tarbell’s credibility a woman he was not married to, was to admit the fact, came from her scrupulous research and her fair-minded explain his position, and find common ground. In the strategy + business issue 53 assessments. She was critical of the methods used by book, as on the stump, he is candid and pragmatic: Rockefeller and Standard Oil, but she also wrote about “Ethics fights can be finessed, but a silly photograph is the strengths of the company and its founder, praising in your face forever.” And he is undeniably effective. the energy, intelligence, and Many of Brown’s ideas run counter to conventional dauntlessness of both, and she wisdom. He believes that competence and reliability are
  11. 11. more important than party affiliations or platforms. He kept his legislative agenda private because it allowed him to negotiate with those who would have had to oppose as McClellan, but they are more BOOKS some of the same conclusions BEST 08 credibly documented and the illustrations are more illu- him if he had made it public too soon. He took money minating than condemning. from everyone, paraphrasing California politician Jesse The book is a cautionary tale about the difference Unruh: “If you can’t take the lobbyists’ money, eat their between the qualities that get someone a job and those food, drink their booze, sleep with their women, and that it takes to do the job. And it is the story of the con- then vote against them, you don’t belong here.” sequences of the inability or unwillingness to learn from Brown’s frank and direct approach to presenting his mistakes and criticism. Weisberg describes Bush as story is as telling as the incidents and advice he includes. “mulish” and “a man of tremendous submerged anger According to his memoir, he always did his homework and no patience whatsoever.” He accuses Bush of hubris 10 on the substance and on the politics. He was always pre- and describes his presidency as “an Icarus story — the pared but also receptive to “happy accidents.” He took crash to earth of someone who does not comprehend his nothing for granted, constantly assessing levels of sup- limits or his motives.” port. He transcended party lines to establish strong rela- As often happens with biographers, Weisberg tionships of trust and respect, and any member of the becomes a bit too enamored of his explanation of Bush’s The King’s Man assembly who wanted to talk to him psyche, returning again and again best books 2008 life stories had his immediate attention. He to the template established by handled sensitive matters privately to Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in Henry IV prevent embarrassment to an assem- to portray the president as a onetime bly member or a party. And he knew party boy who never felt respected that if an offer sounded too good to by his father. “To state it simply,” he be true, someone was probably wear- writes, “the Bush Tragedy is that the ing a wire. son’s ungovernable relationship with Brown could be ruthless. He his father ended up governing all of describes with great satisfaction the us.” Although Weisberg underesti- day that five Democratic members of mates factors that do not support the assembly told him it was time to that theory and overestimates those step down as speaker. While they that do, his illustrations are carefully waited to talk to him, he had them researched, thoughtfully assembled, all removed from their positions as and lucidly presented. The strength committee chairs and evicted from of his book is the thoroughness of their offices, with their staffs fired and their furniture his documentation, especially in the chapters about the put out on the street. Later, however, he reassigned them Bush presidency, a case study in muddled strategy and all important, though lesser, positions. “I never cut any incompetent implementation. The book’s most impor- one out entirely,” he writes. “They might be renegades tant lesson may be that leaders are not necessarily intel- today, but I regarded myself as in competition for their lectual or reflective themselves, but they will always be votes in the future.” Brown never let party affiliation, evaluated for history by those who are. history, or grudges impede future effectiveness. In The Bush Tragedy, by Jacob Weisberg, George W. Bush comes across as a more-partisan and less-effective Ted Sorensen is both intellectual and reflective. The title politician than Brown, albeit far more powerful. Slate of his memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, editor-in-chief Weisberg assembles an authoritative reflects his focus during his years as aide to John F. dossier on the 43rd president in support of his psycho- Kennedy: a focus more on Kennedy than on him- logical assessment of Bush as a man whose goal was self. Organized thematically rather than in a strict achieved when he was sworn in. After that, Bush’s in- chronology, the book delivers its liveliest and most ability to be introspective and his impatience with meaningful prose in sections on speechwriting (a chap- subtle complexities produced reactions and decisions ter that should be read by anyone who ever has to that were superficial, even thuggish. Weisberg comes to address an audience), the 1960 presidential campaign
  12. 12. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, Lucas Conley, Obsessive Groundswell: Winning in a Branding Disorder: The Illusion World Transformed by Social of Business and the Business Technologies (Harvard Business of Illusion (PublicAffairs, 2008) Press, 2008) Christopher Vollmer, with Geoffrey Precourt, Always On: Advertising, Marketing, and Media in an Era of Consumer Control (McGraw-Hill, 2008) MARKETING (remarkably contemporary with special resonance for the 2008 race), and Kennedy’s foreign policy (essential guidance for anyone who is responsible for directing a large organization beset by ambitious competitors — or who wants to be). inspire our own. + Sorensen describes Kennedy’s ability to inspire hope and communicate a sense of possibility as a crucial fac- tor in gaining the confidence and support of the voters and his staff, and the implied parallels to Barack Obama make these passages particularly relevant. Sorensen’s candor about his mistakes, and Kennedy’s, and the 11 sincerity of his regret on both counts, are notable, espe- cially when he apologizes for Kennedy’s failure to censure Joseph McCarthy. (For another perspective on Sorensen, see “The Art of Influence,” by Michael Schrage, page 16.) The book’s most fascinating moments are the best books 2008 life stories descriptions of Kennedy’s decision making during the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other turning points, for better and worse, during his admin- istration. Sorensen makes us see how Kennedy accepted responsibility for his mistakes and learned from them. It was the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion that caused Kennedy to change the way he was briefed on his options and change the way he evaluated what was pre- sented to him. His insistence on better quality and depth of information and his demand for a wider range of choices were essential elements that made the differ- Nell Minow (nminow@thecorporatelibrary.com) is editor of the ence during the missile crisis the following year. This memoir reads like a cross between a gripping Corporate Library, an independent corporate governance research and rating firm, and movie critic for Beliefnet, a spiritual Web site, spy novel and a Harvard Business School case and for radio stations across the U.S. study. Sorensen’s graceful insights remind us how the best and most honestly told life stories illuminate and strategy + business issue 53
  13. 13. W Brand’s 08 New World THE BEST to market to men (and women BOOKS by Catharine P. Taylor in the new China, books on how and children, too), and even one on the cutting-edge practice of mobile advertising. The fine points of partic- ular targets or media channels just don’t matter until marketers get a handle on the larger concept of how to reach, and listen to, increasingly empowered consumers. The easiest book to cast aside was the one that promised to revive “the lost art of creating killer slogans.” At a time here there’s mystery, there are sure to when the next killer slogan might be delivered via Surfing the Groundswell be book sales. And even the most studied YouTube by a passionate fan, pretending that marketers 12 marketing practitioner, if being entirely can focus on old tools to reach, let alone persuade, con- honest, might admit that it’s a mystery sumers seems hopelessly misguided. why “Just do it” has proved such an enduring tagline The three best marketing books of the year all for Nike, or how Starbucks, which has eschewed explore the forever-changed marketing landscape, but traditional marketing, has built such a strong brand. from different viewpoints. One focuses on consumers’ Thus, marketing professionals regu- ability to talk publicly about, and best books 2008 marketing larly unleash tomes upon the with, marketers, and how that unwashed masses who inhabit cor- should impact not just brand strat- porate America, attempting to egy, but even corporate strategy. The answer the unanswerable: why and second is a comprehensive take on how marketing works. That said, how radically things have changed in there’s something different about marketing, mixing in social media as some of this year’s crop of marketing a key ingredient, but far from the books, and as I went through the dif- only one. And the third, the only ficult and at times tedious process of consumer-focused book of the deciding which books to review, a group, explains the cacophony that few rose to the top of the pile. results when marketers, beset by the What was different about the increasingly difficult task of trying to best books? They focused on the fact get noticed, raise their branding ini- that everything marketing practi- tiatives to obsessive levels. Case in tioners thought they knew about the point: Cheetos-brand lip balm. craft has changed irrevocably, altered by a technology- fueled upheaval in the established world order. What used to be a tidy one-way message delivery system, in Most marketers are having trouble navigating this new which marketers used advertising agencies to create and landscape. In a recent study conducted by Booz & place ads in media where the target customer was sure to Company, only 26 percent of marketers said they felt see them, is now a two-way free-for-all with consumers their organization was digitally savvy. The irony, and one front and center in the discussion. that is dealt with beautifully in Groundswell: Winning in Today, not only do consumers have myriad media a World Transformed by Social Technologies, is that those options, including hundreds of cable channels, millions marketers who harness digital channels to listen to and of Web sites, and commercial-free satellite radio, they interact with consumers can strip away many of the also have the newfound ability to talk back to marketers behavioral mysteries that have constrained their effec- via Weblogs, chat rooms, and other social media. So as tiveness in the past. Written by Charlene Li and Josh marketers try harder than ever to make an impact on Bernoff, two longtime analysts with the Cambridge, consumers, consumers are turning away from ads and Mass.–based technology consultancy Forrester Research defining brands for themselves. To a great extent, the (Li left the company in July 2008), the book explores historical lessons of marketing have become irrelevant. the role of all forms of social media — from blogs to Therefore, I swiftly tossed aside books on branding wikis to corporate-sponsored forums — in capturing the
  14. 14. 08 momentum generated by consumer wants, needs, opin- about its responsiveness rose to the top ranks in Google ions, and desires. searches that included the company’s name. It was one Although any book that discusses new media tech- of the first digital-age public relations disasters. BEST nology tends to contain 30,000-foot philosophizing (Li To its credit, Dell got the groundswell message. and Bernoff advise, Zen-like and in italics, that readers Today, it has a full-blown social media strategy, a staff of concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies), ulti- more than 40 in its communities and conversations mately what makes this one a must-read and the best group, a chief blogger, and a commitment from CEO marketing book of the year is its practicality. Using more Michael Dell to have an ongoing, authentic relationship than two dozen case studies from organizations includ- with its customers. What Groundswell does particularly ing Dell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, effectively, in this instance, is to describe Dell’s evolution Unilever, and Lego, the book gives explicit instructions in terms that make it easy for even the biggest techno- 13 on how to tap into the groundswell, defined here as “a phobe in corporate America to understand how the social trend in which people use technologies to get the company created and executed its strategy, and why it is things they need from each other, rather than from tra- so important. ditional institutions like corporations.” The authors also demonstrate how companies The Evolving Ecosystem The foundation of the book is a tool called the can use the groundswell to learn things about their cus- BOOKS Social Technographics Profile, avail- tomers they otherwise never would best books 2008 marketing able free online (www.forrester.com/ have known. For instance, Groundswell/profile_tool.html), Memorial Sloan-Kettering discov- which allows companies to discover ered through a proprietary online whether and how their target cus- community that its patients did not tomers use social media. This profile choose the cancer hospital because identifies target audiences as content of its reputation. The patients, it Creators; Critics, who comment on turned out, were too terrified and already existing products and services distracted to make the decision or comments; or more passive partic- themselves, and relied heavily on the ipants in the groundswell who act as recommendation of their primary Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, and care physicians. This insight led to Inactives. Thus, a company with an greatly increased outreach to com- Inactive target customer might not munity doctors, a target the hospital require a social strategy at all, where- had previously overlooked. as a company whose customers tend With so many digital corporate to be Critics might provide them the opportunity to marketing priorities vying for attention these days, it post ratings and reviews. would be easy for companies to put off Groundswell — The ability to tap into the groundswell may be even both the book and the concept — for another day. My more important for companies in crisis, because social guess is that Michael Dell, and the leaders of the other media is increasingly contributing to and even starting featured companies, would disagree with that decision. crises, according to Li and Bernoff. They illustrate this reality with the “Dell Hell” case, which is recounted in exhaustive and instructive detail. Whereas Groundswell focuses exclusively on social To briefly recap, in 2005, high-profile blogger Jeff media, Always On: Advertising, Marketing, and Media in Jarvis told the tale in a series of posts of his “lemon” lap- an Era of Consumer Control, by Booz & Company top and Dell’s failure to repair it. Jarvis’s first post, head- Partner Christopher Vollmer, who heads the firm’s lined “Dell lies. Dell sucks,” garnered more than 250 media and entertainment practice, written with found- strategy + business issue 53 comments, but that was just the beginning. Soon, thou- ing Adweek editor Geoffrey Precourt, helps marketers, sands of people posted remarks around the Web in agencies, and media companies understand the larger support of Jarvis and his blog, and Dell’s poor reputa- context of the consumer-in-control era, from the splin- tion for customer service wors- tering of media channels to the development of new ened as consumer complaints metrics for measuring advertising effectiveness.
  15. 15. It may seem disingenuous to choose a book for this essay that was written by an author I know and that was published under the strategy+business brand, so let me ing, media, and advertising exec- BEST utives: insight about consumers is BOOKS 08 the currency that trumps all others.” The thirst for con- say that I did not expect Always On to make the cut. The sumer insights has given vast power to digital media com- book’s ambitious mission is rather unwieldy, and I panies, and it has been the driving digital strategy for doubted it was possible to achieve it and still be forth- major marketers, such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter right about the earth-shattering effects that the digitally & Gamble, both of which have become online publishers wrought changes in consumer media behavior have had themselves. For all the reading and writing I’ve done on on the marketing and media ecosystem. the topic of digital media since the mid-1990s, I’ve never But Vollmer delivers. His book both provides the seen this stated in such a declarative way. In fact, execu- wake-up call that many of us still need and accurately tives throughout the marketing ecosystem could benefit 14 presents the promise that digital media — with its end- from having a mentor pull them aside, and whisper, less stream of consumer behavior data — can have for Graduate-like, in their ear: “Consumer insights.” Or they marketers, agencies, and media companies. It’s also could simply pick up a copy of Always On. extremely honest about how high the stakes are. In a The one quibble I have with the book is in its open- Dysfunctional Branding chapter devoted to the predicament of ad agencies, ing chapter, in which the authors document Nike’s March many of which are still largely wed to 2007 decision to shift a key part of best books 2008 marketing making 30-second commercials, the its business from longtime agency book quotes Jerri DeVard, former Wieden+Kennedy to Crispin Porter + Verizon Communications senior VP Bogusky, a Miami-based agency that of marketing and brand manage- has successfully disregarded the rules ment: “[The agencies are] evolving of the mainstream advertising busi- too slowly. They are holding onto ness and assimilated digital into its the past and trying to rationalize it.” offering. The move was widely seen as At another point, Vollmer writes, a seminal moment in the shift to dig- “Marketers will never dominate con- ital marketing. By May 2008, how- sumers the way they once did. But ever, after the book was published, they can use this deeper, more Nike had returned its business to informed data-driven analysis to Wieden. The lesson: As much as the become partners with consumers.” marketing world is changing, some Although one quote is dispiriting things never change, including the and the other hopeful, they both fickleness of agency relationships. But illustrate Always On’s objectivity and credibility, quali- this shouldn’t detract from Always On’s core credibility. ties that marketing books, which often read like the The revolution in the marketing and media ecosystem is commercials they write about, tend to lack. very real, and this book has the courage to tell it like it is Always On is so packed with information and advice — and to tell marketers, media companies, and agencies on how to transform marketing, media, and advertising what to do about it. agencies that it may take a second read to assimilate it all. Every hot-button issue is addressed here, including the controversy over how to measure a consumer’s engage- Just in case readers of Groundswell and Always On still ment with particular ads and the increasing impact of don’t understand that marketing is no longer about technology companies, such as Google, Yahoo, and being the loudest, most pervasive brand on the block, Microsoft, on the advertising business. they need to read Lucas Conley’s Obsessive Branding Always On differentiates itself by pegging the revolu- Disorder: The Illusion of Business and the Business of tion in the marketing and media world not just to the Illusion. Conley, who has written for the Atlantic and technological empowerment of consumers but to the Fast Company, among other publications, calls into consumer insights the technology reveals. The second question how deeply, and often weirdly, the corporate chapter opens like this: “There is one overriding, simple, urge to brand has gone. “Clearly our obsession with but powerful message for all twenty-first-century market- branding has gone too far,” he writes, “when priests
  16. 16. 08 “By redefining a visit to the toilet as a branding opportunity, Charmin has placed its brand squarely between public and private life.” are peddling Disney, liquor brands are sponsoring jects. In a lengthy section about the “sonic branding” weddings, and mothers are selling the rights to name company Audiobrain, he describes founder Audrey their children.” (Yes, these marketing “initiatives” actu- Arbeeny’s outsized reaction to the voice of a client’s cus- BEST ally happened.) tomer service representative. He writes: “[Her] call to Conley’s concern over the intrusiveness of branding the company’s main office number was answered by seems particularly on target now, when technology what sounded to her like ‘a seventy-five-year-old chain- brings consumers and brands closer, whether or not con- smoker.’ Recalling the experience, she clenches her fists. sumers want, or are aware of, that level of interaction. ‘This is a company with very sexy voices in its ads. Way The book is also a timely read because many marketers off brand!’” are reflexively trying to brand harder in an effort to Conley isn’t entirely unsympathetic to brand mar- break down consumer indifference and drown out keters, and his efforts to humanize those who contribute 15 consumer-created opinions about their brands. to OBD — and to give credit to some highly unusual Conley’s problems with what he calls OBD (obses- marketing ideas — help make the book more than a sive branding disorder) are not limited to the idea that 200-page rant. He seems awestruck, for instance, by paign is the rest of us. + practices such as word-of-mouth marketing can violate Charmin’s Potty Palooza, a “twenty-seven-room deluxe our humanity. He rightly objects to the use of branding traveling bathroom facility” that has appeared at the BOOKS as a replacement for truly innovative products and ser- Ohio State Fair and the Super Bowl. “By redefining a best books 2008 marketing vices, as well as the fact that advertisers mistakenly see visit to the toilet as a commercially viable branding branding as an end in itself, whether or not it accurate- opportunity, Charmin has placed its brand squarely ly reflects their products and services — or even whether between private and public life,” he writes. Catharine P. Taylor (cathyptaylor@gmail.com) has covered advertising and marketing for almost 20 years, focusing on the or not it is promoting a positive image. To illustrate, he Obsessive Branding Disorder doesn’t offer advice to impact of digital media since 1994 and writing for publications points out the battered brand of New Orleans, where in businesses other than that they should innovate first and including Adweek, Advertising Age, and Wired. Founder of Adweek ’s AdFreak Weblog, she currently posts about advertising at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin brand later. Its main purpose is to raise consumer aware- her own blog, Adverganza.com, and writes a weekly column, “Social responded to a TV reporter’s question about the city’s ness and skepticism of the deep role that branding plays Media Insider,” for Mediapost. high murder rate, saying, “[It is] not good for us. But it in their lives. To the extent the book succeeds in that also keeps the New Orleans brand out there.” endeavor, marketers must heed its message. As an antidote to OBD, Conley cites the examples These three marketing books are the year’s best of Spanish retailer Zara, Google, and In-N-Out Burger, because they depict an advertising and marketing world brands that have prospered without large ad budgets. that is increasingly separate from all of the taglines and “What unifies these companies isn’t their disdain for 30-second commercials that have crowded our collective advertising,” he writes, “but their initiative in delivering consciousness over the last 50 years. In fact, readers of a high-quality product that people like, at good value.” these books should start to find it very odd that old ways Obsessive Branding Disorder goes on to detail the of marketing are still so pervasive. That is as it should be: lengths to which some modern-day products go to brand In today’s marketing world, Mr. Whipple has no official themselves. In one hilarious anecdote, Conley recounts a place at the Charmin Potty Palooza; the star of the cam- marketing consultant’s idea that carmakers should indi- vidualize and brand the sound their turn signals make, strategy + business issue 53 because, on an annual basis, drivers spend 18 hours lis- tening to their turn signals. There’s some phenomenal detail here, particularly because Conley has done on-site interviews with many of his sub-
  17. 17. A Art OF Influence THE Robert Schlesinger, White Bill Lane, Jacked Up: The House Ghosts: Presidents and Inside Story of How Jack Welch Their Speechwriters (Simon & Talked GE into Becoming the Schuster, 2008) World’s Greatest Company (McGraw-Hill, 2008) RHETORIC 16 politics, and practice, the quest for “better” communica- tions translates into calls for better rhetoric. If it doesn’t effectively persuade — if it doesn’t lead people into best books 2008 rhetoric inspired compliance — it isn’t effective communication. That’s why presidents, CEOs, and prime ministers Political Penmanship invariably seek help. They turn to wordsmiths, advisors, by Michael Schrage and communications gurus to better articulate their ideas and ideals. They pick sounding boards to clarify and amplify their persona and thoughts. Entire bureau- cracies spring up to support the words and imagery used by leaders to manage expectations. Rhetoric makes their world go round. Aristotle’s insights into the art, craft, and science of rhetoric have never been more relevant. More people in more places require more persuasion than ever before. The challenge of translating Aristotelian principles into practice, however, has become disconcertingly more complex in a Google, Facebook, and YouTube era. Thus, understanding the fundamentals matters more. Although rereading Aristotle’s treatise on rhetoric is not a bad idea, two new books persuasively present a more contemporary understanding of executive rhetoric at the highest levels. Each captures, from a radically dif- ferent perspective, the individual and institutional bick- ering and telepromptered tweaking that ultimately puts words into leaders’ mouths. Their authors know how to tell a good story. The stories have a moral. ristotle was right: Compelling rhetoric makes for compelling leaders. Rhetoric — far more than logic — is management’s Pithy and fast-paced, White House Ghosts: Presidents and method of converting dispassionate Their Speechwriters is Robert Schlesinger’s history of observers into committed participants. Leaders, even Oval Office speech writing, presented both as a portfo- coercive leaders, want their words to win hearts and lio of personalities and as an evolving — mutating? — change minds. They equate eloquence with influence — presidential institution. Schlesinger, son of Pulitzer and influence is the currency they crave. In business, Prize–winning historian and JFK house intellectual
  18. 18. 08 Arthur, has a keen ear for quotes that capture the vital aspect of that presidential process, from the FDR improvisations that have shaped the communications of presidency to that of GWB, transcends politics and U.S. presidents from the 1930s through today. He can personnel: Speeches aren’t written. They’re rewritten, BEST deftly trace the transformation of a phrase like “New rewritten once more, and then revised. Only the best Frontier” or “Great Society” from a throwaway scribble speeches — and the toughest speechwriters — are to an enduring cultural meme. White House Ghosts is my rhetorically elevated instead of fatally compromised by choice for the best book in this category. the seemingly endless iterations and political review. Schlesinger also possesses a sharp sense of the To succeed in this environment, more than a few absurdities that define interpersonal relationships at the White House ghosts appear to have had egos larger than apex of global power. Presidents of all eras want to those of the presidents they served. The rhetorical express what they want when they want — be it the imprint of JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen on Camelot 17 memorable phrase or a “weaving together” of two seem- was such that the Kennedy administration’s chapter ingly distinct speeches. Kennedy was a particularly becomes “The Age of Sorensen.” The man’s self- demanding client, according to Schlesinger. “JFK said assurance and intimate relationship with his president [to his feuding speechwriters] he was reminded of when (and, yes, writing partner) is simultaneously poignant his father would reject memoranda proffered by subor- and off-putting. On the one hand, Sorensen’s pride of BOOKS dinates. ‘They would ask what he White House place and craft careens best books 2008 rhetoric wanted, and he would say, “That’s up into an alienating arrogance. On the to you,” and walk out of the room,’ other, Schlesinger observes, the man the president told his aides. ‘That’s remains touchingly protective of the what I am doing now.’” slain president he so ably served. This is a raconteur’s tale of com- (For another take on the Sorensen munications innovation at the insti- years, see “A Master Class in Lead- tutional level; you can’t help but ership,” by Nell Minow, page 7.) smile and shake your head. Even the When it comes to manipulating footnotes are as entertaining as any rhetorical machinery, the presiden- vignette in the central narrative. tial differences are as interesting as They’re analogous to speech writing’s the similarities. FDR was a master “throwaway lines” that lift the pretty manipulator and collaborator who good talk into an energizing intima- loved language and skillfully edited cy with the audience. the output of his rhetorical brain Any CEO, chairman, or C-suite trusts; Truman was more invested in executive paid to persuade external constituencies or his plainspoken Missouri self-image than in the patri- internal workforces will find himself or herself jotting cian speechifying of his predecessor. Gerald Ford and notes or reaching for the yellow highlighter while read- Jimmy Carter were constrained both by the limits of ing White House Ghosts. Viewing the presidency through their own communication styles and by their speech- the prism of the practice and culture of speech-writing writing processes. Richard Nixon could improvise a offers unique insight into why rhetorical excellence is so decent narrative from bullet points, whereas the first hard to create, let alone maintain. The failures are as illu- George Bush demanded that no submitted speech con- minating as the successes. Serious executives will be tain sentence fragments. Ronald Reagan’s years as an shocked at the seemingly slipshod ways in which the actor and General Electric spokesperson — as well as the most important presidential communications are com- sharp ideological divisions between his administration’s posed; they will also be intrigued by how presidents of pragmatists and conservative “true believers” — made different temperaments choose to collaborate with, him an editor par excellence. strategy + business issue 53 compete with, and ignore their staffs and speechwriters. But they all had one thing in common: No formula The words are frequently less interesting than the for the writing process was sustainable. If the speech- process that produces them. writing process is too institutionalized, the rhetoric reads Schlesinger’s White House like laundry lists of policy points and Appropriations history affirms how at least one Committee compromises. If relationships are too per-
  19. 19. sonal, speechwriters become de facto policymakers rather than superior wordsmiths. The question of whether “policy should become speeches” or “speeches BEST civil rights, he took care to pick BOOKS erful 1965 address supporting a speechwriter who could marry the politics of the 08 should become policy” has been a perennial source of moment to the transcendence of enduring values: for- tension in presidential politics. Whether speeches mer JFK speechwriter Richard (Dick) Goodwin. should be defined as events or as part of ongoing rhetor- Schlesinger writes: ical processes has been a bloody bone of White House contention for decades. Goodwin knew that he was participating in an These arguments extend deep into speech-writing historical moment. “There was, uniquely, no mechanics and content. Should speechwriters be as need to temper conviction with the reconciling knowledgeable as policymakers? Or is the rest of the realities of politics, admit to the complexities of 18 institution better off when the writer’s role is to polish debate and the merits of ‘the other side,’” he dull proposals into serviceable speeches? (Indeed, when recalled. “There was no other side. Only justice the Clinton administration’s National Security Council — upheld or denied. While at the far end of “took away” foreign policy speech writing from the the corridor whose entrance was a floor White House speechwriters, Schlesinger reports, it was beneath my office, there waited a man ready to heralded as a coup d’etat.) Are all the president’s com- match my fervor with his own. And he was the best books 2008 rhetoric munications best served by an all-star rhetorical team? president of the United States…. Or is “good enough” good enough so long as the team is “Although I had written the speech, fully overseen by a superb editor who fluently knows the pres- believed in what I had written, the document ident’s voice? was pure Johnson,” Goodwin would write. The amorphous nature of the speech-writing “My job was not limited to guessing what the process highlights other unavoidable complexities. For president might say exactly as he would express instance, how many of a leader’s public words reflect it, but to heighten and polish — illuminate, as his or her own ideas rather than expressive implants it were — his inward beliefs and natural idiom, from collaborators who have empathized their way into to attain not a strained mimicry, but an authen- the leader’s thought processes? When gifted ghosts come ticity of expression. I would not have written to know their charges more as real people than as the same speech in the same way for Kennedy scripted orators, what do they then become? Peers, or any other politician, or for myself. It was by colleagues, advisors, collaborators…or something else? me, but it was for and of the Lyndon Johnson Presidents are never pure puppets, but history confirms I had carefully studied and come to know.” that they seldom author either their most memorable or their most important lines. Who is the speechwriter’s Is that the kind of rhetoric-generating relationship true client: the president or the president’s chosen presidents should want? White House Ghosts skillfully constituency? finesses that question. White House Ghosts answers these questions by Presidential rhetoric is as much the product of orga- describing how presidents, and presumably other leaders nizational leadership and culture as it is of personnel, as well, end up defining themselves and their rhetorical process, or policy. Schlesinger’s book should be read strategies through their chosen and ill-chosen speech- both as chronological collection of White House rhetor- writers. The people you pick to help put words in your ical gangs and as insightful sociology of this country’s mouth, and how you manage them, reveals more than a essential bureaucracy of persuasion. If words truly mat- little bit about who you are as a leader and what you ter, how they are created truly matters, too. The author aspire to be as a communicator. would have better served his readers and his ghosts, Schlesinger declines to make the explicit case for it, however, had he invested a bit more effort in consider- but he has collected all the material needed to prove that ing how radio, television, cable TV, and — yes — the the rhetorical engineers whom a president selects have a Internet have literally changed the rhetorical channels of bigger impact on public perception than the cabinet sec- communication. Americans don’t yet live in an era when retaries he nominates. the State of the Union address features PowerPoint For example, when Lyndon Johnson gave his pow- slides…but wait.

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