Most business and management books are crap. This is why.
As an HR professional, I had to read my good share of business and management books, so I can confidently say that most of them are crap. They are usually useless, pretentious, and boring.
If you want to take care of your mental well-being and keep your mind fresh and awake, I suggest you stop reading any management literature immediately.
Let’s see why they are (almost) always crap.
Why management books are crap
Most management books aren’t worth the paper on which they are written. They pretend to solve some complicated management problem (which by definition has no easy solution, at least none that can be explained in a book of 200 pages), or have the magic recipe to how to manage an organization most effectively, or worst of all, they tell you what ideal “leadership” is and how to become a great leader (mea culpa, I did the same, of course). The problem is that none of them solves what they are pretending to solve.
To begin with, most management books have very little scientific rigour. They are full of anecdotes and, that favourite of management writers, the case study. They tell you the story of this company or that leader. From that limited anecdotal evidence, they generalise into a grand theory of everything that will solve your company’s problems. Of course, this has no scientific underpinning or backing behind it. There is no proof that they work at all. They are a waste of time at best, harmful and dangerously bad advice at worst.
At least if they were fun to read, I could live with them, but they are usually deadly boring. There are some notable exceptions, but most management books I have ever read were drearily dull. I had to force myself to read them till the end, just for the “learning”. This was before I realised life is too short to read boring books with little use. Since then, I haven’t read so many management books, and my quality of life and mental health have improved considerably.
Maybe the problem lies with me. It might have to do with my tastes. Finding something boring or interesting is subjective and personal, after all. Still, I have spoken to other people about it, and I don’t think I am the only person afflicted by this malaise. I am not the only one who doesn’t enjoy reading this type of book.
Finally, management books are usually prescriptive. They tell you what to do to solve your problems or become better at something. They often give you their solutions in several bullet points and some nice charts, so the concepts are easier to grasp and remember. This format is appropriate for a consultant pitch but doesn’t necessarily work in a book.
Regardless of the format, what I really don’t like is their prescriptive nature. Maybe it has to do with me being a coach, but I don’t do prescriptive. A coach doesn’t tell their clients what to do because they don’t have the answers for their clients. Instead, they guide them and help them find their own answers. This is much more powerful and empowering than telling them what to do or giving them advice.
Great books often work the same way. They make you think, challenge your assumptions, question yourself, and see the world differently, but the reflection and thinking process comes from within. Great books don’t give you canned answers and one-size-fits-all solutions. They don’t tell you what to do but help you think to find your own answers. Most management books don’t do this; they give you their answers, which are supposed to work in any situation. That’s why they are not usually great.
Management is more an art than a science. Each person is unique, same with each organisation; they are all unique and different in their own way. This means there are no universal one-size-fits-all solutions. Can we learn from case studies and best practices? Of course we can. We can learn from anything and anybody, but that doesn’t mean a writer or guru has THE ANSWER to your problems neatly packaged in a book. No single and unique lesson will solve all your, your team’s, or your company’s problems. Stop looking for simple solutions and shortcuts, they don’t exist. Do the work. Find your own answers.
Management literature subgenres
If you have read management and business books, you will have noticed that there are some different subgenres. Let’s have a quick look at them.
The consultant-written books are the ones I mentioned above. They don’t necessarily have to be written by a consultant, but they look like they have been. They are like a consultant pitch transferred into a book. The idea of the book could be written in a chapter or a blog post, but the author and publisher wanted to make some money out of it, so they decided to make it longer and package it in the form of a book.
They are usually structured in parts for easier comprehension: the six steps to achieve excellence in your company, the four phases of this new process, or the five characteristics of the X type of leader, for example.
Consultant-written books also have plenty of graphs, pie charts, and complicated-looking diagrams.
Autobiographies or biographies have their niche among management books. They usually tell the life, adventures, and achievements of a great leader or a great company, written by the leader themselves (usually through the writing talents of a ghostwriter) or someone else. There are some good books in this subgenre, and they are the most fun to read of the whole bunch. They can also be excessively flattering and full of false humility.
They can offer great learnings if they help the reader think and relate to what happened to the great leader or organisation portrayed in the pages of the book.
The case study books are based on the premise that we can generalize and create general norms from specific examples, or what in the literature and management academia is called case studies. Some authors don’t pretend to form any general conclusions from these particular examples and only expose them to be taken as practices or examples from which to learn, which is fine. Many others, however, will take a couple of practical examples and conclude some general rules from them (the six steps to achieve a happy and effective organization; the five competencies of the great leader, etc.) to be used by all companies and leaders on Earth.
There is nothing wrong with knowing what other companies and leaders are doing. You might even learn a valuable thing or two. The issue with case studies books is the generalization from some very particular cases and, even worse, the cherry-picking of data that will help advance the author’s thesis. They show you one, two, or three examples, and strangely enough, they always seem to back their arguments and the new methodology with which they want to enlighten the world. How many other cases have they discarded because they didn’t fit into their worldview? Nobody knows.
Monographic or single-issue books
Some books are pretty generic and talk about broad topics, such as people management, how to organize the company, leadership, etc. Others, on the other hand, focus on a specific topic that often can be a niche subject: e.g., “supply chain management in Asia”, “change management in a digital age”, “increasing resilience in your team” and such.
These are what we call monographic, single-issue, or specialised books. Some of them can go deep into a specific topic and can be helpful if you are interested in it. Once again, if you are not curious or passionate about the topic, they can be dreary. Then again, if you aren’t interested in a subject, why would you waste your time reading a book about it?
This list is not exhaustive. I am not a management book author myself, so I won’t pretend this is the definitive list. There can be many more subgenres, as there probably are. This is just my simple little list.
These subgenres can mix and merge with each other. There are no hard walls between them. In fact, consultant-written books often use case studies. You could even get all of them in one: you could get a monographic book written by a consultant with many cases studies in it and with a biographic orientation.
The good ones
I wrote this whole blog post a bit tongue in cheek. There are some good and even excellent books in the management and leadership literature, but sadly they are a minority.
There are many books out there to learn from. Some are part of the management literature, but many others aren’t. You can probably learn more about leadership by reading the Bible, the Godfather, or any other classic than from most leadership books written by Harvard academics and consultants. Books in general are great sources of wisdom. Sadly, most management books aren’t.
I wouldn’t get obsessed by trying to learn from the latest fad book. If you have the right attitude, you can learn from anyone and any book, movie, podcast, documentary, or interview.
As I said above, maybe this is all on me. I have read many management books, but perhaps I haven’t been lucky enough, and I haven’t found the right ones. This might have distorted my views about all of them. I am happy to stand corrected and learn new things, so I would be open to giving it another try if I found that rarest of book species: the interesting, insightful, and fun management book. Could you, dear reader, be so kind as to please recommend me one?