Do you read how-to-succeed-in-business books? It seems everyone does. And we’re reading them more than ever. The Economist magazine in 2004 estimated that three thousand business-related books were published that year. Bloomberg News reported that eleven thousand business books were published in 2012. This represents an almost 400 percent growth in eight years. The trend shows no signs of slacking. A casual walk through a bookstore (however few of those remain), or an airport news and book kiosk, or a look through Amazon’s booklists brings those statistics very clearly to life. Every day more and more books are being published—and self-published—on how to be better managers, to close the sale, to find new customers, to get that promotion; in general, to be more successful. You can find lists everywhere highlighting the best business books of that year. Be assured, I too was not immune to this siren song of how to achieve success.
Many (many, many) years ago, I read all the business books that were hyped by industry magazines and newspapers. I especially remember one that was termed “the only business book you’ll ever need to read.” Soon after I read it, I saw a blurb about another book that was proclaimed “the only business book you’ll ever need to read.” And I thought, OK, wait a minute. The first only business book I’ll ever need to read held that position for less than a month? I was young then and didn’t really understand hyperbole. I’m not so young now, and I finally have the answer to the question What is the best business book you’ll ever need to read?
It’s found in Shakespeare. After all the paradigms, and the formulae, and the algorithms, and the corpspeak, business is, at its essence, about dealing with people. So how to succeed in business is to learn about people. And the best way to do that is through literature, not the latest “only business book you’ll ever need to read.”
You want to learn what it means to mature and become a leader? Read Henry V. Prince Hal, in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, was what could charitably be termed a thug. He ran around London with his group of hell-raisers, famously including Sir John Falstaff, and got into all kinds of lawlessness. Being the crown prince, he was able to avoid the consequences. There was real concern in the court about what would happen when he became king. But then Henry IV died, and Hal’s duty beckoned, he took on not only the crown of leadership but also the responsibilities that came with it.
Agincourt loomed. The night before battle, he rallied his men as no leader ever did, assuring them that, as they would stand together in battle, they were all, in fact, brothers:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother”
They were going to win together or die together. After that speech, that army would follow him anywhere. And that is the true essence of leadership.
You want to learn about how to be perceptive about people’s real motives and how to address perilous situations? Read Hamlet. Hamlet intuited (with the help of his father’s ghost) that his uncle Claudius, abetted by his mother, Gertrude, was responsible for his father’s murder. So he conceived a plan to put on a play that mimicked what had taken place and then scrutinize his mother’s and uncle’s responses. In doing so, Hamlet used a lie-detection technique that predated by hundreds of years what would later be used by scientists and criminologists.
“The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king”
Note that, in the beginning, Hamlet did not overtly confront his mother and his uncle. Instead he allowed their guilt to show from their reactions to the play. The powerfulness of Hamlet’s intellect and perception led him to uncover the perpetrators of this regicide as well as their motive. Think of the intelligence and the subtlety that went into devising this way of learning the truth. Be advised, though, that the lessons we take from Hamlet should come from his thought processes rather than from his revenge-driven motives, which led to the tragedy that befell him.
Now, if you want to learn how to survive the politics of the business (or political) world, there’s Coriolanus. There are two lessons to be learned from this play: internal consistency and the need for external flexibility. Coriolanus was a Roman noble who did battle with the Volscians, one of the many threats to Rome. He conquered them and was declared a great hero who would be honored with the title consul. But Coriolanus refused to accede to what he considered to be the mob mentality of the Roman citizenry and soon found himself out of power, stripped of his title, and in exile.
Undaunted, he allied himself with the same people he had recently defeated and with them returned to confront Rome. After much pleading from the Romans, including his mother, he agreed to a peace. Through all of it he never departed from his true nature. What he was to Romans, he was to the Volscians. He survived the ups and downs by being true to himself.
Would you have me False to my nature?
Rather say I play the man I am.
Coriolanus’s popularity with the army was both the source of his strength and the cause of his downfall. Not being a sophisticated politician, he never made the effort to consolidate his power among the other nobles or to give the crowd what they wanted. His political enemies in Rome feared the power he did have, leading to Coriolanus’s assassination.
Coriolanus’s internal consistency helped him weather the storms that arose inside and outside the Roman Empire. But his lack of external flexibility led to his overthrow and subsequent death. In a world that is less than ideal, this play exemplifies when to stand firm and when to seek honorable compromise.
Shakespeare is never only about great historical and tragic events. The comedies provide a welcome relief from the everyday problems we deal with all the time. Mental refreshment is critical to our ability to think creatively. So when your soul and your mind need a break from it all, come with me …
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows . . .”
It doesn’t have to be only Shakespeare. Look into Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, James Joyce, Harper Lee, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo—anyone past or present who speaks to and about us. The essence of good writing is to present humanity in all our many aspects, some nice, some not so nice, and some flat out hilarious.
So the next time you’re browsing and wondering which how-to-succeed manual you’re going to buy, maybe wander from the business section and look into the literary section. The reality is we can never be on familiar terms with enough people to understand “people.” It’s only through this kind of deep reading that we can come to know as much as we can about our associates, our customers, our staff, and ourselves. We become better businesspeople and, more important, better people.
John R. Inzero is Adjunct Professor of Business at Strayer University and Mercer County Community College. Prior to his academic career, John was in the design, marketing, and international sourcing of medical products. John holds an MBA in Marketing & Management, and a Bachelor of Science in Economics, both from Fordham University. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, extreme gardening, crossword puzzles, and the New York Yankees.