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Why Business Books Suck

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So just why are business books so bad for you? A short BNET blog post gave the sound bites and generated a lot of buzz. This blog is about the deeper and more troubling problem with business books, which, in a nutshell, is that they're too much about Star Wars and not enough about Glee.

Most business books are based on a storyline that you've heard so many times it's in your bone marrow. It's satisfying in a way that combines rediscovering a part of you with the joy of doing what seems impossible. It's the "hero's journey," first described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of us became aware of it in Star Wars, when George Lucas turned Campbell's work into a template for his original three movies. Popular writers, not being the most creative lot, used the template for movies/remakes/novels like Batman, The Matrix, ET, Avatar, Spiderman, the Karate Kid, and Harry Potter. And in the 90s, business books writers jumped on what seemed to be the best way ever to tell a story, provided your aim is to make a lot of money.

Here's the super short version of the hero's journey, told from the male perspective: Boy is bored and along comes an adventure. He resists it, but eventually has no choice but to accept. He meets a teacher, usually older and very powerful. There is a setback, and the boy feels all alone. He works hard, guided by his teacher and some new friends. Then comes the final contest, when he must battle a foe that appears invincible. Although he is initially injured, he uses all that he's learned to overcome it, and becomes the victor.

So what's the problem here? In the form it's being used, the hero's journey focuses on personal achievement, not on leading others. The closest the story gets to leadership is being a role model for other heroes. The full problem with the hero's journey, including a hint of something very important from George Lucas, is explored in a longer piece.

What if you get an entire group of people all trying to be Luke Skywalker (or Neo or Spiderman)? You get a mammoth clashing of egos, all struggling for supremacy and destroying everything around them. In two words, Wall Street. Or management of most major companies.

Glee is not a different story than Star Wars, it's what comes next. After the boy becomes a hero, he (Mr. Schuester, the teacher in Glee) finds people looking for the next step, and the hero assembles a tribe (or club in Glee or a fellowship, for fans of JRR Tolkien). The hero, stumbling at first, finds something within the tribe that will inspire them, and allow them to see their "tribalness." In Glee, this is the love of music and self-expression. There's talk of a mission, or a project -- "regionals" in Glee.

But there's a growing tension in the hero between his ego and the needs of the group, in a process Warren Bennis calls "the crucible." This tension leads to a period of isolation and introspection when the hero has to figure out what's really important: Self or the tribe. In Glee, this period included the collapse of the teacher's personal life, including the revealed false pregnancy of his wife, the failed start to a new relationship, and career setbacks. Without any evidence of success, the hero returns, commits to the tribe, and becomes a leader. The leader shifts his identity to the point where he is now almost synonymous with the tribe, and leads it to a small victory -- sectionals in Glee.

Now the villains swarm, including people who failed their own crucible test (Sue Sylvester, the epitome of ego unchecked), betrayal within the tribe, wimps (people who never successfully became heroes, like the spineless school principal). All of these challenges climax in the biggest test with another tribe that uses deception (or "evil arts" for Tolkien fans) to win. The final test isn't hero to villain. It's tribe to tribe. The tribe wins only if all of its members have also transitioned from hero to leader. A tribe of leaders is nearly unstoppable. The Glee saga isn't over, but I will be willing to bet they triumph over evil in the end.

Take a current company in the news: Zappos. Many books that have written about the story follow the hero's journey, making it all about CEO Tony Hsieh. As Tony has said several times, that's not just simplistic, it's wrong. Zappos is a story about the culture. In other words, it's more Glee than Star Wars.

Glee-type stories don't follow steps as carefully as Star Wars-inspired plots. It's more of a dance, and less of a checklist. The lessons are complex, but far more important for business, especially in this age of interconnection when success is almost, by definition, an ensemble event.

Hero's journey stories are all around us. Is your story more like Glee? If so, I hope you'll tell it in brief in the comments below.

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