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“Should C.E.O.’s Read Novels?”

May 19, 2009

David Brooks at the New York Times has an interesting commentary about the rise of Washington’s investment in American industry. According to Brooks, studies indicate that the personal qualities best suited to an effective business leader–among them, conscientiousness, persistence, efficiency, analytical thoroughness–are not those that would make successful elected officials. Politicians, alternatively, tend to possess “charisma, charm and personal skills” and to value them over the diligence and attention to detail that make an effective CEO. As government takes a vested interest in, and control over, an ever growing proportion of our economy, then, those men and women in charge of our industry and investments will be the precisely wrong people or, to put it the way Brooks would, the people with the precisely wrong characteristics. His conclusion:

[w]e now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won’t be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.’s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

Often, I find Brooks to be insightful and extraordinarily knowledgeable. Here, though, Brooks makes too much of too little. The question that begins this post is one of Brooks’. And it is meant as shorthand for personality types: the sensitive, expressive, collaborative management type who reads books vs. the hard-driving, efficient and almost robotic manager who has neither the time or the interest to read novels. Brooks then equates politicians and their effusive charm with the literary culture of “Boston, New York and the campuses”. The best C.E.O.’s, on the other hand, simply focus on the task at hand with an almost obsessive lack of concern for their interior lives or the wider world outside their industry. Can it really be true that the Washington investment in our failing economy will result in business leaders who ignore the bottom line in favor of employee bonding retreats or that the C.F.O.’s of large companies like CitiBank will now spend most of their days at dinner parties giving speeches while important documents sit, unsigned, on their desks? Fortunately, it’s not. Brooks has taken the characteristics of good business leaders and built with them an interesting but unrealistic caricature.

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