Why you should be wary of business biographies

Nike co-founder Phil Knight has indulged in a recent memoir

Business-related biographies are not necessarily illuminating blueprints for others, notes a leading academic.

While bookshelves are forever groaning under the weight of books by and about successful business leaders, their value to readers is not always clear.

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma built“You have to approach biographies and autobiographies with caution,” says Professor Ujwal Kayande, director of the Centre for Business Analytics at the Melbourne Business School.

“After all, you are dealing with a sample of one, and trying to draw specific lessons can easily take you down the wrong path.”

One recent example of a book about a wildly successful leader is Alibaba: the House That Jack Ma Built, by Duncan Clark (HarperCollins, A$29.99). The book explains how Ma developed his entrepreneurial streak through a series of ventures, with varying degrees of success.

Clark shows how Ma accrued skills – including the essential ability to listen to people and ask the right questions – so that when the Chinese Government decided to open the country to the internet, he was able to take advantage.

While Ma has an interesting background, the focus of the book is on how he developed the strategy that underpinned e-commerce giant Alibaba. Yet it’s obvious that the circumstances which led to Alibaba’s success were so specific they are unlikely to ever recur.

In light of that, trying to apply Ma’s steps elsewhere would likely be highly problematic.

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“For a personal story to be any good, it should provide the insights that come with failures and setbacks,” says Kayande.

“In many cases, that is where the lesson truly lies. Any book that is just about onward and upward probably won’t tell you much and will probably be a boring story as well.”

Shoe DogEqually, notes Kayande, any successful leader will acknowledge the importance of luck. It’s about “being in the right place at the right time, but also being able to use your skills to utilise the opportunity that events provide”, he says.

“Working hard and following the rule book won’t get you there.”

A successful entrepreneur who underlines the importance of being able to take advantage of what the world hands you is Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike. In his recent memoir, Shoe Dog (Simon & Schuster, A$35), he describes success as being at the intersection of ability, hard work and luck.

If this is a good message, it should also be said that the book illustrates a common problem with autobiographies: self-indulgence. Knight spends much of the book talking about his teenage years, early travels and various girlfriends. Nike doesn’t make an entrance until page 183.

“There is such a thing as too much personal information,” says Kayande.

“It is always good to see how a person translates their personal experience into business success, but any author should understand that the reader wants to be inspired as well as educated. That means knowing where the focus should be.” 

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