Fictions of Business: Insights on Management from Great Literature,
By Robert A. Brawer, John Wiley & Sons, 248 pp. $22.95
I like to read books written by CEOs. They always have some unusual first-hand experiences to recount. But they’re too often poorly pulled together, trite, wordy, or obviously ghost written. Occasionally, we do get a CEO book that is brisk and breezy, and these are to be cherished and kept in a CEO’s library.
Once in a blue moon, a CEO book comes forth that is written in sparkling fashion, goes far beyond the normal CEO thought patterns, and yet tells what it’s like to be a CEO. One of these rare books is Fictions of Business by Robert A Brawer, ex-CEO of Maidenform Worldwide until 1995. Prior to joining Maidenform, he taught English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It would take such a curious blending of careers to produce a unique book like Fictions of Business.
Here’s what Brawer did. He postured six business situations with somewhat fanciful names:
- The Art of Dazzling the Customer
- Selling on a Grand Scale
- Maintaining Individuality in Corporate Life
- Overcoming Corporate Gospel and the Will to Believe
- Survival of the Fittest in a Darwinian Business World
- Office Politics, Stress Management, and Chaos.
He then took 18 fiction novels and three plays of various types and matched them to current business situations some of which he describes facing at Maidenform and some of which he relates to other real-life people and events in the corporate world.
For example, in appraising Willy Miller’s Death of a Salesman, he compares Willy to Paul, a former Maidenform sales manager. Then, in the same chapter on individuality, he reviews the leading characters in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and J.P. Marquand’s Point of No Return.
In a similar vein, he illustrates the philosophy of Bob Slocum in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened and shows how much it’s like the one-time passion that Michael Hammer and James Champy espoused in their book, Re-engineering the Corporation. He manages, also, to relate both books to a product development problem at Maidenform.
Brawer finds that Frank Cowperwood, the financial wizard in Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier, reminds him of Michael Millken. Brawer thinks that Dreiser would have been intrigued by the “saga of self interest operating in a world of resurgent Darwinism… the virulent, polarized debate on Millken’s character and culpability would be grist for [Dreiser’s] mill.” This is great writing and there’s lots of it in this little book.
Brawer is not a moralist; he is more of a reporter who has done his outside reading and can bring a different slant to his observations. He, too, is an excellent critic, and his analyses and interpretations of the various fictional characters and happenings alone are worth the price of admission.
It helps a lot, to be sure, to have read most of Brawer’s 21 basic references. I was reasonably familiar with less than half of them come on now, how many real Chaucer aficionados are there out there? but it made me want to catch up on my neglected college reading.
So if you read Fictions of Business, will it make you a better performing CEO? Will you handle your board better, and will your stock go up? No, but it will give you a little better understanding and tolerance towards some of the human problems you face at your company.
As Brawer says, “Great literature keeps us honest. Writers like George Bernard Shaw, Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain sensitize us to the myopia that often afflicts us and caution us not to take ourselves and our roles too seriously. Joseph Heller and Anthony Trollope remind us that the orderly, rational universe we, as managers, would like to believe in does not exist. Their novels depict a world of illusion and appearance that both sustains and confounds us. Arthur Miller, Wilfred Sheed, and Joseph Conrad remind us that individual and collective self-delusion, the struggle for power and control in corporate hierarchies, and the conflicting claims of personal and organizational values pervade our lives as businesspeople. These are the kind of issues that do not go away by themselves. Read the book. You’ll be glad you did.
Formerly the CEO of F. &M. Schaefer (1972-1977), Robert W. Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is an executive-in-residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds or has held directorships with Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stowe Venture Capital Co.; and is a partner of Lear, Yavitz & Associates.
Another invisible Crisis
By Alan Reynolds
Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay,
By James K. Galbraith. Free Press / Twentieth Century Fund, 431 pp. $26
Created Unequal, like other books bankrolled by the Twentieth Century Fund, describes capitalism as unfair and unstable, requiring heavy-handed manipulation by omniscient and benevolent politicians. This is a Quixotic chore at a time of prolonged prosperity. But James Galbraith, like his famous father, knows how to deploy passionate rhetoric whenever logic and evidence come up short.
His awkward thesis “is that unstable economic performance…has fostered the rise of new monopolies [and] reduced the share of wages in personal income.” (What really happened was a rising share for government transfers, therefore less for after-tax wages). In this theory, technological enterprises are monopolies that “enrich the few at the expense of the many.” They “can reasonably be described as transient monopoly profiteers” responsible for “an immense predatory raid” on blue-collar jobs.
This situation has worsened, the author explains, because “instability accelerates technological change.” Were it not for recessions, we could still be using DOS computers, and somehow helping to save our sweatshops from labor-saving devices.
Research is evil too. It helps those “who come out at the top of the ladder of technological competition.” Galbraith wants to saw off the top of the ladder. After all, higher education is merely “the purchase of tickets to a lottery with…a larger and larger proportion of losing tickets.” We have too many college degrees because “janitors, clerks, cashiers, secretaries, hairdressers, nurses and orderlies, masseurs, and masseuses… make up 80 percent of the working population.” There are no doctors, lawyers, or teachers in this picture.
Galbraith quotes Keynes as fervently and frequently as evangelists quote the bible, and with similar faith. “In Keynesianism as it existed before 1970,” he writes, “economics had a theory that made sense of the liberal agenda.” As evidence, he notes that “from 1960 through 1970, there were no recessions. From 1970 through 1992, there were five.” Comparing 10 years with 22 is typical statistical sorcery. We had one mild recession from 1983 to 1999 (an era of modest tax rates), but three increasingly nasty ones, under Keynesian tutelage, from 1970 to 1982.
To compensate for the evidently horrific loss of good jobs caused by technological progress, Galbraith says the Fed must print better jobs: “To address the inequality crisis… we need, in effect, to freeze the interest rate, as low as we can get it, for as long as we can manage.” Isn’t that what Japan has been doing? In fact, real interest rates reflect investment opportunities, and are typically lowest when the economy is weak (1991-93). The author’s nostalgia for quaint economic theories is charmingly innocent. His hostility to technology and education is not.
Alan Reynolds (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and senior editor of the Institute’s magazine, American Outlook.
Excerpt: Low-Man Blues
Death of a Salesman is the best known and most hallowed of all the fictions of business. When the play was first produced in 1949, audiences were said to be so moved by the drama that at the final curtain there was a stunned silence in the theater before the first burst of applause… When the revival of the play with Dustin Hoffman came out… I remember salespeople in our firm talking about it with reverence. Their identification with Willy Loman-“the man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine”-was absolute. “There but for the grace of God go I!” is still the prevailing sentiment among all those who see Willy’s death as that of just another disposable “low-man,” inexorably ground up in the corporate mill.
These reactions to the play are honest enough, but I believe they have little to do with the play Arthur Miller wrote. Over the years, Willy Loman has become a universal symbol for all casualties of corporate life who are unable to adjust to change in the way the company does business, or to compete with the company’s young turks bucking for promotion, or simply to sustain their vitality under relentless business pressures. Death of a Salesman, on the other hand, is about a more fascinating and subtle problem: Willy Loman’s failure to come to terms with himself. Miller’s Willy Loman is a man who avoids the self awareness required for a successful adjustment to corporate life, not to say life in general. He is a man who disables rather than empowers himself by ignoring who he really is.”