Napoleon Hill died a great man–if you measure greatness by book sales. Hill is the author of one of the all-time bestselling business/self-help books Think and Grow Rich, which has sold more than 10 million copies since it was published, in 1937. But was Hill a great man?
He spent thirty years writing that book and making speeches about the power of positive thinking, but he left behind a series of failed businesses and broken marriages. Like hard-living rock stars, he achieved his greatest fame after death. You can visit the Napoleon Hill World Learning Center in Hammond, Indiana, or take his "Positive Mental Attitude" class online through Purdue University, Calumet.
Hill says the idea for Think and Grow Rich originated with industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1908, who challenged the young reporter interviewing him to turn his questions on other successful capitalists of the day, and use their insights to develop a science of success.
"In every chapter of this book, mention has been made of the money-making secret which has made fortunes for hundreds of exceedingly wealthy men whom I have carefully analyzed over a long period of years," Hill writes in the book. "The secret was brought to my attention by Andrew Carnegie, more than half a century ago…. He asked if I would be willing to spend 20 years or more preparing myself to take it to the world, to men and women who, without the secret, might go through life as failures."
In this paragraph, Hill reveals the secret to his own success, and the secret behind that of the Depression-scarred motivational gurus of his time. Books like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking harnessed the twin demons of self-doubt and fear of failure to teach millions how to stop worrying and love themselves. It was a secret formula that would be repeated hundreds of times to sell books in the burgeoning business/self-help genre, from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Suze Orman's The Courage to Be Rich. Not only was greed good, but you could be good at it and still "fulfill your desires with effortless ease," Deepak Chopra wrote in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.
These books "peddled a sort of inner Taylorism or 'personal efficiency' to an army of insecure executives," writes Tom Frank in One Market Under God. It is a particularly American form of personal efficiency, which traces its roots to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and the Calvinistic teachings of the Puritans.
But Hill did what few writers had done before: Add rigorous research to back up his findings and translate the results into rules that any Joe could follow. The business/self-help instruction manual wouldn't make another evolutionary leap until the early 1980s. It took the onset of baby boomers' thirtysomething ennui to reinvent the dusty business-management genre, long an academic backwater, into a sexy personal-development genre with Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's In Search of Excellence in 1982.
Now that they're beginning to approach retirement, the boomers are contemplating their legacy. For these businesspeople, the latest twist on the literature of success is Jim Collins's just-published Good to Great, which Strategy & Business magazine recently named the top business book of 2001.
"I've got to have an angel on my shoulder," Jim Collins told me recently, "because my books keep dropping into the right zeitgeist." Collins knows a thing or two about surfing the zeitgeist. His 1994 book, Built to Last, has sold almost 600,000 copies–monster sales in the business-book world–thanks to a powerful message of spiritual redemption through the "successful habits of visionary companies": "We hope you take away confidence and inspiration that the lessons herein do not just apply to 'other people,'" he wrote in the preface to Built to Last. "You can learn them. You can apply them. You can build a visionary company."
After spending five years microscopically dissecting companies that have not only lasted but achieved greatness, Collins has come down from the mountain with a new set of commandments. In Good to Great, he argues that "good is the enemy of great." It's not important to simply be good, he says, but rather to become great. He then goes on to explain how only eleven companies have done it since 1965.
The case studies of companies like Fannie Mae, Walgreens and Kroger are fascinating–and the financial methodology that produced his chosen companies is rock-solid–but there's a spiritual message inside the book's many koanlike riddles. Collins says he's discovered the "timeless principles of good to great" and the "immutable laws of organized human performance": You need self-effacing Level 5 leaders; you need to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats; you have to confront the brutal facts but never lose faith; you have to transcend the Curse of Competence; you must relentlessly push the flywheel to achieve a breakthrough; you must rinse your cottage cheese.
Say what? You have to read the book, of course, to follow most of this. And if you're looking for a motivation for achieving greatness, you won't find it from the Zen master: "The question of Why Greatness? is almost a nonsense question," Collins intones, like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. "If you're engaged in work that you love and care about, for whatever reason, then the question needs no answer. The question is not why, but how."
This isn't your average one-idea, case-study-choked business book. In fact, Collins says he's not writing about business problems at all but rather human problems. If it all sounds like some kind of bad trip, maybe you just can't handle the truth. Maybe you don't have the "seed" to become a Level 5 leader. But that's OK, because you're only as great as you feel.
Good to Great isn't an aberration. In fact, at least three other books out this year claim to analyze hundreds of companies and deliver the secrets of greatness: The New Market Leaders: Who's Winning and How in the Battle for Customers, by Fred Wiersema; The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try to Be the Best at Everything, by Frederick Crawford and Ryan Mathews; and Creative Destruction: Why Companies That Are Built to Last Underperform the Market–And How to Transform Them, by Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan.
For all their newfangled talk about "human values" and "customers' unmet needs," these books are really pointing to companies for answers to the eternal question about the meaning of life. But the unspoken assumption is that the answer lies within. To update the 1960s slogan, the personal is commercial.
When did writers start making this leap from creating individual change to leading corporate revolution and, in the process, equating the two transformations? The seeds were planted with I'm OK, You're OK. The 1967 self-help classic used interviews with hundreds of patients to reduce the tangled world of Freudian psychotherapy to a simple vocabulary for understanding yourself and others. Through the power of Transactional Analysis, the book promised "a new answer to people who want to change rather than to adjust, to people who want transformation rather than conformation." The idea was that if you can change individuals, you can change the world.
It wasn't until Peters and Waterman came along with In Search of Excellence that business self-help books merged with the pop-psychology self-help field. What started as a dry McKinsey study of "organizational effectiveness" went on to sell millions of books, to the authors' great surprise. As Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in The Witch Doctors, "For all the research that went into it, In Search of Excellence sometimes reads like a popular how-to book…. As Peter Drucker has put it, In Search of Excellence made management sound 'incredibly easy. All you had to do was put that book under your pillow and it will get done.'"
The popularity of the book in turn fueled a cottage industry of Tom Peters books and workshops, not to mention Peters's house organ, Fast Company magazine. Businesspeople became "change agents," they were a "brand," they got in touch with their inner "wow." The one-man-show school of management gurus was born, and then blossomed into a troupe of gurus like Gary Hamel, James Champy, Michael Hammer and Peter Senge.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, business books incited the oppressed lumpenmanageriat to re-engineer their corporations, compete for the future, even lead the revolution. The responsibility for transformation–as with the self-actualization books of an earlier era–lay with you and you alone. "Excellent companies require and demand extraordinary performance from the average man," Peters wrote in In Search of Excellence. "Companies don't reengineer processes; people do," wrote Hammer and Champy in Reengineering the Corporation, a book that, despite what may have been good intentions, helped in the cause of re-engineering hundreds of thousands of people right out of their jobs in the 1990s.
Some would even say businesspeople were on a sacred mission: "It is the entrepreneurs who know the rules of the world and the laws of God," wrote futurist George Gilder in The Spirit of Enterprise. "They are the heroes of economic life."
If you didn't have time to read these business books–and insiders know that very few people actually finish these things–you could watch the Success Channel on TV, read magazines like Success and Fast Company ("Are You Marked for Greatness?"), buy the "Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work Personal Organizer," or sign up for a motivational seminar with Tony Robbins or Stephen Covey.
But this takes time, and as we know, time is money. And the even bigger problem is that personal transformation is hard work–and too often it doesn't last. How long did the "warm fuzzies" linger after your last corporate off-site or self-help book? The tricky thing about transformation is that you're just one drink–or one quarterly earnings report–away from a relapse.
What if, perchance, you do achieve greatness–what's next for the ambitious change agent? There's only so much further you can push the envelope, before extreme excellence begets supreme greatness in a downward spiral of aspiration. And what will history say about the mighty that have fallen? Of the forty-three companies In Search of Excellence identified as "excellent companies," Business Week reported two years later that fourteen had lost their luster, having failed to "stick to the knitting," "stay close to the customer" or any of the other attributes of excellence Peters and Waterman earlier found in them.
Nevertheless, books like In Search of Excellence and Built to Last struck a deep chord, thanks to a potent mixture of good timing and economic malaise. Peters's book dropped like manna from heaven onto an American business landscape battered by recession and fierce competition with Japan. Built to Last hit the market following the painful recession of the early 1990s with a myth-busting message about personal and professional change. Now Good to Great lands in the middle of a dark period of introspection and recessionary gloom.
Collins attributes his past success to "enormous good luck." Judging from the seductive message of transformation in his latest effort, luck will have nothing to do with his success this time.