Learning to think outside the books

books are all very well, but when it comes to finding real answers to business
problems, most of us would rather settle down with something completely
different. Paul Simpson offers an alternative reading list for HR professionals

new year brings three things: a hangover, a set of new resolutions to make and
break (even if the new resolutions are merely reheated leftovers), and a
plethora of books which promise to change your life, the way you work or how
you think about the way you work.

last thing truly effective managers do is read books about other managers’
highly effective habits. Nor do they pore over books in which the movement of
cheese, the Tao of something (usually something as far out as the Tao of the
Teletubbies) or the activities of polar bear pirates hold the key to success.
If it’s enlightenment and entertainment you’re after, this selection of seven
magnificent (if unorthodox) books may have as much to say about human
resources, in its broadest sense, as the next Tom Peters opus. Let’s face it,
nobody thrives on chaos, well, nobody except Attila The Hun and David Brent.


Publisher: Viking
Price: £20.00
ISBN 067084909X

book in a paragraph

essays on 45 20th Century poets by the late Ian Hamilton – the literary sleuth
famous for his pursuit of reclusive cult novelist JD Salinger – accompanied by
a sample of the poet’s finest or most representative work. A simple, unoriginal
idea inspired by Samuel Johnson’s classic Lives Of the English Poets which, in
Hamilton’s careful hands, works beautifully. So many of the lives (and untimely
deaths) told here echo each other.


company pays lip service to the need for creativity, yet this book is a telling
reminder that creative genius has a heavy price tag. Insanity, suicide,
alcoholism and the perverse unpredictability of creativity are recurring themes
in these lives. These poets are often confined to the margins of society in
much the same way that, despite all the talk, genuinely creative people are
often marginalised in corporations, silently condemned for not being team
players – the very quality which often makes them so valuable.

cluster of qualities which make employees creative (perseverance in the face of
frustration; a high level of self-initiated, task-orientated; striving for
excellence; independence of judgement; autonomy; tolerance for ambiguity; and
self-discipline in matters of work) are often exhibited in these lives.

might not employ many poets, but you probably do employ creative people who
subscribe to the manic highs, deep lows, and continual insecurity displayed
here –  albeit in a less extreme fashion.

bottom line

many companies have tried to have their cake and eat it, looking for talented
creative people who are also model employees. As this book conclusively proves,
this is one particular circle that just isn’t going to square.

Art Of Happiness

The Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler
Publisher: Hodder Mobius
Price: £7.00
ISBN 0340750154

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is easy to be cynical about the Dalai Lama since he’s become a poster boy for
the likes of Richard Gere, but you can’t fail to be impressed by the fact that,
after almost half a century of exile and oppression, he’s still smiling. Many
leaders have been far more miserable in public with far less cause. So it’s
easy to understand why psychologist Howard Cutler assumed the Tibetan religious
leader might know a thing or two about the kind of questions which collectively
come under the heading "the meaning of life".


book that grapples with so many big questions (such as, why do we suffer?) will
have some relevance to human resources. And although Cutler’s slightly smarmy
prose style jars, this is still a refreshing read. Much of it is not that
revolutionary or overtly Buddhist. And while the emphasis on kindness,
compassion and the importance of seeing situations from different perspectives
sounds trite in summary, this is an empowering book. Part of its charm is that
it doesn’t promise any quick fixes.

bottom line

ultimate rarity: a book about human relations that doesn’t offer simple answers
yet still makes you feel good.


Publisher: Vintage
Price: £6.99
ISBN 0-09-947731-9

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hysterically funny, debut novel published 41 years ago, but still as relevant
today. Typecast as an anti-war novel, this is actually a satire of corporate
life – the corporation so mercilessly pilloried just happens to be the US
military. Yossarian, the anti-hero, is trying to avoid combat by insisting he’s
mad, but as soon as he applies for a discharge he’s judged to be sane, because
he’s showing rational concern for his own safety. "That’s some catch that
Catch 22," he says. And a colleague agrees: "It’s the best there


you really want to know how your most cynical staff really see your company,
read Catch-22 and try to see your workplace through the eyes of Yossarian, the essentially
decent ‘hero’, forced into cynicism by his understandable desire to stay alive.

Colonel Cathcart, the officer whose only innovation is to make his pilots fly
more missions, Heller has created a classic corporate villain, convincing
because he isn’t evil just so stupid and desperate for recognition he is
oblivious to the fact that he’s endangering his pilots’ lives.

account of the politicking, egotism and one-upmanship in the military
hierarchy, although marvellously exaggerated, will ring true with most managers
who have climbed a few inches up the corporate pole.

of the minor charms is the horribly hilarious tale of the world’s worst
disciplinary meeting in which a pilot is told not to interrupt and then to say
‘sir’ when he does interrupt.

bottom line

laugh, unless you’ve had all the mirth surgically extracted from your soul, and
then you’ll wonder, uneasily, if your company behaves like Heller’s US Air

Black Dog

Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: £7.00
ISBN 0006375669

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was one of the UK’s greatest psychiatrists and these essays on the theme of
creativity contain some of his finest work. His analysis of such diverse
personalities as Winston Churchill, Carl Jung and Isaac Newton is surprising,
thoughtful and entertaining. Storr reminds us that human nature cannot be
categorised by which planet we metaphorically come from and that not all our
challenges can be overcome by the acquisition of the right life coach.


Churchill now officially installed as the BBC’s greatest Briton (see page 23
for Personnel Today’s version), this book may enjoy a long overdue revival.

flatly contradicts the view, espoused by many modern books on leadership, that
the art of leading can be reduced to a few key teachable skills. Storr’s
examination of politicians, writers and scientists suggests that the roots of
charismatic leadership often lies in the leader’s own, often deeply flawed,

is portrayed as what Carl Jung called ‘an intuitive introvert’, capable of both
rare insight and an utter lack of understanding of his colleagues’ feelings –
not that unrecognisable as a type in today’s business world. As a leader he
fought depression (what he called his "black dog"), his own nature (his
often rash displays of physical courage may have been prompted by his own fear
that he lacked courage) and a lack of self-esteem caused by parental neglect.

bottom line

times, this has the breadth and depth of the work of Charles Handy, the author
of such leftfield business classics as The Empty Raincoat. Next to Storr’s
analysis of Churchill, most books about leadership seem distinctly


Publisher: Penguin
Price: £7.00
ISBN 014118437X

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journalist John Hersey’s account of the first atomic attack (which killed
100,000) will leave you moved, appalled and yet, strangely, uplifted. Following
a handful of survivors of the world’s first nuclear bomb, Hersey tells an
astonishing, but never simplistic, story containing more dramatic tension than
most thrillers and more insight into humanity than many serious novels.


calamity of such magnitude doesn’t seem so unlikely after September 11. And
much of the rhetoric about what might happen in such a disaster seems to be
based on the assumption that ordinary people will simply panic. Yet Hersey’s
book, while emphasising the human destruction wreaked by the dropping of the
atom bomb called Enola Gay, is even more powerful testimony to the incredible
resilience of the human spirit.

unthinkable had just happened, but after mere seconds or minutes, the survivors
turned to the urgent business of helping each other and locating relatives and
friends. Unable to rely on the authorities, thousands performed acts of immense
heroism and altruism. Only later, the immediate crisis over, did many
experience what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

would be trite to draw a simple lesson from this catastrophe, a point the book
itself eloquently makes. Yet in an era where the very idea of the ‘common good’
sounds ironic, the heroism recounted here is genuinely inspiring. The book is
full of evil, the kind of evil chronicled daily in the media, but there’s good
here too, displayed in the deadliest, most difficult circumstances.

bottom line

perfect antidote to all those books in which business leaders congratulate
themselves on their heroic climb to the top.


Publisher: Columbus
Price: £10.95
ISBN 0-86287-010-0

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to be confused with Indecent Proposal (the film where Demi Moore gets $1m to
sleep with Robert Redford), this is an incredibly readable, fly-on-the-wall
account of one of the Hollywood’s biggest scandals – Columbia Pictures producer
David Begelman defrauds the studio yet the parent company stands by him, to the
disgust of Columbia’s chief executive and many other senior managers. In its
way, the Begelman affair is even more incredible than the recent tales of
corporate misdeeds.


human mechanics of a power struggle between a chief exec who wants to do the
right thing and a board that would prefer a cover up wrongdoing are laid bare
here. Written by a Wall Street Journal reporter, the book details the
astonishing fashion in which a $10,000 embezzlement paralysed a company.

like many other corporations confronted with skulduggery, is in denial and pays
for its refusal to penalise a popular, successful yet unethical executive.

some ways, the book is more frightening than any account of Enron because the
directors and managers are not freaks, yet they almost wreck the company. The
evasions, the U-turns, the way the issue of dealing with malfeasance is
subsumed into a wider struggle, all seem horribly plausible.

bottom line

chilling cautionary tale, this is a more accurate (and insightful) indictment
of US corporate life gone awry than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.


Gervais and Stephen Merchant
Publisher: BBC
Price: £9.99
ISBN 0563488476

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Brent is a sad idiot going through a mid-life crisis and suffering a job he’s
not proud of." Or so says Ricky Gervais the creator and player of the UK’s
most infamous fictional boss. Don’t worry, the man who wants to be the Rupert
Murdoch of paper merchanting, or of Slough, will be back, if not for a full
series then for a TV movie. One of the many things that makes this sitcom
compulsive viewing is that, like Fawlty Towers in the 1970s, it held up a
distorting mirror to the British workplace.


motivational speech which closes to Tina Turner’s Simply The Best, the lip
service to (and fatal undermining of) policies against racism and sexism in the
workplace… the manager who has regurgitated all the business books he’s ever
read… these are painfully and amusingly familiar.

terrifying truth is that, while HR departments are doing their utmost to
improve the workplace, almost every company has a manager like the Brentmeister
who can shatter morale by saying ‘Morning all’. Hopefully, this series should
ensure that no company ever dares use Simply The Best (or, for that matter,
Search For The Hero Inside Yourself) as a theme for a staff conference ever

bottom line

Brent is fast becoming the most famous British manager since Richard Branson
and Basil Fawlty.

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