The first thing people seem to notice when they come into my office are the books. There are hundreds of them on the shelves, in all colors and sizes, collected over many years. They represent not only a vast intellectual medley of ideas and facts but also an intriguing assortment of dreams and thoughts, lives and epochs. They fuel the right brain and the left. They nourish the soul. They make a chaotic world more intelligible.
My collection is hardly the ultimate business library, but its titles range far and wide, from the popular to the obscure. They sit on the shelves, arranged in no particular order, waiting to be searched for some nugget of wisdom or inspiration or foolishness.
There's a first edition of Henry Ford's 1922 autobiography, My Life and Work, and a fourth edition of B.C. Forbes's Men Who Are Making America, published in 1919. The older and slightly musty titles rest side by side against well-thumbed galleys and dog-eared paperbacks, from Peter Drucker's first printing of Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices in 1973 to Warren Bennis's newly revised edition of On Becoming a Leader, published 30 years later and sitting right next to the uncorrected page proofs of the same book issued in 1989!
Yet for every book that makes it to the shelf, there are hundreds more that don't. The business of publishing business books is a vast wasteland. This year, according to booksinprint.com, some 4,700 business titles will be produced, a number little changed from last year's postbubble slump. But once you weed out the get-rich-quick and self-help tomes, you quickly get down to a more manageable number of serious books. Among them, precious few will break new ground or help shape management's thinking in the years to come. As anyone who has ever wandered into a bookstore knows, most business books don't deserve to be published.
To help our readers through the clutter, we're starting a new and exciting feature. Every month, we'll nominate five business books and then ask our readers to vote for what we'll call the FC Readers' Choice Award. We'll publish brief descriptions of each nominee in the magazine, and we'll post excerpts on our Web site. We will prominently feature the winner in an upcoming issue and include a review, an excerpt or author interview, along with a series of discussion questions for the reading groups we're organizing in corporations and Company of Friends chapters. For those who cannot attend a discussion group in person, we'll offer a virtual group online with the author's active participation.
The goal: to discover the books that can truly make a difference in your life. These are the volumes that should find a rightful place on my shelf and yours. They are books that share the mission of our magazine: to help you work smarter and lead better. Some of them will inspire you. Others will inform you of the newest and best thinking on leadership, innovation, strategy, technology, or globalization. In short, if you regularly read these books and engage in our vigorous deliberations about them, you will become a more effective and productive leader. That I guarantee, whether you manage a small team or a large corporation.
We hope to do for business books what Oprah has done for fiction and self-help. The first selection, I'm pleased to announce, is Authentic Leadership, by Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic, the medical-device maker. It's a rare and powerful book, an executive memoir written with remarkable honesty and courage, and without the help of a ghostwriter.
George is an uncommon leader, one who has led with his heart and his head, a CEO whose love of poetry has him quoting the likes of T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda. Having met him years ago, I can attest that you would be hard-pressed to find a more genuine or authentic leader than Bill George.
Authentic Leadership is now on my shelf. I hope you will join us in reading this thoughtful and valuable book and in debating its merits in the weeks ahead.
John A. Byrne
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.