Finest Hour 160, Autumn 2013
By Erica L. Chenoweth
Winston Churchill, CEO: 25 Lessons for Bold Business Leaders, by Alan Axelrod. Sterling, hardbound, illus., 288 pp., $22.95.
Publishers print thousands of “business books,” shove them into stores or websites, and expect readers who are too busy to read to snatch them up. The genre’s raison d’être is the premise that it is good to learn from the experience of others. Alas, the result, as stated by management consultant Dave Logan, is that “95% go on one of two lists: ‘if you don’t know this already, you should be working at the DMV’ (Department of Motor Vehicles). And, ‘if you do these things, your company will become the DMV.’” All due respect to the DMV, but Alan Axelrod’s book is no exception.
Axelrod holds a doctorate in English literature and once published fourteen books in one year. Authors with outputs like that cannot be expected to be expert on Churchill o r business, so his book provides little insight into either. CEO could be read like a synopsis of Churchill’s life by an enthusiastic author who has spent limited time with Churchill’s writings and biographies.
If Axelrod had stopped there, his book would be a passably pleasant read, thanks to his proclivity for quoting long passages of Churchill’s own words. Instead, he meets every twist and turn in the compelling tale, follows every soaring passage, with his own canned platitudes and catch phrases, giving summaries of “lessons” he thinks relevant for today’s busy readers. The only business-related experience that comes to mind while reading these “lessons” is a mandatory Friday afternoon session where the speaker fills the room with just enough hot air to make you question whether the air conditioning is working properly.
The author has some knack for pulling out the amusing anecdote. But every chance he gets, he drops the story, throws in a header like “Absorb All the Lessons,” and writes an awkwardly-contrived paragraph or two—or three— about the importance of learning from experience. The reader should be prepared to find gross generalizations drawn from ill-crafted evidence and less original thought. Worse, Axelrod’s air-sandwich sentences are often reprinted on the same page as they appear in regular text, enclosed in boxes in a larger font. The most jarring moment in the book is in the final chapter: after reviewing the victory over Hitler achieved at all costs by Churchill and Allied leaders, and their vow to win the peace, he follows with a passage headed: “Make a Sale, Create a Customer.”
Axelrod draws no lessons from Churchill’s early experiences at war. If he had looked at the first edition of Churchill’s The River War—listed in his bibliography, but not the original work—he would have encountered Churchill’s thoughts on business as a young man. Churchill contrasts the inner workings of the British army, with which he was already intimately familiar, with the practices of private enterprise. His musings are more fun to read than Axelrod’s clumsy passages—the more so because Churchill does not market them as tips for “bold business leaders”— which by Axelrod’s standards they might well be, especially their criticisms of Sir Herbert Kitchener.
Churchill’s analysis of business operations arises from a discussion of the motives of those who choose leaders in the two spheres. One of his sentences offers as much insight as Axelrod’s whole book: “If the head of a firm entrust important affairs to a stupid agent, he probably loses money.” The definitive edition of The River War, edited by James W. Muller, will bring back many such forgotten passages that show how much Churchill had to say, not only to “bold business leaders,” but to readers in other walks of life.
I wish the same could be said for Axelrod’s book. I am implored by con- science to point readers to a more worthwhile book by Steven F. Hayward, Churchill on Leadership (1997), which also aims to speak to business readers. The comparison is striking.
Ms. Chenoweth, a fishery biologist for the state of Alaska, wrote “Churchill and the Theater” in FH 152.