These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades. In 2001, Jim Collins published a best-selling study called “Good to Great.” He found that the best C.E.O.’s were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again.
If one actually looked at some of the 11 profiles included in the book, he might not be as impressed. As Steven Levitt pointed out last year, the CEOs Collins praised included now bailed out Fannie Mae and now bankrupt Circuit City. So much for Built to Last.
I seem to remember that someone did an analysis of the companies highlighted in Peters and Waterman’s 1980’s classic book In Search of Excellence and found the same thing.
What does this all mean? In one sense, not much.
These business books are mostly backward-looking: what have companies done that has made them successful? The future is always hard to predict, and understanding the past is valuable; on the other hand, the implicit message of these business books is that the principles that these companies use not only have made them good in the past, but position them for continued success.
To the extent that this doesn’t actually turn out to be true, it calls into question the basic premise of these books, doesn’t it?