School & District Management Opinion

My Get-Rich-Quick Scheme

By Arthur E. Levine — July 11, 2001 5 min read
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More and more shelf space is being given to books on leadership and management. It’s the latest form of self-help book.

I am an academic, so I write books. Lately, I have been reading about the large advances and enormous royalties that leading authors receive—millions and millions of dollars. By contrast, my royalties last year were sufficient to take my family to a Broadway play and dinner, if we went to a matinee and sat in the rear of the balcony, and did not order an expensive bottle of wine or an appetizer or dessert or tip the woman in the coat-check room.

Rather than rail at the injustices of life and the bad taste of the American public, I’ve concluded that it’s time to take the road not taken. Bottom line, I’ve decided to write books people are willing to buy.

With this in mind, I have been watching the best-seller lists and cruising the bookstores. What I have noticed is that more and more shelf space is being given to books on leadership and management. This topic is white hot. Amazon.com lists more than 14,000 books on the topic. It’s the latest form of self-help book. We live in a society in which everything is changing—demographics, economics, technology, and globalization. None of our existing organizations fits this new environment as well as it did the old—government, hospitals, manufacturing, churches, schools, you name it. So we are desperately looking for leaders to create new futures, to move us all to the promised land, or at least out of the swamp. And a lot of us would like to be leaders too, the swashbucklers of the business section of the newspaper, the gazillionaires or former gazillionaires of Silicon Valley, or perhaps the principal who saves a troubled school or the executive who turns around a failing corporation. It’s the stuff of Time magazine covers. Walter Mitty lives. It’s a wonderful life.

So knowing I do not have a potboiling, beach novel in me or even a suspenseful courtroom thriller, I have been racking my brain to find a niche in the leadership literature. People like Peter Drucker, Roseabeth Kanter, and Peter Senge appear to have nailed down the general market. But I think my months of jealous self- pity have finally paid off. I have found my spot.

There is this new literature that seems to be growing like kudzu. It’s the “leadership lessons of ____.” You name the famous person and it seems as if someone has written about the lessons on how to be a great leader based on his or her life. They include fictional characters, a president of the United States frequently judged the worst in history, the general he defeated, the only president who ever resigned, and a coach who was fired for unsportsman like conduct.

Who would buy a volume on the leadership lessons of Richard Nixon? Who would hire someone who had read such a book?

As one might expect, there are lessons from business people like Jack Welch of General Electric. But there is much more. There are the leadership lessons to be gleaned from the military, the great wars—the Gulf War, the Civil War, and World War II, and the people who fought them—George Patton, Billy Mitchell, Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Lord Nelson, and U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Most won their wars, but some lost and two died. For those more tame of spirit, there are the leadership lessons of pacifists such as Gandhi. Then there are the religious and biblical leaders, including Jesus, Confucius, King David, and Moses. Heads of state are pretty popular, too—Attila the Hun, Emperor Shaka Zulu, Queen Elizabeth I (CEO: Strategic Lessons From the Leader Who Built an Empire), Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon. Newt Gingrich added to the richness of available lessons with his own autobiography. To this veritable cornucopia of goodies must be added the lessons of sports—Dean Smith, Bill Russell (11 Lessons From the 20th Century’s Greatest Winner), Bill Parcells, and Bobby Knight. This is nicely complemented by lessons from the golf links. And for those who prefer the literary to the gritty, there are at least two volumes on the lessons of Shakespeare and a fine book that takes the long view from Homer to Hemingway. And for those who learn best from nonprint media, there is this: Lessons From the Great Films.

The number of lessons in these volumes varies from four to 293. The median seems to be somewhere between seven and 10. The most popular person to learn from was Jesus. The five volumes on leadership ran the gamut from Lessons From Jesus to More Lessons From Jesus. There were multiple books on Grant, Lee, Welch, and the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleford, who managed to get his crew stranded and his boat frozen in the Antarctic. I suspect this leadership-lessons business is a little faddish. Shackleford has only recently come into vogue with a traveling museum show on his struggles. For this reason, I am awaiting an outpouring of books on the leadership lessons of Vermeer.

I recognize this leadership-lessons field is pretty crowded, but the buyers have got to be desperate. Who would buy a volume on the leadership lessons of Richard Nixon? It sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” gag or a joke gift. Who would hire someone who had read such a book? What would one expect to learn from such a volume? Don’t forget to burn any tapes that prove criminal behavior? Maybe it’s like collecting plates from the Franklin Mint, but I don’t think so. I am also pretty sure the consumers aren’t buying the books because it’s camp. I have watched them make purchases in the bookstores. There is no devilish glint in their eyes or smile on their lips. The inescapable conclusion is that the people who buy these books will buy anything.

The inescapable conclusion is that the people who buy these books will buy anything.

I’ve got it all figured out how I can capitalize on this. All I need is the right person to write leadership lessons about. I’ve gone through thousands of names—Bill Gates, the Rockefellers, Bill Clinton, Bill Bennett, Steven Spielberg, Britney Spears, Morrie, Felicity, and Pete Rose. All good, but none perfect. Then it hit me, the perfect name—Harry Potter.

In contrast to most of the leadership-lesson books, this one has two markets. The first is those people who are buying the 14,000 books on leadership already in publication. This is one more chance to release their inner leader. The second (which is the best part of my plan) is children, who will whine to their parents that they must have the new Harry Potter book when they see it in the bookstore windows. The kids will wear them down. I can already imagine the “leadership lessons” parties at bookstores at midnight on the night my book comes out, as well as the use of my book as a text in weekend hotel seminars, as a birthday gift for children and for business school graduates. It’s a natural. All I need is seven leadership lessons—like, be able to talk to snakes and don’t fall off your Quidditch stick—and next year it’s going to be orchestra seats and appetizers all around.

Arthur Levine is the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as My Get-Rich-Quick Scheme


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