Do you know the story behind the development of the Oxford dictionary? It involves a dedicated editor, a mansion housing the criminally insane, and a convicted murderer.
This might seem like an off-piste beginning to this month’s blog, but the tale of The Professor and the Madman—one of my reading picks for 2023—is a great object lesson on the importance of keeping an open mind.
If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you’ll know that I am an avid reader. I am always reading, sometimes more than one book at a time, and my to-be-read list is long.
As I wrote last year, reading for me these days is more likely to be an act of listening. I typically average about two books a month this way, alternating between a fiction and non-fiction title. If you’re looking to read more, I highly recommend this approach, because it’s a great way to consume literature, even when you’re on the go or doing chores.
As with last year, this year’s recommendations make for an eclectic list focused less on business and leadership, and more on books that have broader lessons (as in the case of The Professor and the Madman), which provide insight into current events through history, or are just plain fun to read.
So here are six books I read this year that I recommend adding to your list this year. They also make great gifts for the CEO or future leader in your life:
~ The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
~ The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
~ Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry
~ The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell
~ The Bond King: How One Man Made a Market, Built an Empire, and Lost it All by Mary Childs
~ A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
On the dangers of greed in business:
The Smartest Guys in the Room
This book shows how greed and a lack of corporate governance created a massive corporate scandal that led to the collapse of one of the world’s largest energy companies, along with one of the world’s most respected accounting firms.
At its height, Enron Corporation employed more than 20,000 people and posted revenues of approximately $100 billion dollars. Unfortunately, those astronomic revenues were based on creative accounting, as overseen by the company’s auditor, Arthur Andersen.
For example, Enron had an energy division that would build and operate power plants on behalf of local governments—who would retain ownership—around the world.
Once a power plant was built, the company would project the fees and/or revenue for operating the plant for the next 20 years, then accrue that as income in the current year.
Say I build a plant this year and get it done by the end of December; I estimate the next 20 years of profit and report millions and hundreds of millions in revenue. How will I show an increase in profit next year? It’s also hard to show a year-over-year improvement when that’s what you’re doing all the time. But the biggest problem, of course, is that this approach doesn’t meet any generally accepted accounting principles—such as matching revenue to time—and is basically fraud.
It’s just amazing how many people at this public company were involved, how long they got away with it, and how they were able to convince their public accounting firm to go along with these highly suspect accounting practices.
For me, it not only shows a shocking lack of common sense but also a complete disregard for established accounting rules and basic standards of good corporate governance. There was a board, there was a president, there was a CEO, and this activity got by all of them, or they were actively complicit. Collectively, they were blinded by their arrogance and more focused on end results like share price and personal compensation, rather than any kind of moral or accurate presentation of results.
And of course, as we all know, in the long run, that didn’t lead to a positive result for anyone.
On the power of tenacity and keeping an open mind:
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford Dictionary took approximately 70 years to compile, the result of several editors and many contributors. However, as I mentioned in the beginning, there was one editor and one contributor in particular who stood out.
This particular long-standing editor decided that he would engage public volunteers to help with the process of defining words. Because for every word—even ones like the, but, and dog—there needed to be three or four references to the word somewhere in English Literature from as diverse references as possible showing the word used in a sentence.
Each contributor would list the word, then show the sentence it was used in with the page reference to the book it was published in, as well as the year the book was published. The editor would announce which words needed to be referenced, and people would send in their contributions for free. It was a volunteer activity, yet submissions would arrive by the box load. For a lot of people, this became a hobby.
One of the most prolific volunteer contributors over a period of 20 years was someone who lived within 20 or 30 miles of the Oxford offices. Yet the editor had never met this person, despite his long service and many invitations to come and visit the office.
Which is how the editor decided to visit this contributor. He got on the train, and from the station took a taxi to the contributor’s address, arriving at a massive mansion. He enters and is promptly shown to a huge room with lots of books and a big desk, behind which a stately gentleman is seated.
At this point, the editor says you must be the contributor, to which the man behind the desk replies, actually I’m not. In fact, the person you’ve been corresponding with is an inmate here, an institution for the criminally insane. As it turns out, this prolific contributor was a very well-read convicted murderer from decades before.
It’s a great read, and a bunch of fun.
It shows how much effort went into the creation of the Oxford dictionary; I was taken by the tenacity of its editors, who kept the project going for so long. But it also shows the importance of keeping an open mind, and not overlooking someone out of hand because they don’t fit your strict, pre-conceived criteria.
Candidly, that’s a challenge we have with a lot of our clients; how to keep their minds open to less obvious opportunities.
An insight into mental illness:
Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
I heard about Matthew Perry’s book before he passed and thought I would give it a try. I would recommend it as a candid look into the challenges of addiction. I marvelled at how long he managed to stay alive. In fact, I wasn’t surprised that he died, but surprised that he lived as long as he did.
Perry’s challenges with addiction would have led to the death of many, many people, especially given how much drugs and alcohol he consumed, and how many times he relapsed. The self-abuse is heart-breaking.
He is a quirky writer, and that shines through his candor. This is a insightful look at addiction, which so many people are battling these days.
On the ruthless calculations of geopolitics:
The Bomber Mafia
Sometimes to understand the present you need to look to the past. For me, Malcolm Gladwell’s Bomber Mafia is a good start.
This book is mostly about the bombing of Japan before the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It starts with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, which was meant to pre-empt the Americans from being able to support Allied forces in the Pacific region during a subsequent Japanese attack. Further, once the United States entered the Second World War, their existing planes were unable to reach Japan.
Consequently, the Americans had to work their way across the Pacific region, bombing and then taking islands—such as Guadalcanal and the Gilbert Islands—captured by the Japanese. As the islands were captured, the Americans would then use them as a staging area for flying incursions closer and closer to, and eventually over, Japan.
It was a lot of bombing. A terrible amount.
So much so that the combined destruction caused by this conventional bombing was much greater than the destruction created by the dropping of the atomic bombs.
Every night, the bombers would drop incendiaries, over cities with houses made of wood where civilians were burned and killed. Bombs were dropped over city after city after city, resulting in the deaths of tens and tens of thousands of people.
What really struck me was the ruthless mathematical calculation of the human cost of invading Japan; how many American lives would be lost; how many Japanese civilians would suffer and be killed. The aim was to end the war before the Americans had to invade; the United States wanted Japan to surrender, which is what happened eventually.
But the human cost of that action was tremendous. Even so, a lot of lives were saved by pursuing this course of action. A lot more Japanese civilians, as well as American troops, would have been killed had they invaded. And that’s the ruthless calculation of geopolitics, a calculation that we’re seeing play out in several parts of the world today.
If it seems too easy it probably is:
The Bond King: How One Man Made a Market, Built an Empire, and Lost it All
Known as the Bond King, Bill Gross is a notorious fund manager who applied a system for winning at blackjack in Las Vegas—which eventually got him barred from the casinos—to managing money at his investment firm.
He built his own firm into the largest bond trading firm in the world, running approximately $3 trillion. His clients included governments, pensions, and high-net-worth individuals.
What the book makes clear is how hard he had to work to make even a quarter of a percent more than his competitors. He used every trick available to him just to eke out a fraction of a percent, and even then averaged about an 8 or 9 percent return annually.
It just goes to show you he had to go through all that to still earn only single digits.
When I encounter cryptocurrency promoters promising a 20 percent return every month, I think about Bill Gross. If he had to grind to average an annual return in the single digits, the promise of a 20 percent monthly return has to be some sort of scam or ponzi scheme. They must be using new money to pay off old money; eventually that will blow up.
The book also talks about his personal life and shows how this very successful person got overtaken by his own ego-centrism, unwillingness to delegate fully, and inability to trust his immediate subordinates.
On making the most of a difficult situation:
A Gentleman in Moscow
Opening in 1917 during the Russian Civil War, Amor Towles’s novel tells the story of a fictional Russian count. This intellectual aristocrat is living the high life from a Moscow hotel, when he falls afoul of the party line. After answering for crimes, he is sentenced, not to death, but to house arrest at the hotel he’s been living in.
However, when he is marched back to the hotel for his confinement, he finds himself not in the swishy suite that he was expecting, but a tiny room on the utility floor, where he lives out the rest of his life.
And yet, he manages to make the best of it. He finds a room next door and manages to tunnel through a closet to get to it, eventually incorporating it into the suite. He also has relationships with all kinds of people, as they come and go through the hotel for the rest of his life.
It’s really quite good. It shows that someone can make the most of a difficult situation. Most people wouldn’t want to be trapped in the same building for the rest of their lives, but he had rich relationships with the employees, with the people who came and went, even long-term relationships with some.
If you enjoy Towles, it’s also worth looking up The Didomenico Fragment. This novella, about one man’s quest to reassemble (literally) a family’s dispersed inheritance, is a short, economical, and enjoyable read for all those who enjoy the ridiculous.
Larry Smith is the founder and president of Kathbern Management, an executive search firm based in Toronto. Kathbern helps companies find the executives and senior managers who not only have the experience and credentials to fulfill their responsibilities, but also have the emotional and “fit” requirements that will enable them to be successful in a particular environment. Kathbern simplifies the process and, through deep research, brings more and better candidates forward than would ever be possible through a do-it-yourself passive advertising campaign.