Aiden Choles, an expert in the use of narrative techniques in the corporate world, argues that the rise of the corporate autobiography as bestseller is proof that we need stories, rather than benchmarks, and human connection rather than policy and procedure manuals. In his usual insightful way, Aiden highlights the leadership implications faced by corporates today.
Airport book shops are usually pretty crowded with books. I suppose their attempt is to satisfy the multiple needs of a smart, savvy reader who is pretty particular about their reading material. One of the most popular sections is a relatively new arena of literary pieces – they are stories of leaders who head up the biggest of the big. Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner, Richard Branson are but a handful of the characters we find on the autobiography shelf. It is this shelf that has grown significantly in the last few years along with it’s prevalence as a genre.
Over the last decade we have seen the emergence of a new literary genre – that of the corporate autobiography. These are best-selling self-narratives of the high powered CEO in which we hear how their life is entwined with the organisation, how they navigate the business landscape and how they apply their personal style of leadership to the organisation. If nothing else, the emergence of this genre is proof alone that we’re moving into an economic era characterised by personality and connection.
Never before have the personal stories of managers been as important as they are now. Until recently in literature, managers have been conceptualised, according to Erica Schoenberger, as rational individuals figured by a set of behaviours activated by a one-dimensional motivation: maxmise or optimise. The prerogative of managers has thus been to maximise profits, wealth, size and space associated with their decision making, or alternatively optimise the domain under their control. The emergence of the corporate autobiography has now brought into perspective the complex nature of these managers who have to juggle their lived histories, social status, emotions and psyches. This is an age in which the personal story of leaders is gaining precedence over scientific application of management science. As readers we are more interested in a personal style of leadership in a context as opposed to best practice discipline.
Central to these literary pieces is how the character of the leader is bound to the organisation and vice versa. With the aid of the corporate autobiography we now begin to understand the corporation as a product of the personality of the leader. Never before have we had such entry points in terms of understanding the personality of the organisation. Again, Schoenberger illuminates this in her seminal work on corporate biographies as she writes, “personal loves and rivalries, male bonding and deep intimacy, desire and disappointment, the construction of identity and a sense of self in and through the life of the corporation – all of these are at issue in these accounts and they are indelibly marked by issues of personal and social power.”
Corporate autobiographies and the appeal associated with them is not only limited to the published self-narratives lining the book shelves in our local bookstore. Generally, when looking at the majority of business reporting, we are interested in the lives of the CEOs beyond just what they tell us about themselves. A case in point at the moment is the tussle between the ousted and current heads of Hewlett Packard. Carly Fiorina, the enigmatic communicator hallmark of women CEOs is about to publish her autobiography amidst the messy “pre-texting” scandal shadowing Mark Hurdâ€™s current leadership of HP. The business media is inundated with reporting of these events, paired with much speculation on how these individuals are currently handling the situation as well as conjecturing on how they may individually apply their own style and character to getting through the saga.
I’m certain that if we as readers were concerned about the objective truth and reality of the struggles at the top of the corporations we would not be so infatuated with the self-narrative of these leaders. No. Instead we are concerned with the person of the CEO as well as how they have applied themselves to their tasks. In this space we cannot question the validity of their narratives because they are positioned as a personal, subjective view-point on their lives and the role their life has played in the life of the organisation.
From a narrative structure perspective, the majority of corporate autobiographies in circulation position the leader along hero plot lines as one of the following characters: as the young, developing leader who either inherits or begins the organisation and builds it as his personal conquest (Tom Watson, Jr. & IBM); as the enigmatic hero who has worked his way up the totem pole, sees himself as one with organisation, stands on the shoulders of giants as he turns the organisation into something even greater (Jack Welch & GE); or as the professional manager who came in when the chips were down and managed to turn the business around and save the day (Lou Gerstner & IBM).
Schoenberger makes a compelling argument in terms of the emergence of the literary trend of corporate autobiographies as justifying means of these leaders establishing a social class. She writes, “It is part of the way the members of this class come to know themselves and each other as a class and it is part of the way they try to establish the legitimacy of this class in the eyes of the rest of us.” In her opinion, the importance of these biographies lies not in the mass appeal of gaining a glimpse into the character and psyche of the leader, but actually that the act of publishing the autobiography serves as a justification of the power it represents them yielding. In a way, the autobiography raises the accountability these leaders, and leaders to come, need to hold true when mobilising the resources at their disposal.
Such interest in the lives of the elite is akin to the infatuation the masses have in the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It’s as if we are starving for information on how they live their lives, what they do and how it is they maintain their lofty position. Corporate biographies have however surpassed this superficiality and have done well to integrate genuine substance in their narratives.
The challenge to organisations and their leaders when considering publishing a story is to recognize that the emerging economic era is one characterised by personal relationship. Our desire for corporate autobiographies and corporate narratives will increase as consumers starve for greater connections in their purchasing decisions. I dare say that it is the strength of the corporate narrative that will be the primary factor for consumers is years to come, if not already. The reality is that globalization and technology have rendered differentiation along product lines defunct. We are now in an era in which personality, connection and story are the pillars of the consumerâ€™s mantle of choice.