The best business books are usually about music and sports

Here’s a question I once asked myself while browsing a modest-sized bookstore, which is one of my favorite things to do: If I had to read all the books in the store section by section, which ones would I enjoy most? find? and which one is the least?

For me, the second question is easier: I’m not a fan of self-help books and business/management books, two genres that have all too much in common. Admittedly, you can find good advice in these books. Too often, the exhortations are cliché or lack context. I predict it’s only a matter of time before ChatGPT will be the most popular author in these genres.

I therefore have a modest proposal for anyone interested in business books: read books about specific companies or sectors that you already know a lot about. That way you have enough contextual knowledge to make the book meaningful.

Of course, many people don’t work at a company or industry that’s so big or famous that there are books about it, so I have a corollary proposition: you learn the most about management by reading books about sports and music groups.

Most people have favorite music artists, athletes or sports teams. They have often been following these people and institutions for years. That gives them enough context to understand the management stories – how the teams were put together, how leaders emerged, how people dealt with setbacks and failures, and so on. These are all business-relevant topics.

For example, I’ve learned a lot about management and group dynamics by reading books about the Beatles—especially those that deal with their origins, their breakup, or both. You see the importance of a good manager (Brian Epstein, until his death), the competitive pressure from other musicians and the rivalries within the group, such as the eventual rise of Paul over John, due to Paul’s superior work ethic.

Because I know a lot about the background, the stories make sense to me and I can think of some general principles that I can apply to other companies or small groups, such as the importance of getting new projects off the ground, which is something that Paul excelled at.

My point is not that you should read about the Beatles. It’s to find out for myself what the Beatles are to me. I also learned a lot from reading the history of the Byrds, who were less successful than the Beatles, and the British punk group XTC, who never made much money from their music. Failures and smaller successes are also worth studying, but traditional business books tend to focus too much on villains and scandals rather than trying to gain a sympathetic understanding.

One of my favorite ‘business books’ is a sparkling autobiography by Alex Ferguson, the famous coach of Manchester United. It was written with Michael Moritz, who was a former journalist and later became a venture capitalist. It’s one of the best books I’ve read on understanding and discovering talent.

To understand the concept of team loyalty and how to build it, I also relied on Jerry Kramer’s Green Bay Packers memoir Instant Replay. Both Manchester United and the Packers are, of course, companies. The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith asks whether a charismatic leader, in this case basketball star Michael Jordan, can push other employees too hard. I look forward to good, detailed biographies of Magnus Carlsen and Steph Curry, two of the most impressive achievers, both obsessed with constant self-improvement.

Many music and sports books are not just written for obsessed fans, but also written by obsessed fans. Traditional business books, on the other hand, are often written to get consulting work or to get on the speaking circuit. The impetus is not to offend anyone and to bring out some lowest common denominator insights, rather than to say something truly original that may be difficult to explain. The end result is a bookstore section that would be mind-numbing to have to read.

And which part of the bookstore would I most like to read?

I suppose I should stand up for my profession, but economics books contain too much repetition (how many critiques of “neoliberalism” do you have to plow through?) and doomsday scenarios (which sell better than optimism). Instead, I would choose the History and Biography sections. These books are usually rich in context and detail, and vary in mood.

Business books can be found almost anywhere in a bookstore these days, once you know where to look. The trick is to know that the very best business books aren’t usually written for reasons of… well, business reasons. ©bloomberg