Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self

By Alan M. Webber
Harper Business, 2009, 286 pages

The Economist once published an article titled “How 51 Gorillas Can Make You Seriously Rich; Or, Why So Many Business Books Are Awful.” It explained the formulaic nature of so much business writing and discussed the penchant authors and publishers have for putting animals and numbers in their titles. So, after scanning the title, it was with some trepidation that I opened Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self, by Alan M. Webber, former editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review and cofounder of Fast Company. I needn’t have worried. One of the problems with so many business books is that they are produced by people who don’t write professionally. Webber does, and he has written a gem.

The book is an occidental version of the I Ching (Book of Changes), a connection the author makes explicitly but that would be apparent to anyone familiar with the ancient Chinese tome. Widely used in Asia by fortune-tellers and futurists alike, the I Ching “works” not by having any mystical connection to the future but by helping the inquirer understand the potential for change in the present. When asked a question, the I Ching suggests elements in the current situation that may have been ignored, and indicates their potential for being changed into their opposites. This perspective, which is based on an early systems view of the world in which the whole universe is seen as being in a continual state of flux, is appropriate for these turbulent times.

Instead of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams, the author has his 52 Rules of Thumb, which are accreted from his long career of interviewing and writing about remarkable men and women around the world. Some were leaders in business and politics; others were entrepreneurs, sportsmen, teachers, writers, Nobel Prize winners, and spiritual leaders. Everywhere Webber went, he re­corded such individuals’ insights and hard-won truths on index cards. Bolstering this wisdom are four work experiences that were deeply transformative for both him and others. The result is a wise book about understanding the never-ending dialectic between life and work.

The rules can be read sequentially, scanned rapidly, or accessed randomly, which is encouraged by the absence of a conventional table of contents and index. But, as with the I Ching, it is best to approach the book with a burning issue, a dilemma, or a wicked question in mind. Each rule gets its own short chapter, which consists of the rule statement, the context from which it was derived, and a “so what” section, outlining the lesson to be learned. The significance of any given rule depends on the issue or question that you are grappling with. A rule that seems trite or obvious one day will take on a new significance the next. One of my favorites is #33: “Everything Is a Performance.” Webber notes that he and Bill Taylor (the cofounder of Fast Company) used to look at every issue of the magazine as if it were a music album, matching the album’s architecture of opener, chart buster, love song, blues, ballad, and upbeat finish. Now if we could only think of strategic plans in the same way!

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