Matters Column

Reading non-business books offers insight on people

March 1, 2013
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My family has suggested I might relax more if I read novels instead of history, business and political books. So I thought I would give it a try. I’ve always felt there is value in any knowledge, regardless of the form it’s received. Many books teach you about people and their behavior. The fundamental thing about managing people is understanding them, and most books give some insight.

Here is a list of what I’ve learned in the last few weeks of reading.

The novel “The Mill River Recluse” by Darcie Chan was slightly entertaining but depressing. I learned that if you are an attractive young woman who suffers from agoraphobia, you shouldn’t marry the best-looking, richest guy in town. You might end up an emotional wreck and live out your life as a recluse. Can't say as I can use anything from this.

“The Last Letter” by Kathleen Shoop was a little more to my liking. The message was that if your husband gets caught in a bank fraud in 1888, do not move from Des Moines, Iowa, to a sod hut in South Dakota. I like stories about frontier living but this one comes to a bad end. Google the 1888 Children's Blizzard: It got that name because, of the 500 or so people who died, a large part were children. When the storm hit, the teachers sent them home. Bad idea. Except for the realization that before the safety nets of today life was grim, it mainly just made me happy to be living now.

Next was “A Predator Priest” by David Margolick. The lesson is that large, hierarchical organizations tend to go to any extreme to protect their image (Arthur Andersen, for example). The old adage that you have to go along to get along is extremely dangerous. In the herd mentality, you may have joined the one heading for slaughter.

My favorite book was “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gywnne, a history of the last 40 years of the struggle of the Comanche Indians to stay free on the staked plains of Texas and Oklahoma. I learned a lot about culture, courage, friendship and entrepreneurship. The culture issue resonated with me. I remember when I was about 25, I asked a fellow worker what Baptists believed. With 16 years of Catholic education, I thought her beliefs were silly. It has been a long road to the realization that members of other cultures and religions also have strong convictions. I have heard Grand Rapids referred to as a Dutch bubble. Well, there was a Comanche bubble in the southwest, and they fought just as hard to preserve their culture as any good Hollander would stand up for theirs.

Part of the book deals with the Texas Rangers and John Coffee Hays. The Comanche were raiders and warriors. Their whole culture revolved around war. They had kept the Spanish and Mexicans from moving north for 200 years. They were afraid of John C. Hayes — that says a lot. He was one of the founders of Oakland, Cal., a good entrepreneur. He was fearless, resourceful and, apparently, a savvy financier.

The most important of the characters in the book is Quanah Parker. He was the last of the free Comanche to be brought to the reservation, the son of Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker. He epitomized the Comanche culture in his bravery and body count. When he realized it was over, he put on a suit, learned the white man’s ways and became a successful rancher and businessman. Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, the army officer who brought him in after a four-year chase with many casualties on both sides, befriended and aided him in adjusting to life as a civilized man.

No one is beyond learning to succeed if they are motivated.

Sam Colt was 16 when he invented the Colt revolver. He tried to sell the concept to the U.S. Army but failed. He manufactured the guns but could not find buyers and went bankrupt.  The aforementioned Texas Ranger John Hays was given one and recognized its value in fighting on horseback. He sent his top man, Capt. Samuel Walker, to Connecticut to develop a better design. The result was the famous Colt Walker six-shooter. With the help of financing from Eli Whitney Jr., Colt’s Mfg. Co. is still in business today. Perfect small business scenario: a young man with a patent, an expert in the product’s use and a wealthy investor to get it off the ground.

I just finished “Detroit: An American Autopsy,” by former Detroit News reporter Charlie LeDuff. What did I learn? Don't go there.

So why read books that are not business books if business is what you do? All of the above books, whether fictitious or real, are stories about people, and people are customers, employees, suppliers and you.

Where do you get the courage of a John Hays? When things are not going your way, think about Sam Colt and his recovery from bankruptcy to become one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world. And if you believe family background or lack of resources will keep you from succeeding, think of the near Stone Age upbringing of Quanah Parker, who went on to have President Theodore Roosevelt stay at his home.

This is a good time to be alive and in business.

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