Tom Rath

Last year, Bob Lutz retired as vice-chairman of General Motors after a long and celebrated career in the auto industry. Earlier this summer he published a book titled Car Guys vs. Bean Counters. By mid-July it had climbed to No. 16 on the business bestseller list compiled by Nielsen BookScan, the source that book publishers themselves look to.

Car guys or bean counters—care to guess which Lutz identifies with? Yes, he is a car guy. He likes chrome, fine-grained interiors, big rims, and the “wonderful high-pitched wail” of a V-12 engine. He dislikes focus groups, “brand management,” and pointy-headed MBAs. By bean counters, Lutz isn’t just talking accountants: He means anyone who makes decisions based on research and calculation rather than feel and experience. It was the bean counters, he argues, who brought the American auto industry low, churning out uninspiring cars no one wanted to buy. Car guys, with their guts (the title of Lutz’s previous bestseller) and shoot-from-the-hip brio, are the salvation of the American automobile—and of American business itself. “It’s time to stop the dominance of the number crunchers, living in their perfect, predictable, financially projected world (who fail, time and again),” he writes.

Lutz had best not look around at his neighbors on the bestseller list. There were no other charismatic executive-authors in BookScan’s business top 20 the week of July 18. (After Lutz, the closest is Howard Schultz of Starbucks, at No. 27.) And the top 10 are shot through with number crunchers.

StrengthsFinder 2.0, by Tom Rath of the Gallup Organization, is the No. 1 book on the July 18 business top 10. It is also the second shortest. This may not be a coincidence. Who Moved My Cheese? (No. 9), a simple-minded parable about adapting to change, is one of the biggest bestsellers of all time and one of the shortest books anyone over the age of 7 will ever read. Frankly, it should be much shorter. But whereas Who Moved My Cheese? is meant to be read cover to cover—a task that can be accomplished, its dust jacket flap proudly points out, in less than an hour—StrengthsFinder 2.0 is more of a reference work. (Don’t waste time searching for a book called StrengthsFinder 1.0. There isn’t one.)

What 2.0 really is, though, is a delivery device. In a packet at the end of the book, hidden under scratch-off lottery-ticket wax, is a code that provides access to the StrengthsFinder website. This is where the StrengthsFinding begins. Visitors take a test to determine their five top strength “themes.” “Strategic,” “deliberative,” “individualization,” and “context” are a few of the options. The website then draws up a personalized guide with “strengths insights” and “ideas for action” such as: “Help others understand that your strategic thinking is not an attempt to belittle their ideas, but is instead a natural propensity to consider all the facets of a plan objectively.” There is no advice on what to do when your co-worker responds to this by trying to brain you with a stapler.

Ten years after it was first published, Jim Collins’s Good to Great is still lodged on the bestseller list at No. 10. Collins, a former lecturer at Stanford Business School, is a high lama of business guru-dom. He even lives in the mountains, in Boulder, Colo. Good to Great, a study of what it takes for a company to vault from the crowded ranks of perfectly good performance to the heights of greatness, has sold 8 million copies worldwide. Two years ago, Businessweek put him on its cover.

In Collins’s description, the techniques of great management have a cosmic perfection, like the music of the spheres. Here is how he describes the moment of afflatus when an organization figures out the one thing it can be best at—what Collins calls, after the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the Hedgehog Concept: “When you get your Hedgehog Concept right, it has the quiet ping of truth, like a single, clear, perfectly struck note hanging in the air in the hushed silence of a full auditorium at the end of a quiet movement of a Mozart piano concert. There is no need to say much of anything; the quiet truth speaks for itself.”

Despite the mystical prose, Collins is a data man. His books are the products of years of study. For Good to Great, Collins and the team at his “management research laboratory” in Boulder picked out 11 Fortune 500 companies that, based on stock market performance, had made the leap from good to great: Abbott, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreen, and Wells Fargo. The team then looked through newspaper and magazine stories, analyst reports, proxy statements, and business school case studies. In all, the researchers read almost 6,000 articles and produced more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts with company executives, creating 384 million bytes of computer data. “I like to think of our work as a search for timeless principles—the enduring physics of great organizations—that will remain true and relevant no matter how the world changes around us,” Collins writes.

The advice that Collins extracts from this research is reasonable enough and useful, if unsurprising. To become great, companies need exceptional but humble leaders and top talent. They need to confront cold, hard truths but not lose faith. They need their Hedgehog Concept. They need a “culture of discipline.”

For all his thousands of pages and hundreds of megabytes, however, Collins’s data leave big blind spots. The news stories, case studies, and analyst reports he draws on are all, in their way, fundamentally subjective, as are the interviews in which executives expound on their own success. While these may be the best data Collins could find on the Fortune 500 companies he wanted to look at, they’re a long way from the building blocks of an “enduring physics of great organizations.” They’re mostly measures of perception, not fact. It’s little surprise that, added together and carefully sifted for patterns, what they yield sounds a lot like conventional wisdom.

Good to Great is still flying off the shelves even after two of the companies it celebrates have imploded. Circuit City is defunct, and Fannie Mae, having played a central role in the 2008 financial crisis, had to be rescued by the government and placed in federal conservatorship at a cost thus far of almost $100 billion.

Even great companies can, of course, lose their way or be overtaken by events. But with Fannie in particular, Collins’s methods didn’t just fail to predict disaster, they may have limited his understanding of its success. As he sees it, Fannie’s leap into world-beating stock market performance in the 1980s and ’90s happened because it became “the best capital markets player in the world at managing mortgage interest risk.” It’s now clear, though, that what Fannie really excelled at was managing politicians—a skill its executives probably didn’t emphasize in their interviews with Collins’s researchers.

That’s the Fannie Mae that emerges in the No. 2 title on the list, Reckless Endangerment by New York Times columnist Gretchen Morgenson and the investment analyst Joshua Rosner. Unlike Good to Great, it’s not an advice book, though a Machiavellian reader might use it that way. Some of its lessons—for example, how to get fantastically rich while running a government-sponsored mortgage finance company—are less applicable now that Fannie and Freddie Mac’s stock have both been delisted.

Reckless Endangerment is an “economic whodunit” (the authors’ term) into the roots of the 2008 meltdown. Morgensen and Rosner concede that there’s plenty of blame to go around, and then proceed to lay most of it on one man: James A. Johnson, Fannie’s chief executive officer from 1991 to 1998. “A Pied Piper of the financial sector,” they write, “Johnson led both the private and public sectors down a path that led directly to the credit crisis of 2008.” Johnson takes on the dimensions of an Ernst Blofeld-style supervillain, a suave, canny man with far-reaching tentacles whose avarice wrecks the world economy.

Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is the other financial crisis book in the top 10, at No. 8, and easily the best of the lot. (Lewis is a Bloomberg News columnist.) Lewis’s good guys are contrarian investors—number crunchers who saw the housing crash and its awful financial ramifications coming before anyone else did. Their warnings went unheeded.

Unlike Collins and the StrengthsFinders, these number crunchers weren’t fonts of affirming advice. They were trying to remind people that things that seem too good to be true in fact are. Few listened. We may like reading about heroic bean counters, but most of us only pay attention when they’re saying things we want to hear.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.