May 2001

The parables of David and Goliath

By Linus Torvalds
By Linus Torvalds
By Dennis McDougal
By Charles Lewis Allison
By Susan Wilson Solovic
By Christopher Bassford
By Wilfred Drath
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When David met Goliath on the battlegrounds of the Philistines, a young man with no armor slew the huge Philistine with a small rock. In today's business world, a few special leaders are challenging the status quo, trying to slay the behemoth and become king, and a slate of new business books tells their stories.

Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond (audio) is a jaunty book about the early, dysfunctional days and brilliant (albeit still young) career of Linux developer Linus Torvalds. Almost anyone who has heard of computers has heard of Linux, the computer operating system that is the closest rival to Micro- soft's Windows and, get this, is free. Not only free, but the code used to adapt Linux for different situations is widely available. Linux even requires users to share innovations under its General Public License an "anticopyright," Torvalds calls it.

Why would Torvalds do something to benefit thousands of companies and millions of users and expect little in return? Just for Fun takes a look at his somewhat radical procedures and explains that Torvalds created Linux with an Open Source philosophy, which he says illustrates "the limitless benefits" of allowing anyone and everyone to participate in a project's development or commercial exploitation. The theory says proprietary notions of commerce are wrong. Instead, the strongest products will be developed when the largest numbers of people are working on product development.

Imagine it . . . an operating system (or a product) that gets stronger and works better as time goes on.

The description of Torvalds' futuristic outlook and scientific philosophy is like a roller coaster ride inside a 21st century mind. Peppered with personal anecdotes about his kids and musings on the fate of Microsoft and others, this book is a real kick, brilliant, bold and not to be missed. It's a book about how David plans to slay Goliath, and tells him about it first.

At the other end of the spectrum, Privileged Son: Otis Chandler and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Times Dynastyby Dennis McDougal is the sad history of a great newspaper and the family who built it and tore it apart. A true epic, Privileged Son shares the story of the Chandler family whose fortunes were built, as were many great American fortunes, on the backs of anti-unionism and sly deceptions.

This history follows Times Mirror chairman Otis Chandler from youth through the sale last year of his family's media conglomerate, the Times Mirror Corporation. We meet Chandler in his youth as the country entered World War II and he experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor, a "day that marked the beginning of his personal cynicism" toward government. We follow his career as a newsman where he came to believe that the "newsroom was the heartbeat of the business," a sentiment neither his father nor grandfather, the paper's founder, shared.

McDougal, who wrote the best-selling The Last Mogul, links the best L.A. families to the early West Coast mob and chronicles the family infighting that led to the demise of Chandler family control of the newspaper. He details the expansion of Los Angeles Times news coverage to include bureaus around the world and notes that "curiously the further away it moved from its core audience, the less the Times power and might translated into automatic success." Also curious, McDougal credits the L.A. Times with challenging other California papers to pump up the volume in their papers in order to compete with the L.A. Times behemoth. In this captivating story, Goliath slays himself.

The Cheating of America: How Tax Avoidance and Evasion by the Super Rich Are Costing the Country Billions and What You Can Do About Itby Charles Lewis and Bill Allison and the Center for Public Integrity pits you and me, the taxpaying public, as David against the Goliath of industry whose tax evasion schemes rob billions each year from federal and state coffers. Whether you agree or disagree with the premise of this informative and eye-opening book, its catalog of offshore money havens, influence schemes of the rich and powerful and corporate tax-shelters provide an amazing primer on completely legal tax evasion by many large, influential corporations each year.

Did you know many wealthy Americans expatriate to another country each year to avoid paying U.S. income taxes? Or that Seagate Technology and Apple Computers are among two companies which set up offshore manufacturing companies to reduce foreign and U.S. taxes each year? Did you know the founders of some charitable trusts may take an income from that trust, with no limits, no matter how poorly the charity itself is doing? It's tax avoidance maneuvers like this that cost individual taxpayers more than $1,600 a year, says the IRS. Lewis and Allison chronicle the web of legality that surrounds much of this avoidance, causing the individual taxpayer to ante up more for the federal government. In light of the current debates on tax cuts and soft money for political contributions, this is a must read book for business owners and taxpayers alike.

On a lighter note, The Girls' Guide to Power and Success by Susan Wilson Solovic teaches women how to play the role of David. Solovic incorporates the use of power ("the power of expectations," "the power of 20/20 vision," "the power of balance") throughout her book, helping women build a successful battle plan for their careers. Although she avoids advising women to act more like men, Solovic gives clear and steady counsel on defining the terms under which a woman works. She also tells women they don't have to be Superwoman to have a great career, and she includes a few sensible tips get a cleaning lady and utilize professionals to help you manage all those parts of your life you can't get to during the workday.

I was struck by the usefulness of this book for human resource professionals as well as for the average career woman. The more HR people learn about female stereotypes, the better chance they have to incorporate women's leadership styles into the workplace and cull the best talent women have to offer. Maybe David and Goliath can work together?

Briefly noted

Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist edited by Tiha von Ghyczy, Bolko von Oetinger and Christopher Bassford. Culled from the writings of the 19th century Prussian philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, this collection includes excerpts from his seminal work, On War (1832), which are relevant to business leaders in their search for fresh thinking on the conflict known as business strategy. A fascinating primer for Clausewitz neophytes.

The Deep Blue Sea: Rethinking the Source of Leadershipby Wilfred Drath. Drath argues that we all have hidden leadership skills; we just don't recognize the traits in ourselves. Each individual personality creates different types of leaders, and each of us out there in the deep blue sea can develop our own leadership potential. Worthwhile reading for budding leaders.

Sharon Secor is a Nashville-based business writer.


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