All's fair in love and war

Robert Winder tackles a manual of business management by England's rugby captainThe Way to Win By Will Carling & Robert Heller Little, Brown, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
By an extraordinary coincidence, Will Carling's new book Strategies for Success in Business and Sport has been published just in time for the climax of the World Cup in South Africa. So if nothing else (and the truth is, there isn't much else) it will give armchair viewers a unique insight into tomorrow's crunch game against New Zealand. When the colossal Maori, Jonah Lomu, cuts in from the wing and crashes through towards Carling, a blur of thumping fists and thighs, what will be on the mind of the England skipper? It's obvious: he'll be trying to close the management gap by focusing on outcomes and allowing the command-and-control hierarchy to coordinate proliferating team projects, never forgetting that dynamism can only replace excessive stability if optimum sizing of the organisational structures is made a key part of the total quality package. With a bit of luck he'll have time to prioritise the objectives and measures that will enable him to chart progress towards his goal. I only hope he'll also take what the book calls "total responsibility for his products". This might involve evasive action; but maybe it just means protecting his goolies. Who can tell?

Carling, of course, is a management guru in his own right: his firm specialises in advising bored executives how to walk along planks with their feet tied together, and other important aspects of office life. But for this book he has teamed up with Robert Heller, the author of several previous guides to business success. The idea is that sport might be a better metaphor for business than the more usual analogue: war. Provided we forget the ingrained sporting habit of talking about games in military terms ("it was trench warfare out there ... we were annihilated ... they slaughtered us" etc), it sounds good: much more civilised to think of business as a game than as a battle.

Every now and then the authors betray a surprising lack of faith in the comparison ("nothing in management is quite as dull as swimming") but otherwise sport is dangled in front of business leaders as a flattering version of their own efforts. The book calculates, rightly, that most executives won't mind thinking of themselves as the Daley Thompson of insurance, or the Gary Lineker ("integrity achieves goals") of pharmaceuticals. Various tales from the board room - how Glaxo and ICI rose from the ashes, how Compaq cracked cheap computers - are juxtaposed with glimpses of the sporting heights - how Adrian Moorhouse and Sebastian Coe struck gold. The sources of athletic brilliance - talent, hard work, planning and luck - are then applied to corporate life.

There's plenty of common sense here, but it's a pity that the authors are so loyal to the stilted linguistic conventions of the genre. In a way you have to hand it to them: they don't seem to mind saying the same thing for page after page, and this takes ingenuity, nerve, and patience. But the strain of repeating at this level shows. Every now and then the language goes down with a serious injury: success, we find, is a matter of "out-performing competitors by superior quality of performance". You mean, the best way to play well is ... to play well? Holy rolling maul!

For variety's sake, the long formulaic slog is punctuated by the odd biting contradiction. Only two of the sporting figures (Tracy Edwards, Mike Brearley) have anything to do with leadership as such. The others are all rampant individualists out for lonely glory. The authors try to make out that Lineker "led by example", but by these standards he failed - no one followed it. There's a stirring chapter on the freaky tenacity of the squash player Jonah Barrington: "Nobody else in the sport pushed himself or herself so far." Yet only a few pages later the authors ask: "Is striving really necessary?" There then follows a little Zen catalogue of Japanese martial artists who hit the jackpot without really trying.

Isn't it about time someone blew the whistle on this kind of managerspeak? By examining success, the book pretends to analyse the factors that lead to victory. In reality sport is full of losers who followed exactly the same regime. The Australian rugby team that England beat last weekend had a clear goal, a careful plan, a great self-belief and a determined and coherent strategy. Is that why they lost? The book insists that people triumph primarily through willpower ("What you want is what you get") but forgets that losers often have as much will-power, and as many dreams, as the people who beat them.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the book is the climax. After 300 pages of important-sounding waffle about inner strength, the courage to succeed and so on, the authors end with a parable about a Japanese warrior called Nobunaga (in rugby parlance: "no bungs") who, outnumbered 10 to one, went to a shrine. "I will toss a coin," he told his doomed troops. "If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand." Well, guess what: the coin came up heads, the enemy was routed, and Nobunaga held up the fateful coin. It had two heads. Me oh my - the literary equivalent of a last-minute drop goal. But honestly, the book has no right to finish with a martial fairy tale, not when its whole point (sorry, um, strategic vision) is that sport is a better way to think about business than war. Worse, there is a serious implication here. The best way to win, the book seems to conclude, is ... to cheat. All's fair in love and sport, it seems.

Still, let's hope this has no bearing on Carling's performance tomorrow. He is obviously a great captain, and we've all got our fingers crossed. But as they say in the locker rooms of literature, you're only as good as your last book.