Lee Iacocca said it best. In the introduction to the paperback edition of his massively best-selling 1984 autobiography, the erstwhile savior of Chrysler and symbol of American capitalism reflected on his book s success: After all, this is just a story about a kid from a good immigrant family who studied hard and worked hard, who had some big successes and some big disappointments, and who made out fine in the end because of the simple values he learned from his parents and teachers, and because he had the good luck to live in America."
There, in one sentence, is everything a triumphant account of a life in American business requires: the hardscrabble childhood, tempered by the parents and teachers who imparted the necessity of honest toil; the character-forging career setback; the ultimate triumph. There, too, are the twin heroes of the U.S. business bestseller: the humble CEO and America itself, the country that makes everything possible.
Iacocca's latter-day followers have faithfully reproduced his model, glossing over awkward divorces and inconveniently prosperous childhoods to squeeze their lives into the same Horatio Alger narrative. In Bloomberg by Bloomberg, for example, Michael Bloomberg concedes that his mother's family had some money but emphasizes his accountant father's modest job keeping the books in a dairy. Jack Welch's Jack: Straight from the Gut dispenses with the legendary General Electric CEO's divorce from his first wife in a little over half a page: "Carolyn and I simply found ourselves on different paths." If it doesn't fit in with the dream, it's not part of the book.
But what dream do you embody if you're not an American? Over the last two decades, with new markets springing up around the world, the celebrity CEO has become more than an American institution--and the CEO biography has gone global as well. Twenty-four years ago, Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, published perhaps the first example of the international business memoir, Made in Japan. In recent years, everyone from Abilio dos Santos Diniz, the manically overachieving Brazilian retail magnate, to Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi founder of Grameen Bank and father of microcredit, has followed suit, inventing a new form of tycoon lit for the emerging-market set. In China, where the number of billionaires has shot up from just one in 1999 to 64 this year, inspirational business books line the walls of stores. The hugely popular translation of Straight from the Gut sold more than 600,000 copies there in its first year. Biographies of business moguls like the car-selling Tata family have become popular in India, too, as the country's economy has boomed.
The American Dream, though, turns out to need some customizing for this new breed of Iacoccas. Now, the bootstraps belong to an entire nation: The aspiring billionaire must struggle with his country's poverty and isolation rather than his own. America is still glorified--but it's a far-off beacon and often a discouraging emblem of what cannot be accomplished at home. And the dream embodied in these books can at times seem to be the exact reverse of the American one: rising to the top in spite of one's national circumstances, not because of them.
Morita's account, like Iacocca's, laid out the expectations. Morita describes his wealthy background ("I was born the first son and fifteenth-generation heir to one of Japan's finest and oldest sake-brewing families"), which contrasts sharply with the catastrophes of living through World War n in Tokyo. In the early postwar days, Morita and his staff ran the company that would become Sony in an office so bomb-damaged that they had to hold up umbrellas indoors when it rained.
Many of the new generation of global business memoirists also acknowledge their privileged upbringings--while taking care to juxtapose their family's wealth with the struggles faced by their country in general. …