As the praise continues to pour down upon this latest in a decade-long string of autobiographies by celebrity businessmen there is something readers should keep in mind: Everything is relative. Relatively speaking, Thomas J. Watson Jr., the son of the legendary founder of IBM and the chairman and chief executive of the computer giant during its most innovative and critical years, has written a pretty good book. With the help, of course, of his ghostwriter, Fortune magazine editor Peter Petre, Watson delivers a no-nonsense account of a long and interesting life, with a justifiable emphasis on his difficult relationship with his father in Father, Son & Co.: My Life at IBM and Beyond. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Watson’s memoir is the best business autobiography since the publication of Iacocca in 1984, the book whose staggering success spawned this entire genre. But before you plunk down your $22.95, I would hasten to add that that isn’t saying very much.
Business autobiographies have a lot more in common with books by sports celebrities or rock stars than they do with a book like New York Times columnist Russell Baker’s Growing Up. You don’t need to care a whit about journalism to reap that book’s rewards. But as far as I am aware, that can be said of no business memoir. If you’re not already interested in the author or his business, you’re not going to be interested in his book. The very qualities that make for good autobiography — a tendency toward introspection; a broad, critical intelligence; an ability to plumb the depths of one’s soul — are rare in the good businessman.
It is to Thomas Watson’s credit that he has at least tried to transcend the genre, and that no doubt accounts for a lot of the critical praise. Certainly no one is praising the plot line, which is fairly conventional: Watson carouses as a young man. He learns responsibility during World War II. He marries a wonderful woman and has some wonderful children (a staple of the genre, by the way). He joins IBM, where he is tested and discovers that he is a leader of men. He assumes the leadership of the company, at which point it simply takes off. He is a tough cookie but always fair with his ”men.” He puts his own stamp on things. He has some crises, but they all turn out OK. Then, in his late 50s, he has a heart attack and decides to retire. He gets involved in some government projects, culminating in a disappointing tour as ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Carter administration. (He admits that he was in over his head.) His wife almost leaves him because he’s so bullheaded, but that turns out OK too. Then he rides — or rather flies, for Watson loves to fly — off into the sunset, at peace at last with himself. Et cetera.
It is in the explication of his relationship with his father that Watson tries hard to add texture and depth to his book. He had numerous fights with his father, he tells us — not proudly, but honestly — fights that were ”savage, primal, and unstoppable.” It’s refreshing to read a CEO memoir in which the author is portrayed as something less than perfect. But problems remain, and the most significant of them is Watson’s blindness to his book’s central themes and indeed to his own character. A deeper self-examination would have forced him to come to terms with his snobbery; instead it is a facet of his personality that we can see but he can’t. And he often misses the most obvious fact of all: that his ”struggle” to make his way up the IBM ladder — and through life generally — was simply not all that arduous; at moments when he portrays it as such, he sounds as if he’s whining. So give Watson credit for his effort; and if you’re interested in IBM or the early history of computers or Tom Watson himself, buy the book and read it at the beach. For Watson, it turns out, shares one other trait with John Sculley, Armand Hammer, and all the other CEO memoirists: As a writer, he’s a helluva businessman.