Business Leaders: Dale Carnegie

We take a look at the core lessons from the man behind How to Win Friends and Influence People – which are still applied by entrepreneurs today

Name: Dale Carnegie
Born: 1888
Expertise: Carnegie’s core idea was to help people to see that it was perfectly possible to change other people’s behavior by changing their own way of dealing with them, and in the process improve their own market value
Known for: Lecturing and training programs in self-confidence building, communication skills and leadership. His ideas survive as the curriculum at Dale Carnegie Training
Best-known titles: How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936); How to Stop Worrying and Start Living (1948); and How To Enjoy Your Life and Your Job (1970)

Who is Dale Carnegie?

Dale Carnegie’s career started with a spell as a travelling salesman, followed by a brief acting career which in turn led him to giving classes in public speaking, teaching his students how to make persuasive presentations and build constructive relationships.


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What is Carnegie known for?

In 1913 he formed the Dale Carnegie Institute and by 1931 had embarked on generating the material for his seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Whilst it’s hard to claim any great intellectual originality for Carnegie’s ideas, his claim to fame lies in the reach of his message. His book has been translated into more than 40 languages, selling more than 20 million copies. Dale Carnegie Training is delivered in every state in the US and in over 80 countries by some 2,700 instructors teaching in over 25 languages. Students range from Lee Iacocca, a former Chrysler chairman and Mary Kay Ash, chairman of Mary Kay Cosmetics to salesmen, engineers and job hunters everywhere.

By 1912, aged just 24, Carnegie had stumbled into what was to become his lifetime’s mission. He was running courses in public speaking for businesses and professionals in New York. At first, he concentrated on public speaking only, delivering courses “designed to train adults, by actual experience, to think on their feet and express their ideas with more clarity, more effectiveness and more poise, both in business interviews and before groups”. Carnegie was also conducting courses for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers both in New York and Philadelphia. They came, he claimed, “because they had finally realised, after years of observation and experience, that the highest-paid personnel in engineering are frequently not those who know the most about engineering, but the person who has technical knowledge plus the ability to express ideas, to assume leadership, and to arouse enthusiasm among people”.

Recognising that most of his students needed training in “the fine art of getting along with people in everyday business and social contact” every bit as much as polishing their public speaking skills, Carnegie prepared a short talk that he called ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. It was short in the beginning, but it soon expanded to a 90-minute lecture. One person who attended, Leon Shimkin, then a junior executive and later chairman at publishing house Simon & Schuster, was so impressed that he suggested Carnegie write a book based on his lectures. Carnegie wasn’t interested at first but he agreed to let his secretary gather notes. He was eventually spurred on when the University of Chicago and the United YMCA Schools conducted a survey to find out what adults wanted to study and found that the second biggest study interest was people: how to understand and get along with people; how to make people like you; and how to win others to your way of thinking. The committee responsible for the survey then searched exhaustively for a book to use as course material, but drew a blank. Two years later, between Shimkin, Carnegie and his secretary, How to Win Friends and Influence People was written and published.

The concepts

Carnegie didn’t consider that he was developing theories. That word is only mentioned once in the introduction to his book. Method, in contrast, is a word liberally sprayed around every chapter. He recommended that you should read his work “with a crayon, pencil, pen, magic marker, or highlighter in your hand. When you come across a suggestion that you feel you can use, draw a line beside it”.

His book is divided into four parts headed: ‘Fundamental Techniques in Handling People’; ‘How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking’; ‘Six Ways to Make People Like You’; and ‘Be a Leader’. Each part has a number of chapters from which Carnegie drew pithy, single-sentence messages that he called ‘principles’. His style throughout is to introduce an idea, usually through reference to accepted research findings, followed by an illustration of how that idea has been applied in everyday affairs.

For example, his first principle, ‘Don’t criticise, condemn or complain’, starts with a reference to BF Skinner, Edgar Pierce professor of psychology at Harvard University. Carnegie states, “the world-famous psychologist, proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior. Later studies have shown that the same applies to humans. By criticising, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.”

Carnegie then goes on to tell the story of one George B Johnston of Enid, Oklahoma, the safety coordinator for an engineering company, one of whose responsibilities was to see that employees wear their hard hats whenever they are on the job in the field. At first, whenever he came across workers who were not wearing hard hats, he would remind them of the regulation and that they must comply. The result was usually a sullen acceptance, with hats being removed as soon as he was out of sight. Carnegie then describes what happened when Johnston tried a different approach. “The next time he found some of the workers not wearing their hard hat, he asked if the hats were uncomfortable or did not fit properly. Then he reminded the men in a pleasant tone of voice that the hat was designed to protect them from injury and suggested that it always be worn on the job. The result was increased compliance with the regulation with no resentment or emotional upset”.

In Part 2: ‘Six Ways to Make People Like You’, Carnegie blends ancient history, quoting Roman poet Publilius Syrus’s remark, “We are interested in others when they are interested in us”, with observations of what he saw as self-evident truths. Challenging his reader to “study the technique of the greatest winner of friends the world has ever known”, he puts forward the dog as “the only animal that doesn’t have to work for a living? A hen has to lay eggs, a cow has to give milk, and a canary has to sing. But a dog makes his living by giving you nothing but love.” Carnegie didn’t claim to always be able to apply all his principles all of the time. “For example”, he said, “when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticise and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint. It is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise. It is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants and so on. So, as you read this book, remember that you are not merely trying to acquire information. You are attempting to form new habits. Ah yes, you are attempting a new way of life. That will require time and persistence and daily application.”

How real companies use Carnegie’s concepts

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement of Carnegie’s methods is the ringing praise Warren Buffett, the world’s third-richest man, gives it. “The most important degree that I have”, is how Buffett described his experience of attending a Dale Carnegie Training course in January 1952. Buffett’s biographer, Alice Schroeder, documented 13 other references to Carnegie and the influence Buffett attributes to the lessons from How to Win Friends and Influence People. Buffett first came across the book on his grandfather’s bookshelf when he was “eight or nine”. Buffett follows Carnegie’s principles in his business methods, but he doesn’t just accept them blindly. Schroeder reveals that he conducted a statistical analysis of what happened if he did follow Dale Carnegie’s principles and what happened if he didn’t.

The numbers proved that the rules worked. Buffett is just one of millions who have been influenced by Carnegie’s work. Jonathan Yardley, book critic at The Washington Post and the 1981 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, when asked for the ‘10 books that shaped the American character’, ranked Carnegie alongside Thoreau, Whitman, Twain and Hemingway.

Carnegie was nothing if not rigorous in checking out everyone with anything to contribute to his subject. In preparation, he states in the introduction, “I read everything that I could find on the subject – everything from newspaper columns, magazine articles, records of the family courts, the writings of the old philosophers and the new psychologists”. He hired a researcher who spent 18 months trawling libraries, reading through “erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people”. Carnegie interviewed scores of successful people, including Marconi, Edison and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spoke with film stars, including Clark Gable and Mary Pickford, trying to discover the techniques they used in human relations.

Validity today

Carnegie’s ideas are as relevant today as when he first set them down in writing. His widow, Dorothy, oversaw a revised edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1981, updating some of the language and examples “to clarify and strengthen the book for a modern reader without tampering with the content”.

In October 2011 a second revision was published, How to Win Friends, and Influence People in the Digital Age which re-imagined the original book for the digital age and updated and reframed Carnegie’s insights about communication, self-expression and leadership to accommodate social networking sites and email. An iPhone app version of the original book, complete with video clips, charts, tips and ‘a daily dose of confidence’ came out in 2010 and was the top-selling paid business app in the iTunes store.

Business Gurus, edited by Ian Wallis and published by Crimson Publishing, is available to order now.

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