August 11, 2016
Editor's Choice: Leadership in the Headlines: Insider Insights Into How Leaders Lead
Leadership in the Headlines: Insider Insights Into How Leaders Lead by Andrew Hill, FT Press, 208 pages, $31.50, Paperback, July 2016, ISBN 9781292112763
Working across the pond for the Financial Times, Andrew Hill is not as well known as he deserves to be in the states. That’s a shame, because he is one of the more insightful business journalists working today.
I’ve been sitting on a copy of his new book, Leadership in the Headlines, since May when it was released in the UK (Mr. Hill was kind enough to have a copy sent to us), and since first dipping my toes into it at that time, I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release here so I could tell everyone to go get it and dive in.
The book is made up of a selection of Hill’s columns for the Financial Times from 2011 to 2015. He ties them together nicely with concise commentary and wraps up each chapter with quick and concise leadership lessons. And what could have just been a simple collection of columns ends up being full and wonderful look at the field of leadership and what is bound to shape it in the future.
He groups the articles into eight separate chapters (eight “acts”) that make up the different disciplines leaders have to master: Planning, Moving, Making, Shaping, Growing, Coping, Sharing, and Leaving, before wrapping it all up with a look at the major trends he sees affecting “Leading in the 21st Century.” As you can tell from those chapter titles, Hill eschews jargon and buzzwords, always attempting to get to the heart of the matter in as few words as possible. Because of that, he often takes on that very business jargon that too often obfuscates the matter at hand. Even a seemingly innocuous word like “strategy” comes in for a beating:
Few terms of corporate art are more abused that strategy and its cousins. Put ‘strategic’ ahead of simple decisions (strategic acquisition, strategic initiative, strategic hiring) and the people carrying them out can feel more important, while those advising can charge a higher fee.
Many (if not most) leadership books discuss strategy as if it happens in a vacuum chamber, a sterilized environment in which what happens outside the organization doesn’t affect the decisions made inside of it. Leadership in the Headlines comes straight from his columns, and the real, messy world of business they cover, filled with uncertainty, changing landscapes, imperfect information, and the political risk that leaders are faced with on almost every major decision.
Yet, even though his examples are plucked from the headlines, he also knows how to find and employ the perfect metaphor to broaden the picture and sharpen a point. Speaking of how to manage a business during external crises, he writes:
[I]n the spirit of circularity, let me offer the mini-roundabout, that peculiarly British innovation in traffic management, as my metaphor for sensible strategy in times of peril. The mini-roundabout instills just enough uncertainty in drivers to encourage them to reduce speed at junctions, but not so much doubt as to cause gridlock. When it comes to assessing future risks, it may not have the romantic appeal of certain rare waterfowl popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb but, as a reminder neither to accelerate blindly into the unknown, not to stall for fear of collisions, it could provide more useful.
And like that certain business author mentioned above, he isn’t afraid to be contrarian, as he is in columns like “We should stop trying to change the world.” Counseling leaders to focus on incremental progress and the positive power of small wins over the overblown rhetoric of revolutionary change, he writes “At large companies, incremental change may be one of the best ways to achieve a radical transformation.” He champions the seemingly small, everyday thank you from executives while warning of the dangers of constructing romantic stories about what your business does in the world or a lofty, sacred sense of purpose to motivate employees.
Hill also references a book in a majority of his articles, which will lead you to further reading on almost every topic he touches. And that, I believe, actually takes the book well beyond the headlines and backs his stories with up with academic thought and research, and sometimes historical examples. Some are not the usual suspects, such as when he uses Frances Wilson’s How to Survive the Titanic and Christopher Ward’s And the Band Played On—both of which discuss how the chairman of the ship line, J Bruce Ismay, boarded one of the few life rafts available as the ship sank—to discuss whether leaders who steer their companies into disaster should have to go down with the ship. He transitions from there into a discussion about two successful management of crises, one on an Antarctic exploration under Ernest Shackleton, and the other in the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami at the Daini nuclear power plant—the sister to the Daiichi plant in Fukushima we have all heard about—which was saved under the leadership of Naohiro Masuda. He uses their example to speak to the need to pivot in business and be agile—lessons he ties to Eric Ries great book, The Lean Startup. He also uses it as an example of how the crisis averted often gets less press (think Daini vs. Daiichi) even though it has more to offer in the way of leadership lessons.
In a (perhaps somewhat cheeky) explanation of why an executive’s personal life should not off limits when being considered by a board for a senior position, he compares one of today’s media titans to an notorious English Monarch:
You don’t have to read Hilary Mantel’s fictional accounts of Henry VIII’s shifting matrimonial preferences to know marriage break-up can have profound political implications, particularly for dynasties of Tudor complexity such as the Murdochs’.
Through it all, you’ll garner invaluable ideas and lessons with roots in the real world, from how to motivate employees to how to handle the mergers and acquisitions process. He tackles big tricky questions like “What exactly is innovation,” and gets into the specifics of how to train a new generation of workers whose tenure at jobs will most likely be shorter than their parents was.
It is a great blend of perspective and prescription, and will be a wonderful resource for any leader to return to time and again over the course of what is likely to be an asymmetric career through this always unpredictable world.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.