January 7, 2010

News & Opinion: In the Books - Off to the Printers VII

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 10:15 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

In today's installment of past articles from In the Books, we have something from Robert Morris—an independent management consultant and one of the most knowledgeable business book reviewers in the country. In the essay below, he discusses the best leadership books of 2008.


Real-World Lessons in Leadership BY ROBERT MORRIS The authors of the best leadership books published in 2008 draw heavily upon a wealth of real-world information, both their own and others’, notably corporate executives and leaders in other fields. There seems to be common agreement among these authors that a smart person learns from his or her mistakes whereas a wise person learns from others’ mistakes. These experiences with failure also seem to produce (for lack of a better term) wisdom from which other important lessons can be learned. Robert Thomas offers a case in point. In 2002, he and Warren Bennis wrote Geeks & Geezers, in which they shared what they learned from various leaders who were asked, “Why are some people able to extract wisdom from experience, however harsh, and others are not?” Without exception, the 43 leaders they interviewed (who ranged in age from 21 to 93) underwent and eventually survived what Bennis and Thomas characterize as a crucible: a process of “meaning making” of especially difficult events that galvanized them as human beings (as precious metals were treated by alchemists in the Middle Ages) who would later become effective leaders. In the more recently published Crucibles of Leadership, Thomas shifts his focus to exploring “what life is like inside a crucible.” As the dozens of personal accounts he provides clearly indicate:

“Crucible experiences are not only defining moments; they can also be a valuable starting point for discovering a form of practice closely attuned to an individual’s aspirations and motivations—something I refer to as a Personal Learning Strategy. That is, crucibles trigger a search for meaning: Why did this happen? Why did it happen to me? What should I learn from this for the future? Handled properly, crucibles can catalyze a vigorous and sustained interior dialogue that leads to deeper self-understanding and enhanced performance” (7).
In this context, I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s observation, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.” All great leaders are lifelong learners, and wisdom is the most valuable result of those efforts. In How the Wise Decide: The Lessons of 21 Extraordinary Leaders, Bryn Zeckhauser and Aaron Sandoski focus on the importance of developing sound judgment. They clearly agree with Noel Tichy and Bennis who assert in their book Judgment that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right” (15). That is certainly true of the 21 “extraordinary leaders” whom Zeckhauser and Sandoski examine in this book. Each demonstrates mastery of six core decision making principles. For example, the importance of routinely consulting primary sources, pursuing firsthand information wherever it took them. They “listened with purpose” during group meetings and one-on-one conversations to fill in their information gaps. They demanded and praised candor. Before making any major decision (i.e. a “tough call”), they took into full consideration all relevant information, from as many different perspectives as possible, to ensure that the decision was not only legal but also ethical. Yes, the proverbial “buck” stopped on their desk, but only after enduring its own crucible of intense, broad-based scrutiny. Geoff Colvin set out to answer this question: “What does great performance require?” In Talent Is Overrated, he shares several insights generated by hundreds of research studies, and finds that one of the key insights they reveal is that all great performers “make it look so easy” because of their commitment to deliberate practice, often for several years of trial and error. Colvin duly acknowledges that deliberate practice “is a large concept, and to say that it explains everything would be simplistic and reductive” (7). His insights offer a reassurance that almost anyone’s performance can be improved, sometimes substantially, even if it isn’t world-class. Talent is overrated if it is perceived to be the most important factor. It isn’t. In fact, talent does not exist unless and until it is developed... and the only way to develop it is (you guessed it) with deliberate practice. Whenever Ben Hogan was asked the “secret” to playing great golf, he replied, “It’s in the dirt.” Colvin leaves no doubt that deliberate practice “hurts but it works.” To anyone who lacks sufficient self confidence, he reassures, “what the evidence shouts most loudly is striking, liberating news: That great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone” (206). What are the best management books of all time and what lessons can be learned from them? That is a question that Chris Lauer and the editors at Soundview Executive Book Summaries set out to answer. Their conclusions are provided in The Management Gurus. (Note: Space limitations do not permit a full list of the authors and their books. Many who check out the list will no doubt take issue with selections and omissions.) Lauer and his associates decided to focus on specific works, most of which are recently published and representative of the “gurus” who wrote them. They make brilliant use of a standard format that consists of a brief introduction to the given author or co-authors, the given book’s table of contents, “The Summary in Brief” followed by “What You’ll Learn in This Summary,” and then “The Complete Summary.” What amazes me, frankly, is how much coverage is provided in a series of 15 chapters, each devoted to one or a combination of business thinkers; also, having already read and reviewed most of the exemplary books, I can attest to the fact that there was no effort to “dumb down” the material. Moreover, the length of each commentary is significant. For example, 15 pages devoted to John C. Maxwell (Winning with People), 16 pages to Bill George with Peter Sims (True North), 17 pages to Bo Burlingham (Small Giants), and 18 pages to Kenichi Ohmae (The Next Global Stage). Obviously, these summaries are necessarily incomplete, but certainly not “thumb nails.” There is more than enough information to help a busy executive to decide whether or not to read them and perhaps seek additional sources, several of which are identified in the brief introductions. Many of those in my generation wish Stewart B. Friedman’s Total Leadership had been available 25 years ago so that we could have more thoroughly reflected on and then explored the relative importance of four domains in our lives—work, home, community, and self—to determine (a) whether or not the goals we were pursuing in each were in sync, (b) also in sync with the other goals, and (c) and how satisfied we were with what was happening in each and all domains. Oh well. Here’s my take on a few of Friedman’s key points. All “total leaders” possess great strength because they do what they love, drawing upon the resources of their entire (four- domain) life. By acting with authenticity, they create value for themselves, their families, their businesses, and their world. By acting with integrity, they satisfy their craving for a sense of connection, for coherence in disparate parts of their lives, and for the peace of mind that comes from strictly and consistently adhering to a code of values. Meanwhile, they “keep a results-driven focus while providing maximum flexibility (choice in how, when, and where things get done.) They have the courage to experiment with new arrangements and communications tools to better meet the expectations of people who depend on them.” (11). At the same time, each “total” leader does everything she or he can to help others (at work, at home, in the community, and for themselves) to become aware of whatever adjustments may be necessary within her or his own domains; to have a sense of urgency about making those modifications; to decide to commit to appropriate action that will create for each a different, better future; to solve whatever problems they encounter when pursuing the giving goals, meanwhile sustaining commitment despite any barriers, delays, distractions, etc. Total leaders also ensure that “people who depend on them” have the support and encouragement they may need by celebrating incremental successes while resisting “slippage.” Although many of the exemplary executives discussed in these and other outstanding business books are prominent CEOs, please keep in mind that their organizations as well as all others need results-driven leadership at all levels and in all areas. I think it is also important to realize that even the most highly regarded CEOs are flawed human beings, as they would likely be the first to point out. Those whom Robert Thomas interviewed remind us that “crucibles” of hardship and heartbreak need not be incinerators. Bryn Zeckhauser and Aaron Sandoski are convinced that you can gain wisdom by mastering the same six core decision-making principles that proved so invaluable to the 21 “extraordinary leaders” whom they discuss. There is also much you can learn from what the “management gurus” share in their books. Meanwhile, Geoff Colvin wants you to remember that “great performance is not reserved for a preordained few. It is available to you and to everyone” if there is a total commitment to deliberate practice. And Stewart Friedman suggests that, yes, great performance is possible in all four domains of your life—work, home, community, and self—if you can summon and then sustain the courage and determination to get your priorities in proper alignment. No one can balance everything in each domain, but you can balance what is most important in all four of them. These domains are not separate. Rather, they are interdependent, and together they give you and your life definition... and meaning.

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.