5 Books for Leadership in 2019

These five books remain relevant for leaders today

5 Books for Leadership in 2019

If the top 20 world experts in, say, botany were to lock themselves in a room and talk only with each other, sooner or later they would cease to be experts. The other 7 billion of us would pass them by.

It is important to keep reading and learning, especially in fields like technology that are rapidly developing and disciplines like leadership that are impacted by our rapidly evolving culture and politics.

This month, I reconnected with a five books about leadership that remain relevant in 2019.

The Book of Joy (2016)

The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, offers insights on joy. It is based on conversations between Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and South African spiritual icon Desmond Tutu, two eminent persons steeped in spiritual traditions that have for centuries allowed people to live lives of greater meaning and dignity, with and for others.

The book focuses on joy by design and for two reasons. First, joy was the subject of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu's week-long meeting that is this book's inspiration. Second, recent science has shown that humans share only four basic emotions - joy, fear, sadness, and anger - of which joy is the single positive emotion and therefore important to cultivate. To paint a full picture, the authors discuss the nature of joy, obstacles to it, and how to cultivate it.

What separates this book from similar books is its descriptions of the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu's lighthearted and collegial relationship, bringing a fresh and inimitable counterpoint to concepts that otherwise might feel philosophical or inaccessible. Joy is more a practice than a concept, which the two leaders' jocular relationship makes clearer than any logical argument could.

Life certainly must have been hard at times for the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile, and Desmond Tutu, who lived through apartheid in South Africa. Just as certainly, they can find joy in life despite their past hardships. This book presents a window into the world views of two men who have much to teach not simply because of what they know, but what they have lived through and how they continue to live today. This book's full five stars on Amazon.com suggest that the message comes through.

Lessons from the Top (1999)

Written by professional technology headhunters Thomas Neff and James Citrin of the Spencer Stuart firm, Lessons from the Top is a 1999 profile of the "top" 50 CEOs in America. Today in 2019, the book can be reread from its original perspective or with the benefit of the ensuring two decades of history.

Using today's lens, the choice to include certain leaders is hard to grasp. Most egregiously, the book features the late Enron CEO Kenneth Lay, enabler of arguably the greatest corporate scandal and failure of between 1995 and 2005. Lay and his team destroyed two Fortune 500 companies, Enron and Arthur Andersen, along with the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people.

In Lessons, Lay speaks against excessive government regulation in a profile that lacks both feeling and inspiration, even as a present-day anti-example. The pages feel wasted except perhaps as a Lincoln-paraphrasing reminder that, "You can fool some of the people some of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time." If a crook like Lay can wiggle his way into a Top 50 CEOs book by two premier executive headhunters trained to spot skilled leaders, we should all beware of overconfidence.

In contrast to Lay, the late Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher only looks better with time. (How will Kelleher look again in the year 2039?) His profile focuses obsessively on culture and recommends that new workers be hired for attitude, which cannot be taught, rather than skills, which can. The culture that Keller created persist even today at Southwest Airlines, still the only major U.S. airline to avoid bankruptcy and reorganization.

Falling in between Lay and Kelleher stand many CEOs who legacies are more mixed. One of these is former GE leader Jack Welch, who presided over a period of great growth from 1981 to 2001 primarily driven largely by GE's financial subsidiary, GE Capital. Unfortunately, following the 2008 financial crisis GE Capital required a $139 billion federal bailout, and the company has since struggled to find its footing in a pivot away from finance back towards manufacturing and high technology. In 2018, GE was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Welch's reputation has diminished since the year of this book's publishing in 1999.

Read Lessons from the Top, and you may come away with some of the same takeaways that I did. Here are two:

  1. Culture matters. Culture has continued to remain a sustainable advantage for companies like Southwest Airlines and Starbucks, their employees, and their customers, even over the past 20 years.
  2. Even the most acclaimed headhunters can make mistakes. I base that on the uneven record of the CEOs profiled in this book. That said, I do respect the authors for having listed and profiled the CEOs one by one, so that their individual conclusions could be evaluated.

The last takeaway should be a cautionary tale not just for headhunters, college admissions representatives, but all of us, because we all find ourselves compelled or tempted to make judgments about other people from time to time. In high-impact decisions skepticism, generosity, and data quality can go a long way.

That said, to quote Levar Burton, "Don't take my word for it." Pick this book up from your local library for a walk through the pantheon of 1990's corporate America and see what you think.

Connect: How Companies Succeed by Engaging Radically with Society (2016)

Someone put Connect on my local library's display shelf. I saw it, picked it up, and read it. And in what was an unusual occurrence for a display shelf item, this book ended up feeling important and impactful.

(Note: I confess to a poor record of enjoying display shelf books, but that does not stop me from picking them up anyway. As J.K. Rowling once basically said, "Read lots of books because you never know which one will change your life.")

Connect begins boringly. Its introductory observations are so high-level that they appeared to lack all meaning. I might have put the book down right them, except I was reading it at an auto mechanic's shop whose magazines I found no more appealing. I am glad I persisted because the authors actually do end up having something to say.

The primary author is former BP CEO John Browne who along with co-authors, McKinsey partner Robin Nutall and former McKinsey consultant Tommy Stadlen, build on the introduction to discuss how important it is for businesses to connect with society effectively. Browne begins by contrasting two historical events: Milton Hershey's successful construction of his Hershey, Pennsylvania chocolate factory and community starting in 1905, compared to Andrew Carnegie's disastrous complicity in the violent Homestead Steel Strike in 1892.

Having emphasized the importance of social connections between business and society, Browne wades into a range of technological, government, and environmental concerns, including a discussion of BP's own Deepwater Horizon disaster that released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before synthesizing his observations into actionable conclusions. Put together, Browne's examples provide a map of roughly 7 or 8 areas that companies must to be aware of if they want to connect effectively with society and achieve positive social and business impact.

Just for fun, here's one of my favorite quotations in the book: "A prominent Australian regulator summed [the importance of building up real good will before you need it] in a wonderfully blunt way: 'When the day comes that you screw up - and believe me that day will come - I have two choices. If you have behaved well up until that point, I can slap you on the wrist. But if you have messed people around I will have no option but to punch you in the face. The public will demand it.'" (p. 113)

I doubt Browne et al could have published this book back when he was BP's CEO from 1995 to 2007. Not only would he probably have lacked the political or legal ability to do so because of his responsibility to his company and shareholders, but this book discusses social media considerations that did not exist until more recently. More generally, I feel the ideas in this book would have required at least a few years of hindsight to develop.

Ultimately, this book left me three general takeaways, including a variety of instructive historical examples and case studies; a greater conviction that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was never much more than a corporate backwater incapable of making any real and lasting change because it sits too far from the business's levers of revenue and decision-making; and the four-part framework of, "Map Your World, Define Your Contribution, Apply World Class Management, Engage Radically."

None of these takeaways are particularly new. Dozens of business schools teach case studies. Business thinkers including Michael Porter and Jim Collins have argued or suggested that social responsibility need to be built into a business's core mission in order to "move the dial" socially, so that a business's output is not just profit but also social benefit; for example, it is through their business model that Tesla has moved the needle towards electric vehicles and a climate-friendly, carbon-free energy system. And the four-part framework has echoes of problem-solving algorithms at least as far back as George Polya's How to Solve It (1945) and probably further.

Look elsewhere if you are looking for a novel book, but that is not to say that this book lacks value. On the contrary, it presents a historically and personally informed memoir of a smart man who led one of the most influential companies in the world and boiled some of his wisdom into a couple of hundred pages that only takes a few hours to read. It is a few hours well spent.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018)

As a nonfiction fan, it is tempting to feel bad about not reading more fiction. Nonfiction books describe the world, but fiction books show human relations, pull forth emotions, and enable readers to connect with the human experience. Shakespeare is Shakespeare for a reason.

Bad Blood bridges the gap: it describes real-life events while delivering a full plot and dynamic characters. With stories involving human fallibility, ambition, deceit, and billions of dollars, Bad Blood pulls you from chapter to chapter like a John Grisham novel. As a reader, you must occasionally slap yourself to remind yourself that Bad Blood is not entertainment but rather true and outrageous.

In a plot vaguely like Wall Street or It's a Wonderful Life, Bad Blood describes how former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes lied constantly and provided dubious or nonexistent benefits even to her best customers and put patients at increasing risk while enriching herself with billions of dollars' worth of cash and equity before the scheme comes crashing down. Along the way, she attracted star American public servants to her board of directors, including Ronald Reagan's former Secretary of State George Shultz and Donald Trump's now-former Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

Not only does this Hollywood-esque plot and well-known names make Bad Blood eminently consumable but its truth and primary theme of personal integrity also happens to match the general public's present concern with a lack of ethical behavior and accountability among the United States' economic and political elite. Today, the pendulum seems to have swung far from the mid-20th century when former president Harry S. Truman once said, paraphrasing: "I never had any money, and the only woman I ever wanted (my wife) is back at the house."

As substantive and timely nonfiction written in the style of fiction, it is no coincidence that Bad Blood has been called the book of 2018. Need some beach reading? Try Bad Blood. Writing a letter to your member of Congress? Try Bad Blood.

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018)

In 2012, Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind proposes a three-point map to help people understand their political opposites. Basically, Haidt suggests that political rhetoric is based on feelings that is based on three principles: the "elephant and the rider" metaphor, the "90% chimpanzee 10% bee" metaphor, and moral foundations theory. It is worth a read.

In Coddling, Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff propose another three-point map, this time to three myths holding back modern Americans: "what doesn't kill you makes you weaker," "always trust your feelings," and "life is a battle between good and evil people." Haidt and Lukianoff discuss the myths, their results, and what we can do about it.

The simplicity of Coddling's premise and organization belies a sophisticated story of how well-intended protections for children are leading to unintended consequences, among them kids taking longer to become autonomous adults, having difficulty processing contradictory arguments, and lacking generosity and ability to work with others effectively.

No doubt - the authors themselves would agree - there are limits to Haidt and Lukianoff's "myths." "What doesn't kill you" could make you weaker, stronger, or have no effect. "Always trust your feelings" is incorrect, but sometimes trusting your feelings is right. Even though life is not a "battle between good and evil people," given a moral norm it is possible to distinguish good from evil. But those limits do not hurt their argument because the book is not meant to be a deductive, logically-consistent law created from nothing but rather inductive and based on external observations.

Given that the book is based up one of the most-read Atlantic articles of all time, the authors seem to have struck a chord that resonates with a significant number of readers. That said, just as a land map may or may not accurately portray the land whose essential features it was created to summarize, the author's three-point "myth map" may or may not portray present day America, in whole or in part, to any level of useful precision. The question of usefulness is left up to the reader to decide.

In any case, I recommend this book. Its simple organization make its 300+ page length a relative breeze for the reader interested in grasping the main ideas and moving along. That small time investment will be enough to commit the three myths to memory and decide on your own time whether they have descriptive merit or use in your area.

As a final aside, I note that having read Coddling I could not help but think of a very different book I read late last year, which was Violet Ramis' autobiography Ghostbuster's Daughter: Life with My Dad, Harold Ramis (2018). At one point, Young Violet asks her dad what it means to be an adult, and Harold replies that being an adult did not mean having kids or owning a house, because even a kid could do that. In the end, he concludes that being an adult means being able to deal with ambiguity.

I think Haidt and Lukianoff would agree. So much of Coddling related to the unspoken concept of ambiguity: how to get stronger from ambiguous situations, to deal with the ambiguity that your feelings may not always be right, and to work well with others in ambiguous situations.

Header photo by Alfons Morales / Unsplash