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Learn from a true master of the craft
on May 14, 2009
This is one of those rare books - easy to read, yet with a meaty message. And, boy, what a message!
Today, our news is headlined by the loss of homes and jobs, the careening shifts in the price of oil, the collapsing of iconic companies, the ever increasing threat of terrorism (are we still at Orange?), etc.
And, the world as a whole seems to be waiting with bated breath for a messiah to lead us through this dark patch of history.
The really cool part of this book, is that it exhorts you to be that messiah. And, believe me, after reading this book, I *wanted* to be that messiah!
The book is divided into two logical parts.
The first part (ch. 1-3) sets the stage for the book by describing the global "epidemic of diseased leadership". At times this part is depressing, as it provides a litany of failed policies (our Iraq strategy), corrupted morals (steroid use in baseball), ham handed execution (our response to Katrina), and dereliction of a sacred duty (the crisis at Walter Reed).
However, don't skim this too quickly. The best definition of leadership is in chapter 1: "[Leaders] make sure that that the [..] organizations they run are headed in a good direction, and they leave them better off than they found them."
There is another gem in ch. 3: "Leadership today must fuse individual character, ability to lead, and the performance of the organization." In other words, the best indicator of a leader's performance is the performance of her team.
In the second part he proposes the 11 core elements that leaders must have, in order to navigate the treacherous and ever changing shoals of today's world.
1. Self Knowledge
Everything begins with the articulation of a few foundational core values (such as integrity, commitment, honor, and honesty) that define you as an ethical individual. This not only gives you a yardstick for testing your decisions, but also gives you early warning when your values are at risk of being compromised.
A leader is responsible for defining the ethical code for his organization. An ethical organization is rewarded with happy employees and admiring customers.
3. The Led
Here we discover that a true leader is one who cares about his people, considers them to be family, and "has a genuine interest in their well being". We also note that a leader's true effectiveness must be evaluated by his superiors as well as by those he leads.
A good leader must be intimately familiar with the business environment: his products, customers, competitors, suppliers, regulatory agencies, etc. Leaders should get out of their oak paneled corner offices and actually talk to these stakeholders.
5. The Enterprise
A leader cannot lead an organization that he doesn't understand - in terms of its structure, processes, and systems. This gives him a unique perspective when it comes time to assess how a change in one place, might have unforeseen consequences in a completely different part of the organization.
He suggests that leaders jealously guard their "creative time" - where they will do the bulk of their imaginative and strategic planning.
As he puts it, "a leader who is competent but not nice is better than a leader who is nice but not competent."
A leader provides the human face for his organization, and should come across as "caring, confident, sincere, and on top of things." While the General uses the Gipper as an example, I was actually thinking of the late Dave Thomas as I read this chapter. Dave epitomized the best aspects of all these characteristics, and he did it with wonderful grace and charm.
"Decision making is the soul of leadership."
This is the chapter for which no synopsis will do justice. There is no decision making quite like military decision making - and here he provides a wonderful blend of theoretical and practical advice.
When describing training scenarios that help you learn decision making, he makes a statement that I could frame: "If it looks like you're not making mistakes, not failing in any way, we begin to suspect that you're not really stretching and pushing the edge. Failure has to be part of the learning process". In today's world where we're so afraid of failure that our mantra is "everyone's a winner", it is refreshing to see failure dusted off and raised back up as an important component of our schools.
Stuff Happens. How you react to "stuff" defines you as a leader. Think Giuliani. This chapter gives us a glimpse of what this veteran warrior thinks of Obama's leadership skills.
This is one of the most important chapters for a new leader to internalize. He provides wonderful examples that highlight the different levels of planning - tactical, operational, and strategic. Seeing these described from a military perspective gave me a much better appreciation of the differences between the three.
What I loved:
Each chapter is filled with real life experiences of the General, that make you feel privileged to be allowed these glimpses into an amazing life.
He repeatedly talks about the value of reflecting and analyzing past experiences. This is not something I usually do. When something goes well, I am apt to bask in the glory, and not question the reasons for my success; and when something goes poorly, I'm prone to banishing it to the dark recesses of my mind. His counsel? "Leadership experiences left unexamined are useless and wasted."
Another valuable piece of advice is to find a trusted mentor or friend who can help you through this analysis. The clarity of an outside perspective is invaluable especially in times of crisis when our vision is clouded with tears of frustration.
Finally, this advice works on both a personal and an organizational level: pick a few core skills - and nurture these, until you outshine everyone else in those areas. I.e., you want to be the iPod or the iPhone of those areas.
I was curious to see who he considers to be examples of good leaders - and some of the leaders he approves of are Odierno, Petraeus, and Obama. These names give us real world comparison points against which to measure ourselves, making his lessons more meaningful.
The chapters are filled with delightful quotations. My favorite? "The chain of command in any organization is like a tree full of monkeys. If you look down from the top, you see smiling faces. If you look up from the bottom, you get a much different perspective." I can't stop smiling :)
Another evocative image is of "a self-licking ice cream cone" - which he uses to describe a bureaucracy that functions like the Borg - growing by assimilating all available resources - whether or not they add any value to the organization's purpose.
If you were pressed for time and had to pick just three chapters to read from this book - I'd strongly recommend the chapters on Decisions, Vision, and Knowledge (in that order).