5 great books on leadership

11.30.12 Thumbnail BooksEffective leaders are constantly learning. To help you keep learning, here are five of leadership expert Tom Cox’s favorite books, old and new, for growing a CEO’s or a manager’s capabilities. 

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Effective leaders are constantly learning. To help you keep learning, here are five of my favorite books, old and new, for growing a CEO’s or a manager’s capabilities. Pick one up to read over the holidays, or on your bus or train commute.

(Drive to work? Try audiobooks, or a summary service like The Business Source, to keep your brain fed with new ideas.)

1. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
2. Winning with Accountability: the Secret Language of High Performing Organizations by Henry Evans
3. The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker
4. Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, by Flanagan and Runde
5. The 2R Manager, by Pete Friedes

Here’s a capsule summary of each, so you can pick the one that will be most immediately useful to you.

1. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

This is one  of the only books I’ve found on strategy that’s worth reading. Most books that purport to be about strategy, are a waste of ink, paper and time. Rumelt has been described by McKinsey Quarterly as “Strategy’s Strategist” and The Economist profiled him in their list of the 25 living people with the greatest impact on management concepts and corporate practice. In Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, Rumelt identifies what he calls the “core” of a true Strategy (as distinct from a goal, a slogan, or wishful thinking):

* Diagnosis – an insight into the nature of a crucial problem
* Policy – guidance for decisions, based on the Diagnosis
* Action – specific, often risky, usually decisive actions based on the Policy

A really good strategy will often seem obvious, once it’s shared.

Steve Jobs’ 1997-98 turnaround of Apple seems “obvious” — it looks like Business 101. Jobs cut costs, rationalized and trimmed the product line, and reduced Apple to a size that could survive. What astonishes a business person reading the details is how clear Jobs was about the situation (his Diagnosis), how clear Jobs was about the right way to respond (his Policy), and how quickly and decisively he carried it out (his Actions). Within a year, 15 desktop models were replaced by one model, the G3. All laptops and handhelds were replaced by one laptop. OS development was halted and instead the NeXT OS was used. We aren’t used to companies actually acting decisively and with coordination.

Those elements of decisiveness and coordination are elements of “Good Strategy” — as contrasted with “Bad Strategy” that sounds like it comes from a Dilbert comic strip. Bad Strategy is typically vague, self-important, and tends to avoid even describing the biggest problems. International Harvester’s 1979 Strategic Plan was enormous, pompous and detailed — and didn’t even admit (let alone address) that the firm had the worst labor relations in the industries in which it competed. IH went out of business within a few years.

Much of what gets labeled “strategic” in business is just “important” or “high level” (in fact, there are five different things that frequently get called “strategic” — see Mintzberg’s magisterial book “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning” for a wonderful treatment of the topic). For Rumelt, Good Strategy has these hallmarks:

* Clarifies the situation
* Forces choices
* Requires decisive and coordinated action

If you see a “strategy” that instead is vague or fuzzy, shows no signs of forcing painful choices, and doesn’t call for focused, coordinated and possibly scary actions, and read “pious statements of the obvious presented as if they were decisive insights,” you’re looking at Bad Strategy.

By the end of his book, Rumelt will have taken you on a thought-provoking, funny and enjoyable walk through the creation of Good Strategy. If you read nothing else on strategy, read Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.

2. Winning with Accountability: the Secret Language of High Performing Organizations by Henry Evans

Too many management books are 28 pages of actual content, on 280 pages of bloated text. In contrast, Evans’ book is tiny — 100 pages in a large font — and cuts to the chase.

When firms look at root causes of their errors, they typically find that a majority can be traced to failed communication. Jo thought she was clear, yet Fred understood something different from what Jo intended. Or Jo wasn’t clear, and Fred was afraid he’d look stupid if he asked for clarification.

In a few brisk chapters, Evans guides us through the specifics of creating a team standard for mutual clarity, in order to build in accountability “up front” — instead of tacking accountability on after the mistakes are all made, a too-common practice that renders “accountability” merely a euphemism for “punishment.”

Evans will make you work — it is work to create the extremely clear, shared visualization of an outcome that is required for teams to be accountable to one another and to their boss and coworkers — however the results are more than worth it.

For example, Evans coached a CEO who wanted his new EVP of Marketing to take charge of their next international client conference and make it “the best one we’ve ever had.”  The EVP blinked in confusion.  The improved version was a lot clearer and more detailed: “We’re going to have a cocktail hour in the Venetian’s ballroom, beginning at 6 p.m. the evening before the conference. I’m going to walk into the ballroom at 6:15 p.m. and when I do, I want to see 150 smiling customers, representing 20 different client organizations. I want them to be holding a beverage, chatting and enjoying themselves.”

I’ve used Evans’ book with several clients, always with good effect.

3. The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive

Fast becoming my most dog-eared and re-read book, The Effective Executive is also a favorite book of my favorite management podcasters, Mark Horstman and Mike Auzen of www.manager-tools.com. In it, Drucker provides a sweeping array of useful insights and advice, from such evergreen topics as Time Management (Drucker’s advice on self-analysis is still state of the art) to Prioritizing, Decision Making, and how to handle people — staff or yourself — who have both significant strengths and significant weaknesses.

Drucker saw first hand during WW II how many executives were recruited into government service, where they would succeed or fail quite unpredictably.  As he put it in the preface to his 1979 edition, “Why this should happen no one could explain.  Nor did anyone know what to do about the problem. Since then, I have been aware of the effective executive and have watched those I chanced to meet, hoping to learn from them… I have tried to study systematically what effective executives do that the rest of us (including myself) do not do, and what they do not do that the rest of us tend to do. This book presents my findings.”

To pick just one example, a quick read of Drucker’s chapter “Know Thy Time” — and putting his prescription to work — will reward the alert reader with far more time returned in savings than was invested in reading.

4. Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan

This is one of three books by these authors, and the centerpiece of my growing collection on teams and “constructive conflict.”

Flanagan and Runde build on a rich heritage of prior research into conflict dynamics in teams, and correctly point out that “nice” teams under-perform — bad ideas aren’t challenged; slackers aren’t called forward to improve.  However destructive forms of conflict also harm teams — fostering mistrust, increasing misunderstanding and spawning wasteful “CYA” behaviors.

The authors offer a model of constructive conflict, walk the reader through a self-awareness exercise that helps prevent you from becoming triggered and falling into destructive conflict behaviors.

Once you learn to spot a conflict that’s about to flip from constructive to destructive, you can head it off — by using one or more of the seven “Constructive Responses to Conflict” to prevent a fight and keep both the conversation and the relationship healthy and positive.

5. The 2R Manager, by Pete Friedes

Friedes grew a single firm, Hewitt Associates, by 20% per year for nearly 20 years, while keeping it a Best Place to Work.  This book contains his insights into how to be a truly effective manager of people.  That means both Relating and Requiring — the two Rs of the title.

Think of the best boss you ever had.  Odds are, they did two things — kept you emotionally safe at work, cared about you as a person, paid attention to your career growth (“relating”) — and pushed you to be great, demanded your best work, believed in you more than you believed in yourself, and shoved you out of your comfort zone (“requiring”).

Friedes spent his career coaching his senior managers how they could coach junior managers to deliver this sort of supervision.  It obviously worked, and Friedes’ coaching tips are brilliant. He understands the limiting beliefs and the mental models that keep Relaters from engaging in Requiring behaviors — we don’t want to be mean, or we want to be respectful — and he helps us (including me — I’m a Relater) see how being more demanding or “Requiring” can (when done right) actually improve the relationship.

Similarly he lays out for the task-oriented Requirers of the world how “Relating” — far from being squishy and irrelevant — actually leads to more work getting done faster and better.

Whether you coach managers or just want to be an exceptional manager, The 2R Manager is the book for you.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust. Email comments to [email protected].