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Published: November 30, 2006

 
 

Best Business Books: Leadership

And what a pain old Henry was to everyone who worked for, or had to deal with, him. He was an autocratic boss and an egotistic business partner who would let no one stand in the way of the exertion of his mighty will. He castigated his colleagues and investors for seeing the Ford Motor Company as a mere “money making concern” rather than as “a vehicle for realizing my ideas.” A true Nietzschean Ubermensch, he had his way with them all. But, in the end, they and he paid the price. As with all Great Men, Ford’s strengths were his flaws. The very single-mindedness (he famously said his customers could have any color of car they wanted, as long as it was black) that led to his success would be his undoing. While he was focused myopically on making his only product, the Model T, cheaper and cheaper still, across town at General Motors the far less brilliant Alfred Sloan was creating a full line of cars in response to the changing demands of consumers.

Like most heroes, Ford was all “act” and no introspection. When a united Italy looked to Garibaldi for political leadership, he kept on doing his thing — fighting — long after that was what the country needed. And after Ford realized his magnificent dream, he kept producing Model Ts until he nearly bankrupted the Ford company and, at his death, left it so dependent on his leadership that it took decades to recover from his heroic legacy. The issue is the same today: What are organizations to do with bigger-than-life executives? In light of the historical experiences described in The Defining Moment, Heroes, and Purpose, Bill Gates’s recent decision to stand down from the executive suite at Microsoft and devote himself to philanthropy looks to this observer like enlightened leadership.

Mr. Mourkogiannis reminds managers that there is a rich lode of wisdom to be found in history books, and it is foolhardy for them to believe they can learn only from their own experiences, which, by definition, are circumscribed. Of course, lessons learned from others are difficult to interpret and to apply to our own situations. For example, although Mr. Mourkogiannis cites Ford and others to illustrate his thesis that profit is an insufficient purpose for a business, there is no evidence that Alfred Sloan and his organization men at GM who bested Heroic Henry ever had any purpose in mind other than to make a profit. Leadership is complicated, isn’t it? (Mr. Mourkogiannis also reviews the year’s best negotiation books.)

Better How-Tos
Compared to the instructive complexities found in the three non-leadership titles cited above, most of this year’s crop of conventional leadership manuals seem sterile and simplistic. But the quality of a few of those books is a cut above average and, depending on what the reader is looking for, they may offer useful information and perspectives. The best of the rest is Sharon Daloz Parks’s Leadership Can Be Taught: A Bold Approach for a Complex World. I approached this volume with ambivalence: I hold with the minority that leadership can be taught, but the use of an italicized word in a title is a red flag that the author distrusts the reader’s intelligence (like speakers who wiggle two fingers at their temples to make sure you “get it” that they are quoting). Thankfully, the book turns out to be an intelligent and thorough description of the method that noted scholar Ronald Heifetz employs at Harvard to teach leadership. Professor Heifetz’s approach, called “case-in-point” to distinguish it from the traditional business case method, skillfully uses classroom dynamics to demonstrate his theory that leaders need to offer followers “adaptive challenges” — tasks with the power to change an organization’s attitudes, values, and behavior — instead of telling them what to do. It works (see ancient Athens, above), but so do other classroom approaches, and that is the book’s shortcoming. Maybe Ms. Parks’s next book will pay more attention to the successful ways other fine professors teach leadership.

 
 
 
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