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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57

 
 

Best Business Books 2009: Leadership

The Puritan Gift, this year’s best leadership book, is partly a history of American business, but it is also a lament for the decline of the collegial style of leadership that drove what the authors call the “great engines of growth and prosperity” and that was replaced by the “imperial” rule of the professional CEO in so many companies. It is a reminder of what made the U.S. great and a heartfelt plea for its recall.

The other four books I have selected for this review do not pretend to be as all-encompassing as The Puritan Gift, but they provide insights into important aspects of the leader’s role. The first deals with the need for truth (or candor, as the authors call it) in organizations, something that has been badly missing of late. The second is a primer on helping, a key facet of a good leader’s work. The final two provide vivid and valuable examples of leadership in practice, largely but not wholly drawn from business organizations.

Leadership and Truth

Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole are three of the most influential management thinkers around. Accordingly, Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor, their combined take on the key challenges facing business today, has to be taken seriously. The book takes the form of three individual essays, one by each of the main authors.

Bennis looks at the consequences of what Thomas Friedman has described as the flattening of organizations, made possible by new technologies. As information, and with it power, is shared more widely, communication across the organization as well as vertically becomes ever more crucial. Openness and honesty are essential. But being honest in an organization is more difficult than it sounds. People hoard information, indulge in groupthink, tell their bosses only what they think they want to hear, and ignore facts that are staring them in the face. As Bennis points out, “Technologies change. Human nature doesn’t.” The book, he says, is about “the things that have mattered since the new technology was the flint and the longbow — courage, integrity, candor, responsibility.”

In his eloquent and moving essay, O’Toole argues that “speaking truth to power is, perhaps, the oldest of all ethical challenges.” To make his point, he refers the reader to classics of literature — to Sophocles’ Antigone, John Osborne’s Luther, and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, the story of Sir Thomas More. O’Toole is at his best in bringing these texts to illuminate our current condition, but he also cites contemporary organizations such as FedEx and Motorola. The prime responsibility of leaders, he argues, is to create “a culture of candor” in which they are constantly “willing to rethink even their most basic assumptions through a process of constructive dissent.” The culture must be one in which every individual is encouraged to speak the truth, because only then can proper trust be established — trust that is the basis of all effective leadership but also the most elusive and fragile of things, so hard to establish, so easy to lose.

Transparency is a slight book, carefully crafted and easy to read. The messages may be as old as time, but they are no less important for that. Of course, those messages are easier to deliver than to act on, and the authors refrain from offering specific recommendations for action. They don’t need to. To tell the truth is all that one has to adhere to, even when it hurts, and that example has to come from the top.

Leadership as Helping

Ed Schein knows a lot about organizations. He has been working with them, advising them, studying them, and, yes, helping them and many of their leaders for decades. Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help is a small book that is his reflective summary of what works in a helping relationship and how to make it happen. He is uniquely qualified to do this, combining, as he does, a knowledge of sociology, anthropology, and social psychology, as well as long years of teaching executives at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. (Schein was my thesis supervisor 40 years ago, at MIT, and has been a good friend ever since, so I have firsthand experience of his help.)

 
 
 
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