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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2009: Leadership

Helping, Schein points out, takes many forms. He lists 30 helping situations, including a boss giving instructions to a subordinate, a stranger giving traffic directions to a tourist, and a child showing a parent how to play a computer game. Further, he draws heavily on his experience helping his wife cope with breast cancer over 25 years, involving periodic visits to hospitals and home care, with all the different relationships involved.

And help, as Schein points out, is not limited to one-on-one situations. Group effort and teamwork often hinge on the degree to which members perform their roles properly in accomplishing the group’s task: “We do not typically think of an effective team as being a group of people who really know how to help each other...yet that is precisely what good teamwork is — successful reciprocal help,” he writes. Schein also lists 27 synonyms for helping. One way or another, it seems, we are helping or being helped most days of the week. The book is therefore a practical guide to everyday life, as well as an invaluable guide for all those who have some responsibility for others, be they students, subordinates, or clients of one sort or another.

Schein’s main thesis is that all human relationships are a mixture of economics and theater, because they all involve what sociologists call “status positioning” between the parties involved in any social interaction, whether formal or informal. It is human to want to be granted the status and position that we feel we deserve, no matter how low or high that is, and to want to do what is appropriate to the situation and the occasion. If we get it wrong, the relationship doesn’t work. A very simple example: If a child fails to say thank you, a social expectation has not been met and the child is reprimanded. We also intuitively and almost unconsciously measure interactions by how much we have gained or lost, compared to our expectations. Thus, for a helping interaction to work, each party needs to be clear about the role each is playing, and all parties’ expectations of the outcome have to be similar.

After explaining the many pitfalls of helping — why well-intentioned advice is perceived as criticism, how the different social rules in individual cultures create unintended offense, how a tone of voice or form of address can alter a relationship in an instant — Schein offers seven principles and 18 tips, because this is, above all, a book of practical help.

These often sound obvious but, as the examples demonstrate, we often ignore his principles amid the daily course of life, taking for granted relationships and exchanges that may not be what they seem. We get lazy. I found this little book a salutary reminder of too many lapses on my part, while it also explained why some of my well-intentioned attempts to help only led to worsening relationships. Any aspiring leader would do well to review his or her own behavior in the light of this very useful guide.

Leadership by Example

Alan Deutschman is a journalist, which is fortunate for us, the readers, because not only does he write fluently and vividly, but he tells stories, which is what all good journalists do. Walk the Walk: The #1 Rule for Real Leaders is a compendium of stories taken from the interviews he has conducted with leaders over the past 20 years, most of them in business but some, equally relevant and revealing, from the worlds of sports and politics. Deutschman’s subjects range from Jeff Bezos of to Barack Obama in the first week of his presidency, from FedEx to the Florida Gators, Nelson Mandela, and the Greensboro Four, whose lunchtime sit-ins in 1960 helped to jump-start the desegregation movement in the United States.

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