Thinking about risk isn’t as much fun as, say, forging strategy or concocting a vision of the corporate future for everyone to rally around. But trying to imagine the almost unimaginable and provide against it may be the highest form of leaderly stewardship. And who would say that most corporate leaders have been doing a good job on this front of late?
Don’t read Learning from Catastrophes as you would most other business books — at a brisk clip, looking for the argument to build, expecting to be handed ready-packaged takeaways. (You’d be driven insane trying.) Experience it instead as the occasion for a series of executive meditations, thought exercises whose benefits will come at you obliquely. You’re probably not that interested for its own sake in how the Chinese rebuilt their emergency management system, but in reading about the process you’ll likely find thoughts bubbling up about your own organization’s preparation — or lack thereof — for coping with the unforeseen.
Not that there aren’t plenty of straightforward prescriptions, models, and checklists in Learning from Catastrophes. The book’s lessons include how to balance prevention and mitigation, and how to understand the difference between crisis response and true recovery. A behavioral economics monograph on the cognitive biases that distort our perception of risk, causing us to underrate the direst possibilities, should leave you both a little scared and a lot more vigilant. The variety of the contributors and the disasters they treat, from global warming to the financial crisis of 2008–09, mean that when you finish the book you’ll have a gratifying sense that you’ve looked at a tough subject from more angles than you thought possible.
Finally, for a head-clearing blast of sauciness, pick up a copy of Robert I. Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst. In a year when too many leadership books combined solemn with vapid, Sutton’s decision to focus on the figure of “the boss” comes across as thoroughly refreshing. Even after decades of study, we may not agree on what constitutes a leader or all the proper functions of a manager, but everybody knows who the boss is.
If it’s you, however long you’ve been at it, you can probably benefit from Sutton’s breezy tour of the wisdom he has distilled from scholarly studies, his own experience, and the thousands of responses he received to his last book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Business Plus, 2007). To say that Sutton, a Stanford professor, wears his learning lightly is to understate the case. At times he wears it like a vaudeville comedian’s gonzo-striped blazer with accompanying plastic boutonniere shooting water. This is a weirdly merry book, perfect for a down year — but not an unserious book.
Consider, for example, Sutton on the imperative to take control. Yes, you as a leader have to, he counsels, in the sense that “you have to convince people that your words and deeds pack a punch.” And he offers up a series of fairly familiar gambits to that end: “Talk more than others — but not too much.” “Interrupt people occasionally — and don’t let them interrupt you much.” “Try a little flash of anger now and then.” What redeems this from being mere Machiavellian gamesmanship is Sutton’s admission that any control you pretend to is probably largely an illusion — there’s a lot of play-acting in any executive role, he wants us to know. He makes the case that pushing too hard in the wrong way is a lot more dangerous than not pushing hard enough. Given the danger of the “toxic tandem” — your people are always scrutinizing you, at the same time that power invites you to become self-absorbed — leaders are always on the edge of becoming bad bosses, or even worse, bossholes. So he also advises you to blame yourself for the big mistakes, serves you up a seven-part recipe for an effective executive apology, reminds you to ask the troops what they need, and finishes with the injunction, “Give away some power or status, but make sure everyone knows it was your choice.”