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Beach Reading…Boardroom Style

Your summer vacation is the perfect time to relax, lie back, take in some sun, and learn something new about leadership.

As you pack your bags for a summer getaway to the beach, you might want to throw in a book (or two or three) to help cultivate your leadership acumen. I’ve had the chance to read several that I think you will find provocative, practical, and enjoyable.

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness (Random House, 2014), by Neil Swidey, reads like a novel but tells the compelling true story of the final stages of the Boston Harbor clean up, one of the most ambitious public works projects ever undertaken. A tunnel almost 10 miles long was built to take treated sewage out to sea were it could be released through 55 staggered pipes. The challenge? During construction, each of those 55 pipes was closed with a seal that had to be removed by hand as the final step in construction. This job, which had never been done before, fell to a team of divers using an untested air supply system in conditions so remote they might as well have been on the moon. Swidey explores how individuals and organizations calculate risk, the ways that time and financial pressure influence decision making, and how the combination of ego and ignorance can lead to disaster. Ultimately, it’s a story of extraordinary bravery, professional pride, and the commitment of team members to one another.

If you plan to sit on the sand and look for signs of rising sea levels, you should pick up The Collaboration Economy: How to Meet Business, Social, and Environmental Needs and Gain Competitive Advantage (Wiley, 2013), by Eric Lowitt. The author, a thinker steeped in the rigor of traditional strategy, sees the challenge of operating a business in a turbulent world as a rich source of opportunity for companies open to collaborating with customers, suppliers, NGOs, and even rivals. The leaders of some major firms agree with him that the world’s big problems need to be solved and those that do so will be rewarded. Lowitt has co-written each chapter with a senior executive who has a practical story to share—from companies including Coca-Cola, Unilever, and Nestle Waters North America—so this is no theoretical treatise. The insights and examples will stimulate your thinking and can serve as a springboard for innovation in your organization. It seems clear to me that we are reaching a tipping point with regard to recognizing that corporations must consider their social and environmental impact; The Collaboration Economy provides sound economic and strategic reasoning for joining the movement.

The world’s big problems need to be solved and those firms that do so will be rewarded.

As a leader, a big part of your daily job is to persuade and influence people. You must take input from others as you craft a compelling vision and catalyze a winning strategy. This is where Nick Morgan’s Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014) comes in handy. Morgan, a communications and speech coach, has been a lifelong student of verbal and nonverbal communication. It is the critical nonverbal elements—from speaking with others using both vocal and physical cues to reading their emotional indicators—that are featured in this volume. Mastering seven power cues leads to what Morgan calls “radical authenticity,” a state where you project your best self and have the greatest impact. This isn’t self-help hocus pocus: Morgan explores the neuroscience and psychological underpinnings of our behaviors and offers pathways to incorporating this understanding into more effective daily communications with colleagues, customers, the board, and even your kids.

There is an increasing recognition that people are critical to differentiating organizations and creating competitive advantage. This is the culture-eats-strategy-for-lunch (or breakfast if you are a Drucker purist) argument. In The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success (Jossey-Bass, 2014), Fortune publisher Rich Karlgaard has distilled a version of this into what he calls “the soft edge”—as compared to strategy and execution, the “hard” components of success. He has identified five values-based variables that comprise the soft edge—trust, smarts, teamwork, taste, and story, and developed an engaging framework populated with a compelling assortment of real-life examples from organizations such as FedEx, the Mayo Clinic, and Specialized Bicycles. Some of these stories may be familiar to you, but they are nicely woven together to make Karlgaard’s larger point: Companies that succeed over the long term have mastered the variables of the soft edge in addition to strategy and execution. The hard truth made clear in this book is that soft matters—a lot.

As for what’s up next on my personal reading list, this summer marks significant anniversaries in events from the civil rights movement and the beginning of World War I, so I’m turning to history—namely Peneil Joseph’s biography, Stokely: A Life (Basic Civitas Books, 2014) and Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War (Knopf, 2013). I hope that delving into each of these periods will give me a greater understanding of where the United States is today as a nation, where we are as a global community, and where we’re heading. Each period is rich with characters and events that are glossed over in history classes and bestsellers; I couldn’t ask for a better time machine than my beach chair, to travel back at a leisurely pace to glean their significance for our current leadership challenges.

If you’re eager for more book suggestions, check out a few of my recent columns that highlight Nicco Mele’s The End of Big, Derek Lidow’s Startup Leadership, and Andrew Winston’s The Big Pivot.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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