Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ category

“Leadership is an Art” by Max De Pree

June 30, 2020

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently.

When there is an on-going crisis, one that changes the way we live and work, what kind of leader do we need? We may turn to someone who is confident and decisive. We may put our trust in someone who coordinates a team to get things done.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you,” wrote Max De Pree, CEO of Herman Miller Inc, is his contemplative book, “Leadership is an Art” (1989). “In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”

In his contemplative book, “Leadership is an Art” (1989), De Pree uses compact, precise language to define leadership as “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.”

De Pree is a proponent of servant leadership, in which “the signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers.” He believes that participative management begins with a belief in people.

During a crisis, it’s easy to think that without good leadership, people will make poor decisions. It can be much harder to believe that people will make good choices on their own.

Do we need leaders who enforce regulations? Or do we need leaders who trust us to follow safety guidelines and help us do what we need to do to be healthy – including having access to food, shelter, and healthcare?

Servant leaders understand how to build healthy relationships, according to De Pree. It begins with five intentions:

1) Respecting people and the diversity of their gifts, so that everyone can contribute in some way;

2) Understanding that values are more important than policy and practice;

3) Agreeing on the rights of work, such as the right to be needed and the right to be involved;

4) Understanding that the best people need covenants, not contracts, based on shared commitment;

5) Understanding that people build trust, not structures.

De Pree spends considerable time talking about the essential rights of work, which is particularly complex during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this crisis, many of us believe in two conflicting viewpoints: that it’s not safe to work with people and that the ability to work is a duty for (“essential workers”), not a right.

When I first read “Leadership is an Art,” the most relevant idea was the diversity of people’s talents and skills within an organization. When I consider the book today, it’s about having a shared commitment to a healthy community.

Who do you turn to in a crisis? What kind of leader are you – within your family, at your workplace, in your community?

“Am I There Yet?” By Mari Andrew

May 19, 2020

Mari Andrew’s life is a new world for me – it seems urban middle-class/upper class, with vacations, coffee, and wine, overseas vacations hinting at wealth. Or maybe it’s her focus on living in the now – with an appreciation for good food, alcohol, nightlife, that drew me in.

“Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood” (2018) is an autobiography and a guide to growing pains and growing up, by an illustrator, writer, and Instagram creator. I enjoyed the charming illustrations and humorous map (maybe I could relate because I have a poor sense of direction).

“The essays in this book are notes from the scenic route to adulthood,” Andrews says. “We are doing our best and figuring it out as we go…”

Andrew’s journey takes her from an oppressive law firm in Chicago, to a love interest in San Francisco, moving to Washington DC, enjoying life in Berlin and visiting Lisben after a break-up, being single and open to romance, coping with her father’s death, visiting Mexico City, visiting Granada, and living in New York.

Along the way, she shares some tips about finding your personal style (hint: you already have one), steps to becoming an adult (“You are the artist of your own life”), and lessons on adulthood. The second lesson is especially meaningful: “Step up in a time of turmoil. It’s never wrong to do something kind.”

One of the things that struck me is how Andrew constantly looks at the other side of setback, from travel expectations to romantic break-ups.

My favorite life lesson is to make a decision to impress only these two people: your 85-year old self and your 5-year old self.

Andrew makes an interesting observation about mental health: “When you see someone in a cast, you know to give up your seat and perhaps even open a door for them. Shouldn’t people going through mental or emotional health upsets have their own version of a cast, so that others know to take care?”

What really struck me is Andrew’s insight that we are not becoming the person we really are – we are creating the person we want to be.

“Rebel Talent” by Francesca Gino

January 21, 2020

“It’s not rebels that make trouble, but trouble that makes rebels.” I love this opening quote by Ruth Messinger in the book “Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life” (2018).

Researcher, consultant, and Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, discusses successful rebels and how we can encourage rebel talent. The key idea is that rebels are engaged, and engaged people are motivated to perform better.

The book begins with two very different, wildly successful leaders: one an Italian chef, Massimo Bottura, who went against tradition; and one a military general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who broke conventional battle strategy. Gino goes on to mention that it’s a common perception that only people with status can choose not to conform, because they don’t fear negative consequences. Through anecdotes, research, and stories, Gino discusses the qualities of rebel talent and what we can do to encourage rebel talent in ourselves and organizations.

According to Gino, there are 5 qualities of rebel talent:

1) Novelty. Novelty compels us to engage with the unfamiliar. It is even more important than stability in jobs and personal relationships!

2) Curiosity. When we ask questions, our relationships grow stronger. Curiosity makes us more likely to view a tough problem as an interesting challenge.

3) Perspective. “When we frame work around learning new goals – such as developing our competence, acquiring new skills, and mastering new situations – we perform better than if we frame work around performance goals, such as hitting target results.” Beware: decision-makers who feel a high level of expertise or power tend to be unwilling to listen to important negative information.

4) Diversity. Choose to rebel against low expectations. Focus on opportunities, rather than potential problems. “Greater diversity produces better outcomes exactly because it is harder to work among a mix of perspectives.” Beware that stereotypes can limit women – the same traits are praised in men but penalized in women.

5) Authenticity. Being vulnerable builds trust, and “sharing personal information is key to developing and maintaining strong relationships.” We find it hard to relate to people who are highly competent, but we tend to warm to people who are flawed. Similarly, we tend to learn more from failures than successes.

I was astounded by game developer Valve.org, which has a flat, boss-free hierarchy in which employees choose what projects to work on, and can start a project if they convince enough people to make a team.

Gino offers 2 mindset-altering tips to encourage our own rebel talent: encourage curiosity by asking questions and saying, “I don’t know” and encourage innovation by asking, “What could we do?” instead of “What should we do?”

How would you rate enthusiasm and motivation at your workplace? Does your company hire for and encourage rebel talent? How important is creativity and innovation in your life?

“Do It Anyway” by Kent M Keith

November 5, 2019

“Even when things are going badly in the world around us, we can still find personal meaning and deep happiness,” Kent M. Keith reminds us in “Do It Anyway: The Handbook for Finding Personal Meaning and Deep Happiness in a Crazy World” (2003).

He talks about paradoxical people who live “The Paradoxical Commandments,” sharing their stories of perseverance and resilience, and asking questions that challenge us and make us reflect on our own lives.

My grandmother Janet was one of these “paradoxical people.” She shared her time to visit elderly and ill people, she shared her month to churches and ministries, and she shared her beautiful voice in song. She was one of the most gentle, caring, and gracious people I know.

She seemed to know intuitively what most of us struggle with, and what Keith identifies as the central ideas of his book: that we choose how we respond to events and there is more meaning in service than in power.

Keith lived in Hawaii and was a vice president for YMCA of Honolulu. I loved reading his stories with Hawaii connections, such as the 442nd Regiment during World War II, who gave the best they had despite prejudice and injustice; Wally Amos, who lost everything he had and then rebuilt; and Franchot, who built plantation fields that closed down.

Choosing to live the “Paradoxical Commandments” starts by making two distinctions: 1) loving and approving are not the same thing; and 2) there are many kinds of love.

Every now and then, we all need to be reminded of the Paradoxical Commandments:

  • People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  • If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  • If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  • The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  • Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  • The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
  • People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  • What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  • People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.
  • Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

What do you do anyway, even when you think it won’t make a difference? What do you do anyway, because it feels meaningful and right?

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

September 7, 2019

“Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood” (2016) by comedian Trevor Noah is a series of autobiographical essays about growing up in South Africa, the product of an illegal relationship between a white man and a black woman, according to the 1927 Immorality Act. Personal stories alternate with essays about apartheid and institutionalized racism.

Noah reflects on the women holding the community together, language defining who you are to people, personal identity, choosing the people in your life, and growing up with domestic violence.

“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other… You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

Noah was born in 1984 in Eden Park, a suburb outside Johannesburg, his childhood filled with church, no TV/movies, riots in the streets, violence, militarized streets, guns, and tear gas. There was sharp divide between black, white, and colored, and Noah seemed to drift along the edges of all these communities, tolerated because he learned to speak their languages.

He was raised by Patricia Nombuyielo Noah, a religious black mother who wanted someone to love and was determined to make a better life for her son – but who couldn’t walk in the street holding his hand.

“I’ve got dozens of pictures of me walking with this woman who looks like me but who isn’t my mother. And the black woman standing behind us who looks like she’s photobombing the picture, that’s my mom.” She was a rebel who challenged authority and refused to conform, running away from home and living in the streets as a young woman. She taught Trevor to think and prepared him for a life of freedom even before the end of apartheid.

His father Robert was secretive and reserved, a Swiss ex-pat who wanted to be a part of his life, but couldn’t be seen in public with him either. When Noah reunites with his father after years apart, he learns “But he’d been with me the whole time.” His parents’ stable influence is juxtaposed with the attitude and actions of his stepfather Abel, a talented mechanic who could be charming, but who drank too much and became mean and violent – and who later shot his mother in the head.

Noah grew into a mischievous, house-burning (at age 7, he burned down a white family’s shed and house by accident!), head-strong, bootleg CD-burning businessman, who was able to stay away from drugs and gangs. “I never let the memory of something painful prevent me from trying something new.”

“Born a Crime” is a really engaging and perceptive book that kept me reading. The humorous and optimistic tone prevents the book from being depressing and bleak. It showed me a world of poverty (no bathrooms, a poor person’s food of worms, lack of opportunities) and uncertainty (minibus drivers, gangs, police).

Though he lived in poverty, he says, “I never felt poor because our lives were so rich with experience.”