Possibly the best leadership book I’ve ever read (Part 1)

After I got into the writing of this post I realized that the whole thing was too long for 1 entry. As a result I’ve broken up the initial piece into multiples which I’ll be posting weekly until the series is done.

It’s funny, over the past year or so the OBS book club has been focusing almost exclusively on books focused on leadership and self-improvement (no, not “self-improvement”) and it has provided us with some pretty profound insights into what makes good and bad leaders as well as good and bad organizations. Thinking back to some of the books we ready like “Start with Why” or “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” and though the tone in each book is different many of the underlying messages are actually the same when it comes to what makes great organizations great. Sharing a workplace with like-minded people who have business goals that are aligned with your own should result in some measure of success. Granted, Sinek would chalk this alignment between employees and leadership up to trusting each other while Maister would say:

If an organization’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward.

…but the idea is the same.

Both books are referencing the idea that you need to practice what you preach and stand by your word to earn credibility with the people that work both with, and for you. Another way to think about this is that both books are really speaking to a leader’s conviction to

Do the right thing…

Even when its hard or not immediately obvious…

Which results in eventual trust

It feels automatic that we’d agree with such an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we want not only our leaders, but the people they mentor to be able to demonstrate? You can’t teach strength of character, but through modelling and strong leadership, the hope is that at least a few good habits get picked up by the next generation, or in this case, the next generation of leaders. The ideas around how we can lead such that we maximize the opportunity for our teams to grow is the subject of the book in question and hence why I’m writing to you all right now. Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.

So what’s the big deal? Well I found it interesting to discover that this book (which I’ve gone through multiple times) was written over 20 years ago, it has no references to business / markets / strategies / corporations / etc. and is, in fact, about parenting. Think about it, what is parenting but the most important leadership job you could ever apply for. Counterintuitive to nearly everything we try and apply process against, this most important role comes with no on-boarding manual, no interview process, and no prerequisites with regards to qualifications or experience.

Alive 9 months ago? Check! … Aaaand you’re in!

Enter: Kids Are Worth It.

In my opinion this has the potential to be a huge addition your leadership toolkit (provided you’ll allow me to make a few small substitutions – more on that later)

Barbara Coloroso released the first edition of “Kids Are Worth It” back in 1994. Consider that for a second. 1994? That was before the internet. Before the dot-com bust. Before everyone and their dog had the ability to share their ideas immediately and be exposed (subjected?) to the scrutiny of the world wide web. It’s almost crazy to consider that so much of this book is still applicable in the workplace of today.
So what about this book really grabbed my attention? I enjoyed it’s simplicity, its directness, and quite frankly its lack of long drawn out references to research conducted so long ago that there is no way it could be considered even remotely relevant. How many times have you read a book (let’s say this year – for argument’s sake) and the author is quoting research performed 6 / 7 years ago? How often, then, do you also take a second to think:

Do I even believe that? Is this even still a thing?

Barbara doesn’t go into any of that. She provides anecdotes which quickly get to the point and immediately follows it up with resolutions and strategies to correct or support different behaviors. Now granted, many of the examples are related specifically to families and, not surprising, children, but for the purposes of this post lets do a quick swap of:

Parents <—-> Leaders

Children <—-> Team

Now before anyone throws their hands up and gets all enraged about comparing your team to children (despite how appropriate it may be), go back up and re-read what I’m actually saying here:

We’re not drawing a comparison, we’re swapping these labels to demonstrate how the concepts in this book translate from a family to your workplace (arguably a different kind of family).

The core concept of this book relies around three kinds of leaders (NB: we said we were substituting – stay with me):

  1. Jellyfish – No firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. Structure is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood.
  2. Backbone – A living supple spine that gives form and movement to the whole body. Structure is present and firm and flexible and functional
  3. Brick wall – A nonliving thing designed to restrict to keep in, and to keep out. The structure is rigid and used for control and power both of which are in the hands of the leader

Coloroso immediately points out that the underlying difference between these leaders is:

… the kind of structure that holds them together. This structure affects all the relationships of the teamteam member to leader, leader to team member, leader to leader, and team member to team member …

We’ve probably all had an opportunity to work with one or more of these kinds of leaders or been part of teams matching one or more of these descriptions in the past. I found it fascinating how immediately transferable the concepts felt in terms of the teams I’ve seen operate at many different companies in many different industries. In addition to these team or leadership descriptions, the basic characteristics of each team type were provided along with a particularly interesting set of messages the Backbone leader specifically should be providing to their team on a daily basis (adjusted slightly for context):

I believe in you

I trust you

You can handle situations that arise

You are listened to

You are cared for

You are important

I feel that the best leaders with which I’ve had the opportunity to work have actually done a good job of communicating most, if not all, of these messages as frequently as possible. Actually, I feel like the best leaders do a good job of communicating these messages without the use of words. The 1000:1 ratio with words is well known, but best felt when you’re given a task slightly outside your comfort zone, put in a position to succeed and are provided with the tools and support you need without anyone expressly saying “I know you can do this, I believe in you” (though I still buy into that as well).

six leadership messages

It comes back to doing the things which may initially be challenging and potentially counter-intuitive in a “business environment” but result in increased cohesion among the team and ultimately increased trust… #simonsinekherewegoagain

… and really, isn’t that what we want to develop in all of the teams we have the opportunity to be a member of?

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