The first error is that they tend to be faddish and heavy on wishful thinking--focused on the bright business idea of the moment or pushing the ideas of a particular leadership guru who is hyping his or her latest book.
The second error is that they are often just the personal credo of some successful person. This means that they are prone to the correlation/causation fallacy. Just because a successful person has a particular list of traits does not mean that those traits led to his or her success or that they will work for the rest of us.
The Investor's Business Daily newspaper, on the other hand, has a list of ten "secrets" that I think are worth attention (the list can be found here). What I like about this list is that they are not secrets at all, and they don't offer simple, magical solutions. They are common sense guidelines that if you follow, and if you work hard, and if you are just a little bit lucky, will increase your chances of accomplishing your goals.
IBD also publishes articles each day based on one of these secrets, and they're available free online (click here).
- It is battle-tested--literally. Over the years, ideas that don't work got weaned out because they could lead to people dying.
- It is written in clear, simple, and direct language. There is no hint of a consultant or professor trying to impress you with the sophistication or originality of his or her ideas, and it is not filled with the self-glorifying tales of ex-CEOs. It is written in simple, declarative sentences that leave no room for ambiguity. Its authors' goals are to clearly and unambiguously share important knowledge.
- It acknowledges that different skills are needed at different levels of any hierarchy and different stages of one's career. It clearly articulates those stages, making it easy to find what qualities are necessary given your leadership circumstances.
I have two recommendations this week.
First, I recommend anyone who hasn't read it to pick up a copy of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." When I work with leaders, we almost always end up talking about their ability to communicate. Leaders need to communicate clearly so people understand what is expected of them and how to deliver on those expectations. Nothing is more dispiriting to an organization than having people waste time going the wrong direction because the leader was not clear. In fact, clear communication affects every part of our lives and all of our relationships. Effective communication is direct, concise-but-sufficient (it says enough without droning on), coherent, and consistent. Zinsser's book teaches writers (anyone who writes) how to do this better than any book I've ever read (I'll take it over Strunk and White any day.) Good writing requires good thinking--coherence, logic, accuracy, etc.--so writing well will make you a better thinker. Writing also carries over into good speaking because it forces one to become disciplined in crafting and delivering a message. One's sentences follow in a logical order that keeps the listener engaged rather than inviting them to tune out. Good communication skills are the secret weapon of effective leaders in all areas of life. Arm yourself well; read this book and learn its lessons.
My second pick is more broad: "Polish poets." Perhaps it's mid-life re-appreciation of my Polish heritage, but I've been immersed in modern Polish poets lately. I've always tried to stay away from sentimentality and exuberance in poetry, and there is no fear of stumbling across them with these writers. Rather, these poets tend to exemplify the Poles' ability to wistfully endure hardship and oppression, to stare life in the face without blinking or backing down, and to be dignified without taking themselves or anyone else too seriously.
Milosz would be a little too obvious I think, so his volumes sit largely as-yet-unexplored on the shelves. It started by chance with Zbigniew Herbert (I was captivated by the photo on the cover of his "Collected Works"), and quickly spread to Adam Zagajewski and Janusz Szuber. Reading Tadeusz Rozewicz, my newest discovery, is like receiving a light slap in the face by a slightly stern uncle urging you to wake up and see--really see--the world around you. (His picture reminds me of my grandfather, a quietly urgent man who took a bullet trying to stop Hitler.) But most of all, I've fallen in love with Nobel-laureate Wislawa Szymborska, the kindly, gentle, and ferociously intelligent aunt to Rozewicz's intimidating uncle. If you like poetry, or simply appreciate good writing that captures the essence of people with hard-won soul, give them a try.
I'm a big fan of Wilson and his book "Strangers to Ourselves." Wilson makes a compelling case that there is a downside to too much self-reflection because it is literally impossible for us to see all of the workings of our own mind. We think we know ourselves but we don't, and the best way to learn about ourselves is not necessarily to go inside but to go outside and get feedback from objective parties. Going inside to explore our narratives often just makes our existing narratives stronger and more difficult to change.
One of the beauties of the Enneagram is that it provides an objective listing of our tendencies. Whenever I am accused of "Eight-ish" behaviors, my first reaction is to rationalize and justify my behavior. In time, however, I often see how I behaved in one of the habitual Eight-ish patterns that I wrote about in my own book. It is this combination of feedback and objective perspective that get me past the land mines of looking inside for the explanations of my behavior.
At the same time, the Enneagram can point us to the central theme of many of the narratives that Wilson talks about in the quote above. At the heart of our stories is, often, our preferred strategy, and learning to rewrite the definition of our preferred strategy can help us to change our story and, ultimately, our behaviors. For me, the preferred strategy is "striving to be powerful," and I get into trouble most often because my narratives are rooted in an immature or outdated of what it means to be powerful; I may, for example, be acting on the assumption that being powerful means being forceful rather than being kind. I can't change the behavior if any new behaviors run counter to my non-conscious narratives.
So the pattern for creating change is to go outside first and then go inside:
- Seek feedback on what needs to change (and to be open to ongoing feedback) either from others or from tools such as the Enneagram;
- Decide what changes need to be made;
- Reflect on your existing narratives and how they make you resist the changes you need to make;
- Explore how your definition of your preferred strategy holds that narrative in place;
- Redefine your existing strategy so you can change your narrative;
- Practice the new behaviors until they become the norm.
The first show is "The Wire," a sprawling look at the cops, criminals, and politicians populating Baltimore's underbelly that aired for five seasons on HBO and is available on DVD or through HBO's HBOGo service. The dialog is pitch perfect and subtle wit pervades the writing. What makes "The Wire" so special, however, is its "there but for the grace of God" quality; watching it you realize how much environment, circumstance, and family and friends shape the person we become and the choices we make. The show avoids drug-dealer-with-a-heart-of-gold cliches while still making people that we should find despicable compelling, interesting, sympathetic. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to call "The Wire" a masterpiece of storytelling, Tolstoy-esque in scope, about flawed (and thus real) humans trying to make the best of the cards they were dealt.
If "The Wire" evokes Tolstoy, then "The Sons of Anarchy" evokes Shakespeare. I did not have high hopes for this show about the trials and tribulations of a motorcycle club, and of course comparing anything to Shakespeare goes too far, but the show has a cast of characters as compelling as any I've ever seen. Matriarch Gemma evokes Lady Macbeth in her deviousness and ability to manipulate and her drive to be a source of strength to the men around her who she sees as sometimes too weak to save themselves and "the family." Gemma's son and club vice-president, Jax Teller, evokes Hamlet, searching for guidance on how to be a man and future king from a murdered father. Club president Clay , Gemma's husband, evokes Lear as he wrestles with the trials of being an aging ruler with an no obvious successor to carry out his vision for his kingdom. The beauty of "SoA" is that it makes us care deeply for people who under any normal circumstances we might fear and loathe; criminals and outlaws who can display profound humanity moments before they commit inhuman acts.
I have no literary analogy for "Breaking Bad," but it is an arresting drama about what happens to an everyman faced with circumstances that are extraordinary, but still circumstances we can easily see ourselves facing some day. High school chemistry teacher Walter White finds out that he has cancer and decides to manufacture methamphetamine as a way to get enough money for his family to live on after he is gone. Walt is a brilliant person who carries the weight of his own and his wife's diminished expectations, but he comes alive once that he has a mission and a way to apply his knowledge and training in a practical (if illegal and anti-social) activity. The care and craftsmanship that he applies to producing meth almost makes you forget that he is engaging in the production of something that may benefit his family but will bring calamity on those who use it. More so than the other two shows, "Breaking Bad" asks what happens when a fundamentally decent person does something bad for ostensibly good reasons, and how far will he go once he has crossed the lines of where he thought his boundaries were?
All three shows demonstrate the importance of place--inner-city , rural , the suburbs--as a contributor to who we are, and they show that being human means making choices in difficult circumstances and then having to live with the consequences of those choices and an altered sense of who we are.
Great art teaches us about our world, and about ourselves; you can learn a lot from watching these shows.
- I always recommend Ram Charan's "What the CEO Wants You To Know" to people going into the coaching/consulting world. It is a short little primer on the fundamentals of business and bears reading and rereading. Most of Charan's books are worth reading.
- One should be steeped in Peter Drucker. The dean of management thinkers is as fresh today as he was 50 years ago. "The Essential Drucker" is a good start; "The Effective Executive" is indispensable.
- There are many specialties and approaches that executive coaches can take, and one must identify one's own expertise and style. Someone who has influenced mine is Marshall Goldsmith, and I recommend his "What Got You Here Won't Get You There." (I still remember walking into a bookstore and seeing it for the first time--the perfection of the title literally stopped me in my tracks and I groaned, "Why didn't I think of that?"
- Read the newspaper and business journals. I read the "Financial Times" and "Wall Street Journal" every day and the "Investor's Business Daily" on occasion. All three have excellent websites. I also highly recommend "The Economist," though it is so content-rich that I find its weekly schedule very difficult to keep up with. For those who do international work, I recommend "Monocle" magazine as well.
- Whether you do international work or not, chances are that your client's face the challenges of an international workforce. I recommend "Cultures and Organizations" by Hofstede and Hofstede and "Riding the Waves of Culture" by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner.
- Spend a little time each day watching the Bloomberg network; I find some of the other business channels a bit grating, but Bloomberg feels like it's for grown ups.
- Beyond the International Enneagram Association, I don't belong to any organizations, though I probably should. When I started consulting I joined the Chamber of Commerce and groups like SHRM and ASTD, but found little value in them as they tended to be made up of a lot of people looking for work. It is important to have some sort of social connection if you are self-employed, however, so I recommend finding something to belong to.