Book Review: How We Lead Matters

It seems appropriate to leap into September with a book review, no? A little what I read over the summer, if you will.

And one book I went back to a few times over the past number of months is How We Lead Matters by Marilyn Carlson Nelson. I received it as part of the One Degree Mini Book Expo: Business Edition, and I was awfully excited to dive in.
how we lead matters
I’m at a point, professionally, where I’m finding myself more often in a leadership position. My style so far is… bullish. I’m definitely the no-nonsense type, and I often make the classic foible of focusing on results over feelings when maybe I shouldn’t, at least not exclusively.

I’ve been called out for being an insensitive, hardass bitch a time or two. While I don’t really mind that, I am looking specifically for leadership resources that will help me become a trusted manager with a focus on results rather than simply a brutish taskmaster.

The Brute = Bitch issue is also a leadership perception issue that is unique to women. Maybe it’s not right, but it’s there, and something that female leaders need to be aware of. I would like to hone a style that is authentic to my role as a woman as well as a leader.

So I thought notes on leadership from one of the first female CEOs would be an excellent study in ways to build that style.

Unfortunately, it fell a bit short for me.

Rather than reflections on a life of leadership, the book seemed to me to be notes on occasions my actions resulted in an act of graciousness (sometimes on purpose, sometimes not), which paid off later.

I missed the opportunity to read about someone’s struggles (internal and external) and how they were overcome. The short stories (each about 100 words long) don’t lend themselves well to true lessons. For example: The author’s daughter died, she was devastated, she grieved, faced the idea of her own mortality and decided with her husband to live their lives celebrating every day, because her daughter didn’t get the chance to.

Whoop. De. Doo.

Not that a child dying isn’t tragic, but I don’t know a single person who has managed to pick themselves up out of such a horrible event and NOT been inspired to live their lives with a bit more purpose. What I want to know is how did she finally get out of the dark days? How did she finally move past the pain into the point of graciousness? And what were some of the struggles she made it through and lessons learned on the way?

The entire book is missing the hard details. The things we struggle with every day. How do we make it through? How do we pick ourselves up out of those instances we wish we could forget of occasional embarrassment, incompetence and insensitivity?

The book’s “lessons” are all shared from a point where hindsight has long since provided clarity and obviousness. Do the right thing. Thing is, that’s not so easy in the heat of the moment, and such simplistic advice offers cold comfort to those of us in the trenches.

This book annoyed me.

Until I started flipping through it one more time to write this review.

Maybe that is the lesson. What happens in the trenches, those clumsy, embarrassing missteps are not what will matter in the end. What will matter is that, despite the mistakes, you did the right thing. You stayed focused on what’s truly important, and did not let disappointment or difficulty or disaster dissuade you.

You did not puke at 9-G’s. Even if you wanted to.


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: How We Lead Matters

  1. Luke

    Hi Jen,

    This topic hits close to home recently. I think this year/summer I understood more deeply how careful we must be with our leadership.

    My team at work had some weeks of stress and it’s really hard to keep your head up, let alone be a good leader when things are rough.

    I think we need to go easier on ourselves sometimes. It’s so easy to get down about our actions, or our re-actions to others. We need to look at the 98 peaceful and wonderful things we did and focus less on the 2 dumb things we said.

    Your reflection on that book gave you some clarity, and put past thoughts into a new perspective. My team at work talked through our problems and stress, and came to a new understanding of how to work through it.

    Maybe the message is to notice when we’re speeding up towards that crescendo of emotion and action and to slow down before it erupts. I guess the theory is that eventually we’ll get that clarity of the “right thing” before we act more and more often.

    But this is all so obvious, eh? The hard part is actually doing it, of course.

    I read lots of posts and some books about meditation and buddhism and suffering, and I understand some theory at an intellectual level. But when you’re in the shit, the theory isn’t very satisfying.

    When we’re in that down zone we need to recognize it and then follow that path out. For me, I discovered that I can be down in the dumps, but if I write a big chunk of code or build something, it can turn me around. I’ve started to do this more intentionally now.

    And I think it’s worth it for us to each fight to stay positive and productive. We need us to be awesome and to build new communities and companies and wealth and happiness. Our friends need us! We need our friends to be happy and healthy! It’s all so important, really.
    .-= Luke´s last blog ..On Critical Mass and Critical Manners =-.

  2. Karen

    You wrote, “The Brute = Bitch issue is also a leadership perception issue that is unique to women. Maybe it’s not right, but it’s there, and something that female leaders need to be aware of. I would like to hone a style that is authentic to my role as a woman as well as a leader.”

    The book Am-bitch-ous (which had to renamed “Ambition is not a Dirty Word”) by Debra Condren might be interesting to you. Some parts of it are can get kind of dumb, but other parts of it might speak to your frustration about the difference in interpretation of assertiveness. Worth a check out of the library, perhaps. I generally have the opposite problem, but I’ve been the occasional bitch/brute as well.

    It also reminds me of my Vancouver vs. Toronto gripes as well, which has more to do with leadership in the sense of proactively around identifying weaknesses and working around or through them.
    .-= Karen´s last blog ..City of Vancouver’s Data Site goes beta =-.

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