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Leadership: the best reads

Leadership: the best reads

I’m often asked by my clients in Senior Management positions what good books on leadership I can recommend to them. More often than not, I don’t suggest books ‘on leadership’, but rather books about real-life leaders, mostly biographies and autobiographies. The reality is that really excellent leaders are never perfect and they are faced with decision-making in never-perfect situations. How they do it in the real world teaches and gives us insights into how to handle our own difficult and complex situations in our role as leaders. Here are four books I’ve recommended to some of my clients during the last year

Long Walk to Freedom ; by Nelson Mandela

It was no accident that, when he died in 2013, leaders from all over the world gathered in a huge South African sports stadium to celebrate his life. After 27 years as a prisoner of the apartheid regime in the notorious Robben Island prison, Mandela went on to bring South Africa back into the international community. He did this by counterintuitively taking on board as key allies members of the white elite that had for many years killed and tortured his black fellow countrymen. Even more importantly, he was able to bring the black majority to follow him in this difficult process of healing. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission he set up has become a model for other countries faced with similar problems. History may deliver a negative verdict on Mandela’s failure to set up his succession so that what he started would endure, but overall, the lesson he teaches leaders everywhere is to put trust in the intentions and abilities of most people, however much you may dislike what you perceive them to have done. He also teaches perseverance in the face of long and enduring difficulties, a key attribute of leaders who succeed over the long term.

Becoming; by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s autobiography immediately became a best-seller when it was released in 2018. The struggle for women to achieve fairness and equality in the workplace has been greatly accelerated by her life and her work. Even more so, the cause of people of color, particularly women of color. For leaders, one of the key lessons she teaches us is the critical importance of having a set of core values based around fairness to all around us, and then of basing all our actions on those values.

Fairness, and also toughness. Obama, born Michelle Robinson, was born in Chicago’s rough and often violent South Side. She had exceptional parents, both determined to achieve as much as possible in a difficult environment, especially for Michelle and her brother Craig, who has also had an exceptional career. She writes of being advised by some of her high school teachers ‘not to set her sights too high’ and of how she ignored this advice to go on to Princeton and Harvard universities. She then started a very successful career as a lawyer, having to overcome prejudices against both her sex and her color. As First Lady of the United States, nobody ever thought that she was ever in her husband’s shadow, especially Barak Obama himself, who often opened his speeches by saying that he was ‘the man accompanying Michelle’.

Obviously, ‘Becoming’ is an inspiring book for all women who want to affirm themselves and achieve much in what is still a man’s world. It is also a ‘must-read, for all leaders, men and women alike

Dwight D. Eisenhower

There are many excellent biographies of Eisenhower, who was President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. There are two phases of his life which are particularly rich in lessons for leaders of all types of organizations. The first was as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War Two. He had no real military experience in a combat role, but was a superb planner with an excellent ability to get difficult personalities to work together as a team. And he had difficult personalities aplenty to deal with. Most notably he had to manage the clash between two very difficult and divergent personalities, the British general Bernard Montgomery and the American general George Patton. Montgomery was a ‘diva’ who was convinced he was always right. He was also known for an excess of caution. Patton, on the contrary, was the proverbial bull in a china shop. To make matters worse, they detested each other. Eisenhower successfully managed these two irascible leaders, without whom D-Day and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany would have been much more difficult. The lesson for us as leaders? Compromise when you have to in order to achieve your main objectives and be decisive when necessary, despite forceful people opposing your decisions.

In his second phase, as President, Eisenhower was known for being able to work successfully with both the major US political parties, particularly in restraining what he called ‘the military-industrial complex’, the very world that had shaped him as a leader

Truman; by David McCullough

Harry Truman was also a US President, from 1945 to 1953. He is most controversially known for his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. There can be no more difficult decision a leader has ever faced. It has been endlessly debated in all the years since the end of the Second World War. The recent release of previously classified papers shows just how difficult this decision was and tends to support the view that his decision was ‘the least bad’. It enabled the long war against Japan to finally come to an end. Its terrible cost in human life and suffering was, given what we now know about Japan’s military plans to fight to the last person left alive, the only one he could have taken. He took the decision knowing that a large part of humanity would forever view him as the man who unleashed the monster of nuclear annihilation on the World.

Taking tough and often unpopular decisions was Truman’s great strength. He invented the phrase ‘the buck stops here’. It is fascinating to read how he fired General Douglas Macarthur, one of the most popular military leaders the US has ever produced. Macarthur had one fatal flaw: he viewed himself as above all other human beings, even Presidents and even the constitution of the country he served. He had to go and Truman had the courage to get rid of him.

Finally, Truman was a very humble man. He was never rich and he never wanted to be. He just did his very difficult job to the best of his ability and then retired quietly to his home in Missouri.

The lessons from these books? Real people teach us real lessons for a real world.

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