Book Review: The Corner Office

corner office

Adam Bryant was curious about CEOs. Specifically, are there certain traits they have in common that set them apart from others? And are those traits necessarily what we would expect?

To find out, he interviewed more than 70 CEOs and executives, then grouped the nuggets he gleaned into chapters under three broad headings: “Succeeding,” “Managing,” and “Leading.” Continue reading “Book Review: The Corner Office”

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December Book Review: The Prince

The Prince has been on my reading list for the better part of fifteen years and I borrowed it over a year ago, so it is a bit ironic that my first reaction on finally cracking it open and reading the first few pages was, “Wow, this is so useful! I should have read it years ago!” That reaction fluxed and changed over the course of the book, and this is the story of how that happened.

Of course, The Prince is often spoken of in shocked terms as being an amoral book, and certainly, as the introduction to this edition readily admits, “Machiavelli’s chief contribution to political thought lies in his freeing political action from moral consideration.”

True, Machiavelli does not insist upon morality if that will lessen power. But neither does he completely ignore moral considerations:

Still it cannot be called virtue to slay one’s fellow citizens, to betray one’s friends, to act without faith, without pity, without religion. By such methods one may win dominion but not glory.

His savage and inhuman cruelty and his many acts of wickedness do not permit him to be celebrated among men of unusual excellence.

His philosophy seems to be summed up by his remark that

The way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation.

You cannot criticize his honesty; someone who shares his opinion that the acquisition and maintenance of political power is an end in itself would probably do well to take his advice. Yet it is still possible for someone who seeks or accepts power for altruistic motives to study his analysis of the underlying situations and universal pitfalls and combine that analysis with their own value system to arrive at a completely different set of tactics.

It is important to remember that one may be innocent as a dove while still being wise as a serpent.

For example, consider these statements and their applicability to everyday life:

It must be realized that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more uncertain of success, or more dangerous to manage than the establishment of a new order of government; for he who introduces it makes enemies of all those who derived advantage from the old order and finds but lukewarm defenders among those who stand to gain from the new one.

Someone attempting to impose a new order – in a family, at work or in a larger sense – would do well to remember this.

Or

Men of little prudence will do a thing for immediate gain without recognizing the poison it bears for the future. (Yeah, we’re talking to you, Wall Street!)

Or

You offend [your subjects, your employees or your friends] by showing them that, either from cowardliness or from lack of faith, you distrust them; and either conclusion will induce them to hate you.

Or

One should never allow a disorder to persist in order to avoid a war, for war is not avoided thereby but merely deferred to one’s own disadvantage.

Think of the manager who allows a seditious and troublesome employee to continue their bad behavior unchecked because the manager dislikes “conflict.” This is bad on several levels. As Machiavelli illustrates in chapter 20, “divisions are never tolerated in a strong state” because such dissention among the citizens can lead to a city’s lessened productivity and ultimate downfall. The manager who follows this course, having inflicted suffering on their department, is likely to ultimately lose it. Better to deal with the matter swiftly and move on.

Or

Every wise prince should… never submit to idleness in time of peace, but rather endeavor to turn such time to advantage so as to profit from it in adversity.

Or

Having set an example once or twice, he may thereafter act far more mercifully than the princes who, through excessive kindness, allow disorders to arise from which murder and rapine [the seizure of property by force] ensue.

The teacher who can establish order on the first day of school may afterwards have fun with the students, but the teacher who is too soft on the first day will never have their respect and so will be much less effective at both teaching and guiding them – or will be forced to resort to much stricter punishments throughout the year to re-establish order.

Or

When you see a man who thinks more about his own interests than about yours, who seeks his own advantage in everything he does, then you may be sure that such a man will never be a good minister, and you will never be able to trust him.

I think most people would agree that these are true, which leads me to the opinion that never have I read anything in which the good and bad were so thoroughly, even ironically, mixed.

The quote about never submitting to idleness is immediately preceded by the instruction that “A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war.” This may or may not have been good advice in Machiavelli’s time and place – he recounts countless wars and armed conflicts just in Italy in the 50 years preceding his book – but it is unequivocally bad advice now that politics and daily life have taken a less dangerous turn.

Even if one amends “war” to “politics” or “how to maintain power,” I think few would agree that that should be one’s only focus. There are many other things a prince should learn: how to maintain peace in his domain, how to improve the prosperity of his people, how to discern and practice justice.

The principle I have applied to teachers comes from a chapter titled “Concerning Cruelty: Whether it is better to be loved or feared.” It is surprising how often Machiavelli does use the word “cruelty” – so often that I began to wonder if it was an accurate translation – but, in fact, the word he uses throughout, “crudele,” seems to be universally translated as “cruelty”.

Certainly, in many situations discipline is necessary, or a show of strength is called for. But must that be cruel? In a classroom, certainly not!

Surprisingly, for one of his era and ruthlessness, he applies the word “cruelty” to the execution of people who will otherwise never stop making trouble. Some modern readers will agree with this; others will find such executions to be not only justified, but in some cases, merciful. So there is still a lot of room for each person to decide what they consider cruel and whether there is any other way to accomplish the desired result.

Finally, considering that Machiavelli approved the judicious use of cruelty and deception (“If all men were good, this would be a bad precept, but since they are evil and would not keep a pledge to you, then you need not keep yours to them.”), it is clear that his warning about a man who is completely self-absorbed is intended to help those who are completely self-absorbed and seek their own advantage in everything!

In the end, I resorted to a little Googling to help make sense of it all.

The abortive fate of The Prince [after all, it failed in its stated goals of launching a new school of political thought, “saving” Italy from invaders, and winning Machiavelli a political post] makes you wonder why some of the great utopian texts of our tradition have had much more effect on reality itself, like The Republic of Plato, or Rousseau’s peculiar form of utopianism, which was so important for the French Revolution. Christianity itself— its imagination of another world beyond the so-called real world—completely transformed the real politics of Europe. Or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s not the realism of the Marxian analysis, it’s not his critique of capitalism’s unsustainable systemic contradictions—it’s more his utopian projection of a future communist state that inspired socialist movements and led to political revolutions throughout the world. – Rosina Pierrotti

If Machiavelli were as purely evil as he has often been painted, it would perhaps be easier to separate the good from the bad in his book. The danger of it is that, as he condones cruelty and trickery only as a last resort, a reader may find this to be reasonable, and may come to believe that there are situations that can be handled no other way. Whether or not it is true that there are political situations that can be won no other way, there is always another course of action.

The reader must decide whether they wish for power without glory, whether their own desires are so important to them that they will contribute to the evils of the world to attain them – or whether they wish to be “celebrated among men of unusual excellence.” The latter course may, in the end, be more effective anyway.

A couple of references, for those who are curious:
http://qn.som.yale.edu/content/what-can-you-learn-machiavelli (The source of the Rosina Pierrotti quote)
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/polybius-hannibal.asp Not quoted in the blog, but this text by Polybius from the 2nd century BCE interestingly shows that not all of Machiavelli’s ideas are as original as he gets credit for!

(Although writing this review was somewhat delayed by my computer dying, I assure you I did read the book in December, per my resolution! I also read my November book – review coming shortly.)

Summer School

When this blog went on extended hiatus this summer, it was not a rejection of the Eschewing Easy project. On the contrary (as many of my readers will know), I was committing to it for the rest of my life: I got married. I rather suspect that living happily ever after will provide the seed of many new Eschewing Easy posts.

The biggest lesson learned this summer? Planning a wedding is not easy or fun.

It is also great practice in leadership: from my perspective (although I’m sure others will disagree!), the bride can be regarded as the “CEO” of The Wedding. An involved groom is like a 40% shareholder – you’d better listen to what he wants. When the parents are paying, the Mother of the Bride is like the Board of Directors – the only person who can tell the bride what she absolutely cannot do. And the goal of it all is to fulfill the CEO’s vision while showing the “customers” – the guests – a good time.

I admit I thought of all this rather late in the process and therefore didn’t manage and lead the chaos as well as I might have. Turns out that no matter how determined one may be not to be a Bridezilla, planning a wedding does tend to focus one’s attention on Self and what “I” want. That’s a very hard position to lead from; you have to take a larger view if you’re going to manage (and keep happy) different factions.

The other thing I realized, at least more practically than I had previously, was that it’s hard to find the balance between being warm and emotive without being emotional, and between being decisive without being or seeming inconsiderate of others’ ideas.

Craving simplicity in a complex process, or just a brief respite from constant discussion, it’s easy to over-do the decisiveness, to pull rank, to put your foot down. It doesn’t work. Without consensus, or at least without others knowing you’ve given open-minded consideration to their ideas, resentment builds, everybody digs in their heels, and discussion accelerates – at a greatly increased level of tension.

Still, I’d say the end product was worth it all.

first kiss

Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
Mother of the Bride and family friends under the pergola
friends enjoying the party
You know your wedding has a relaxed atmosphere when friends wander away and seat themselves on the grass.

It’s good to be back.

Harry Potter

Recently I have found myself tearing through the Harry Potter books. While there is plenty that could be said about their subject matter, so controversial in certain circles, and their shortcomings in the more technical aspects of literary merit, the thing that has struck me most is the courage and leadership consistently displayed by the hero, young Harry himself.

Harry is a celebrity within his own community – a celebrity in the most trying way and to the most trying degree. Born into the highest social class, as an infant he survived the attack that killed his parents with only a small cut on his forehead. Nobody knows why or how, and speculation runs rampant until, 11 years later, he is brought out of the safe hiding place where he was raised.

He is famous for something that wasn’t his doing, and which he doesn’t remember. People stare at him when they first meet him. Some people court his favor because he’s famous, including a young schoolmate who follows him everywhere and snaps photos at the most inopportune moments. Other people assume he’s stuck-up and trying to increase his fame. In such a situation, it would be all too easy to become rude, surly and withdrawn – or to get a big head. Harry does neither. He behaves with unfeigned modesty and humility, yet does not fear accomplishing good and impressive things, even when those accomplishments will earn him more publicity.

Harry is unfailingly polite to people of all walks of life and in all situations, no matter how much the other person may be inconveniencing him. (The exception is when someone insults or harms a friend, in which case he leaps to his friend’s defense.) An example is Dobby, essentially a slave. When we first meet Dobby, his ill-advised attempts to save Harry’s life cause Harry no end of trouble. Yet Harry treats him with kindness, and at the end of the book, contrives to set Dobby free. Later, when he meets Dobby again, he graciously gives him permission to come and visit him sometime – even though the reader, and Harry, know this is likely to lead to further inconvenience. If, as one character remarks, the measure of a man is how he treats his inferiors, not his equals, Harry is a great man.

Harry’s kindness and loyalty earn him the same in return. The fourth book revolves largely around a tournament between the scholar-champions of three schools, which consists of three extremely difficult tasks. The scholars are supposed to prepare for the tasks without help, but so many people care about Harry that he keeps getting unsolicited assistance. Several times this assistance is crucial to his survival. But his kindness is not limited to those who are his friends. In the second task, he rescues the sister of one of his competitors when the competitor is unable to do so, even though this delays him and costs him points from the judges – turning the competitor from an antagonist to another friend and supporter.

But Harry is not seeking an unfair advantage; he has an acute sense of fair play. When someone shows Harry what the first task will be and Harry realizes that the champions for the two other schools also have this information, he takes it upon himself to tell the one champion, Cedric, who doesn’t know. When asked why he would do such a thing, he says, “Well, it’s just fair, isn’t it?”

In the end, Harry’s concern for others makes them believe in him in return. Cedric, who initially views Harry with suspicion, ends up helping him with the second task. In the final task, Harry saves Cedric from danger twice – even though this decreases Harry’s chance of winning. In fact, this assistance allows Cedric to reach the finish line ahead of Harry. But instead of taking the trophy, Cedric lists the reasons why Harry should be the winner, and refuses to finish the task. Harry protests, and, finally, when neither will budge, suggests they finish together and tie for first place.

The tournament, and Harry’s approach as well, is summed up in a speech by Dumbledore, the headmaster of the school, who exemplifies wise leadership. One quote in particular stands out: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided… We can fight [discord and enmity] only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”

Make as Few Rules as Possible

Benefit? Because I never said what or how much I had to post, only that it had to be weekly, this counts.

I know, it’s a cheap trick that only works once…

Of course, even writing this much on the subject prompts some consideraton of when there is a benefit to maximizing the number of rules (i.e., arguably, when regulating Wall Street) and when to cut back (generally, when trying to produce intelligent employees and effective Customer Service). And, that said, I would suggest that thinking about the objective one wants to accomplish by implementing one or more rules will tend to simplify them, and make them broader in scope and fewer in number.

Then again, there’s an exception to every rule.

Give Up

A recent conversation about leadership ended with the question, “Do you know what I’ve gone through to get there?” Yes. I do.

Later I wondered whether the only way to really know is to have gone through it oneself. Probably. I know what an accomplishment it is to have 30 people who don’t report to one consistently do one’s bidding, because I can’t get three people who don’t report to me to spend 10 minutes each month on a simple task. Do I know what it takes to gain influence over them, let alone get them to “jump through hoops”? Apparently not.

The summary given was 1) time, 2) get down in the trenches with them every time you ask them to do something, and 3) take an approach of eagerness to learn from them.

All are worthy of consideration, but the more I thought about it, the more what hit me was the phrase “what I’ve gone through.” It reminds me of the 18th Law of Success – The Law of Sacrifice.

To quote John C. Maxwell:

The life of a leader can look glamorous to people on the outside. But the reality is that leadership requires sacrifice. A leader must give up to go up.

The cliché of “paying dues” is misleading in two ways. For one thing, it suggests that the sacrifice is temporary, that if you put in your overtime, eventually you’ll reach a place where life is easy and the perks extreme – whereas, logically, more responsibility means more and bigger and thornier issues to deal with. But on the other hand, I suspect the cliché limits our idea of what’s at stake. Notice I said “if you put in your overtime.” I’m guessing most will have read right over that without a second thought, and yet, work is only one area where sacrifice can be required, and time is only one of many things on the table.

Maxwell poses a series of questions:

To become a more influential leader… are you willing to give up your rights for the sake of the people you lead? Give it some thought. Then create two lists: (1) the things you are willing to give up in order to go up, and (2) the things you are not willing to sacrifice to advance. Be sure to consider which list will contain items such as your health, marriage, relationships with children, finances, and so on.

As a first step to making such a list, I started brainstorming about the things that are available to be given up, regardless of whether I would do so or not. After about 20 sub-items to the obvious categories (sleep, exercise, hobbies, friends, pay cuts, etc) I landed on these:

  1. Spirituality
  2. Ethics and morals (Enron or Bernard Madoff, anyone?)
  3. Impatience/ dependence on the easy – I would suggest that this and the above are mutually exclusive
  4. Privacy
  5. Rights – Maxwell posits that rights decrease as responsibilities increase
  6. Your own preferences/ self-centeredness –the well-being of the followers or project must come ahead of yourself
  7. Excuses – the ability to shuffle any of the blame onto any other person or circumstance
  8. Security – success is rarely found in the comfort zone, and leaders rarely (ever?) in the pack

Even then, the term “Sacrifice” may itself be misleading, with its aura of passivity and diminishment. If you’re sitting boatless in the middle of the ocean, you will definitely gain from sacrificing your in-flight reading materials and maybe your shoes. But that won’t get you to shore. Progress is made when you start swimming, and start trading more and more of what you have for decreased resistance. Progress is made by motion, not sacrifice.

Turns out much can be sacrificed without gaining leadership, or advancement in some direction. I’ve recently given up about 6 hours of TV each week, and several hours on Facebook, and all I’ve succeeded in doing is not drowning in my to-do list. My ‘Getting Things Done’ post a few weeks ago acknowledged that there isn’t time to do everything. The sad truth is that to accomplish things of real value, you have to sacrifice more than the low-hanging fruit.

I dislike the term ‘compromise;’ to me it sounds weak and cowardly, like the quickest way to get to the lowest common denominator; and ‘sacrifice’ is depressing enough to provoke instinctual resistance. But, yes, life is a series of choices and trades. Success must be bartered for. It’s worth noting that in many cases you’re not discarding your assets. “Sacrificing” time now doesn’t mean you’ve given up your whole allotment, only that you’ve traded this moment of time for something you valued. If you have nothing of value to give, how can you expect to get anything of value in return?