Here are a few books I have found valuable as a leader, manager, and coach.
Edgar Schein’s short book on how to build trusted relationships through asking curious, interested questions of our friends and colleagues rather than telling them what they ought to know is a gem. Over the course of his book’s 110 pages, Schein leads the reader through an exploration of the concept of Humble Inquiry, why it’s such powerful tool for building trustworthy relationships, and why the fundamental values of Western culture and the complexities of interpersonal communication make the principles of Humble Inquiry so challenging to put into practice. Humble Inquiry offers an especially compelling message to leaders of organizations who, operating in an increasingly complicated and diverse world, can no longer afford to underestimate the extent to which they depend on their subordinates for their own success.
Peter Block argues that we live in a culture that rewards us for acting more for the sake of efficiency and financial return than out of a sense of deep purpose and closely-held personal values. The result is that we end up doing more and more about things that matter less and less. Block challenges each of us to take greater responsibility for shaping the communities and organizations in which we live and work by resisting the temptation to default to practical questions about “how” in favor of taking time to reflect deeply on questions about “why.” If we accept this challenge, Block believes, we will create social environments that are more humane, more compassionate, and ultimately more meaningful.
William Bridges was a well-known organizational development consultant prior to his death in 2013, and his best-selling books include Jobshift (1995) and Transitions (2004). Unlike these two books, The Way of Transition is an intensely personal account of his own response to the death of his wife Mondi and a collection of profound reflections on how human beings can thrive through change, even in the most challenging of times.
Bridges establishes a rhythm in this book that shifts back and forth between a discussion of his well-established three-stage theory of transition and a personal memoir of the important role this model of transition played in his professional career and personal lives. At the outset Bridges distinguishes between change, or a shift in the external circumstances of one’s life such as new job, relocation to a new city, or the death of a loved one, and transition, or the internal, psychological process that helps us process and adapt to change by pushing us to leave our old way of viewing the world and move toward a new, more nuanced and insightful perspective. Between the ending of the old and the beginning of the new, we find ourselves in the neutral zone, a period of uncertainty, ambiguity, and instability during which the outlines of what our new lives might look like slowly begin to emerge. While many of us find the neutral zone a difficult time of disorientation and uncertainty – because we have left the past behind but have yet to discern, much less embrace, the future – it can also be a time of great creativity, insight, and personal learning, if only we find the courage to embrace it as such.
In addition to an exploration of his theory of transition and a detailed, often painful recounting of his wife’s battle with cancer and eventual death, Bridges draws on insights gleaned from psychology (especially Jungian psychology), anthropology, Western and Eastern literature, and the world’s great spiritual traditions to further illuminate how human beings have dealt with transformative change over the course of human history. Especially engaging are the author’s interpretation of The Wizard of Oz as a powerful allegory of the process of transition and his argument, in the penultimate chapter of his book, for a greater appreciation of society’s elderly and the wisdom they have accumulated as the result of passing through one life transition after another.
Ron Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers is an in-depth description of the theory and practice of the adaptive leadership model Heifetz teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Two key distinctions lie at the foundation of this model and at the heart of this book. First, Heifetz distinguishes between technical challenges organizations face (routine challenges for which solutions are already known) and adaptive challenges (unprecedented challenges, the solutions to which require innovation and organizational learning). He also distinguishes leadership (“intervening in people’s lives and social systems with the aim of increasing their adaptive capacity, their ability to clarify values and make progress on the problems those values define”) from authority (“the exercise of power for the purpose of providing direction, protection, and order for members of a society.”)
Adaptive challenges demand leadership, while technical challenges can usually be addressed by those in positions of authority who might or might not have leadership skills but do possess the managerial skills to plan and allocate resources effectively. The primary responsibility of the adaptive leader, Heifetz argues in this book, is not to solve an organization’s problems on her own but rather to create an environment that encourages the organization’s members to adapt new values and behaviors, even while they might resist doing so.
Leadership Without Easy Answers is divided into four sections: “Setting the Frame” (which lays out the theory of adaptive leadership in significant detail); “Leading with Authority” (which offers guidance on how to exercise leadership for those in positions of formal authority); “Leading Without Authority” (which discusses the exercise of leadership for those who lack formal organizational authority); and “Staying Alive” (which addresses the political risks leaders face when they challenge their organizations to think and behave in new ways and how to survive these risks). Leading Without Easy Answers is an outstanding contribution to the art and science and leadership. I especially recommend it as a companion piece to Robert Kegan’s Immunity to Change (see below), which presents a model of adult development that borrows heavily from Heifetz’s distinction between technical and adaptive challenges and offers an innovative framework for understanding the often unconscious forces that prevent individuals as well as organizations from realizing meaningful change.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s groundbreaking work in the field of adult development has uncovered a powerful mechanism that prevents even the most determined among us from realizing behavioral change. Kegan and Lahey call this phenomenon our “immunity to change,” a collection of often unconscious assumptions, commitments, and mental models that protect our sense of identity and provide a source of psychological comfort — all while making it nearly impossible for us to change the way we interact with others in any significant way.
Kegan and Lahey argue that we can overcome this immunity to change by becoming aware of our hidden assumptions, commitments, and mental models, thereby making them available for examination, validation and modification. They describe the process of bringing our unconscious mental models into awareness as one of transforming our thinking from “subject” to “object.” As “subject,” our assumptions about the world influence our behavior in unseen and often unexpected ways — in Kegan’s language, our assumptions “have [control over] us.” As “object,” our assumptions move from an unconscious to a conscious state in which we can examine them and discover how they shape our behavior — that is, “we have [control over] our assumptions.” The tool Kegan and Lahey have developed for transforming our unconscious mental data from subject to object is the Immunity Map. Much like Chris Argyris’ Ladder of Inference, the Immunity Map provides a methodology for uncovering causal relationships between our assumptions about the world, the conclusions we draw and the commitments we form from these assumptions, and ultimately the behaviors that emerge from these conclusions and commitments.
Adult development, according to Kegan and Lahey, is an ongoing and never-ending journey of increasing our mental complexity by transforming larger and larger chunks of mental data from subject to object so that these data can be examined, understood, and appropriately managed. We grow, like the medieval alchemist, by transforming base metal into gold. As we grow, we become more and more skillful at interacting with our world.
David Maister, a former Harvard Business School professor and long-time management consultant, has written a number of books on managing and working in professional service firms, including Managing the Professional Service Firm (1997) and First Among Equals: How to Manage a Group of Professionals (2005). The Trusted Advisor offers coaches and consultants invaluable insight into how to build mutually-beneficial, mutually-satisfying relationships with individual clients and their organizations. Chapter 8, “The Trust Equation,” is by itself worth the price you’ll pay for this book.
The Trusted Advisor is organized into three sections. Part One, “Perspectives on Trust,” discusses trust within the larger context of building relationships with others. Part Two, “The Structure of Trust Building,” identifies the essential components of trust (credibility, reliability, intimacy, and the management of self-interest) and lays out a five-stage model for building trust (engage, listen, frame, envision, and commit). Part Three, “Putting Trust to Work,” surveys the variety of real-world challenges that can occur as one attempts to build a professional relationship founded on trust, including dealing with difficult clients who appear to be trust-averse. In the book’s appendix the reader will find a series of useful checklists such as “Common Attributes of Trusted Advisors,” “Characteristics of Trust Relationships,” “Tips on Enhancing Credibility,” “What Good Listeners Do.” These lists provide a comprehensive yet concise summary of the book’s contents as well as a valuable quick-reference guide for coaches and consultants.
As a long-time meditator, I was drawn to this book the moment I saw the title. Ostensibly a book about how to create more compelling presentations, Presentation Zen lays out a set of aesthetic and editorial principles (simplicity, natural grace, elegance, the power of white space and silence, and sticking to facts and avoiding opinions) that, when practiced, dramatically improves our communication with others, regardless of the medium we use. This is a book worth reading and rereading if communication is an important part of your job. If communication isn’t an important part of your job, it might be worth asking yourself whether it should be.