close Facebook Twitter Instagram LinkedIn
12 mins

7 Key Lessons from the Best Leadership Books of The Past Decade

Leading a team or company is always a challenge
by Sebastian Klein | Oct 18 2015

Not only do you need to manage their roles and responsibilities, you also need to inspire them and help them develop as individuals.

7-key-lessons-from-the-best-leadership-books-of-the-past-decade

Most challenging of all though is that there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. The right approach depends on your personality, skillset and of course the composition of your team.

However, that’s no excuse to just wing it. Leadership has been studied and written about extensively, so there is a lot of valuable advice out there you should be reading. At Blinkist, we distill the key insights from outstanding nonfiction books and put them into a format that lets people learn more in less time. As we dug into the past few decades’ most popular leadership books, we cherry-picked the most insightful, well-founded leadership tips we came across.

1. Give people clarity about goals and the latitude to meet them.

Some corporate executives are famed for their autocratic, near-tyrannical approach to leadership and management.

Steve Jobs, for instance, was called a tyrant and a control-freak. Should you follow in his footsteps and lead your team with an iron fist?

A growing body of literature suggest not. One example is the great (but not so recent) book In Search of Excellence. In it two McKinsey consultants explore what makes the world’s top companies so great. They found that in these organizations, decisions were left to the people who have the most expertise—and that isn’t always the leader.

The secret lies in setting clear goals and then letting people find their own paths to meet them. What will ultimately move your
company forward is hiring (and trusting) great people to call the shots.

In Turn the Ship Around, the former submarine commander L. David Marquet introduces what he calls the “leader-leader” system, which empowers people to act on their expertise.

Instead of having team members ask your permission to act, you could encourage them to consider their options, select one, and tell you about it—but preface it with “I intend to.” By encouraging your team to use “I intend to” you free them to chart the course of action. Your role is then to quickly approve by saying, “go ahead,” but ultimately, the ownership and the initiative is still the employee’s.

The benefits of distributing authority are borne out in empirical evidence too: the most effective organizations, be they giants like Zappos or little startups like Buffer, give employees the trust and freedom to govern their work as they see fit.

Where we found it: Holacracy, In Search of Excellence, Reinventing Organizations, Turn the Ship Around

2. Take action

How many meetings have you sat in where burning questions are debated for hours, but in the end no actual decision is made and there are no concrete actions follow? This is exactly the kind of work culture you as a leader should strive to change.

Peters and Waterman found that extraordinary companies are 100% focused on getting things done—and, by extension, so are their leaders. In many larger (and not so effective) companies people spend a lot of time in meetings, and that usually amounts to a lot of time debating why things can’t get done. What you actually want is a workplace where people’s primary focus is on delivering results.

So how do you get there?

First, you as a leader need to set an example of action. What that means for you is instating a system that ensures people actually do the tasks that need to get done.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen provides some indispensable tips and protocols for establishing such a system. One of the most valuable takeaways from this fine little productivity bible is to be sure that you’re using all of the tools at your disposal the right way.

For example, the only thing that should be on your calendar are concrete appointments like doctor’s visits, or hard deadlines. The actual tasks you have to accomplish—like emailing that big client, or preparing for your assistant’s performance review—belong on your “Next Actions” list, never in your calendar. You can address them, despatch them, and move on to whatever else needs to get done straight away.

This kind of hygiene amid the tools you use is good first step to increasing productivity. By getting into this habit yourself, you’re not only getting more done yourself, but also implementing a system that the rest of your team can use for quarters and quarters to come.

Where we found it: Getting Things Done

3. Lead with inspiring values

As a leader, one of the most inspiring things for your team members are the values they see you living.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg provides a great example of how a leader’s values can transform an entire company. In the late eighties, the aluminum company Alcoa was ailing, and hired a new CEO, Paul O’Neill to help save the business. He immediately made a declaration in line with his values: from then on, the first priority in the company was employee safety. Workplace accidents were to be minimized. Despite concerns from shareholders, he started his tenure by changing the company and its processes to reflect this simple goal.

The result?

Focusing on safety forced the entire organization to re-evaluate and streamline its processes, resulting in a safer, more profitable company.

In this way, declaring your values and guiding principles can help people focus on what’s important.

Where we found it: The Power of Habit

4. Strive for level 5 leadership.

People are the most critical resource to any business, and that extends far beyond you as a leader. In fact the best kind of leader is one who removes herself from center stage.

In Good to Great, leadership beacon Jim Collins introduces the concept of a level 5 leader as the highest pinnacle leaders should aspire to. Level 5 leaders are:

  • Excellent team members and managers
  • Single-mindedly ambitious on behalf of the company, wishing it to do well even after they’re gone
  • Personally modest yet fanatically driven toward results; they share credit for their company’s achievements, downplaying their own role, but are quick to take responsibility for shortcomings

In Good to Great, Collins offers the example of Darwin Smith, who transformed Kimberly-Clark into one of the leading paper consumer goods companies in the world. And yet, Smith refused to cultivate an image of himself as a hero or celebrity. He dressed like a farm boy, spent his holidays working on his Wisconsin farm and often found his favorite companions among plumbers and electricians.

While you need not emulate Mr. Smith’s choice in clothing or companions, you should periodically remind yourself to be ambitious primarily on behalf of your company, not yourself.

Where we found it: Good to Great

5. Fire people the right way

Industries and markets can change in unpredictable ways. The person who was a perfect addition to your team just a year ago may now be basically useless. What’s more, individuals can be unpredictable too: perhaps the new team member you had high hopes for is just not working out as well as you hoped, despite your best coaching efforts.

In these cases, you may need to let someone go. Not every hire will work out, and a poor company fit can wreak havoc on the rest of your team and the employee himself. Firing quickly, fairly, and with generosity is the best way to keep your business intact and retain the respect of the rest of the team.

Just remember: when your company is going through tough times, you don’t have to turn to firing staff as your first option.

Hewlett-Packard is a fantastic example of a company that avoided this. In the 1940s, executives decided that they didn’t want HP to be a “hire and fire” company. So, instead of firing employees during the 1970s recession, the entire company took a ten percent pay cut.

In the end, HP survived the recession without terminating anyone’s employment. No wonder that in individual interviews with 20 HP executives, 18 mentioned the company’s people-oriented philosophy as a key reason for its success.

Where we found it: In Search of Excellence

6. Confront nasty facts

You know the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger”? Well it applies triple to leaders. If there’s bad news to be told, you want your team members to voice it without hesitation or fear that you’ll take out your frustration on them.

In Good to Great, Collins stresses that good leaders are honest about problems and bad news. They create an environment in which brutal facts can be aired by team members without hesitation. As a leader, you can make strides toward this culture by being upfront about your own missteps and bringing them up before someone else spreads them for you.

You can also institute processes to help ensure that nasty facts and tricky questions get aired periodically. In The Everything Store, Brad Stone points out that Amazon has always relied on data to bring up and discuss nasty facts—and to track them for improvements, too. Google also holds weekly, company-wide meetings during which everyone can ask questions of the founders and management board, deep and heavies and uncomfortable questions included.

Finding the right way to get the truth of the matter into the sunlight—whether it’s through brave confessions or charts and tables—is what counts.

Where we found it: Good to Great, The Everything Store

7. Set the future course—but not in stone

Every company needs a direction and a clear path to follow, and many executives think they need to craft a detailed step-by-step action plan for the next ten years.

But in today’s environment, this simply doesn’t work. Companies can’t predict the future, so leaders would do better to create a guiding structure that’s flexible and adaptable.

In Good to Great, Collins describes this structure as a company’s “hedgehog concept,” which helps to bring focus as the business branches out. Imagine a fox hunting a hedgehog. The fox is crafty and invents a battery of complex tactics to get at the smaller creature, sneaking up on it from every which direction. Yet despite all of its cunning, the fox never wins. Why? The hedgehog has a simple, foolproof parry to any attack: it curls up and becomes an unbreachable spiked ball.

This is the kind of simple, effective concept your company needs to follow, and you can determine it by answering three simple questions:

  • What can we be the best in the world at?
  • What can we be passionate about?
  • What is the key economic indicator we should concentrate on?

But be patient. Looking at some of the most successful companies of the past decades, Collins found that it took an average of 4 years’ iteration and debate for them to find their hedgehog concept. But since then, every decision in those companies was made in line with it, and success has followed.

Leadership is never easy, but these seven golden nuggets of advice should help you avoid the most common pitfalls. But by all means don’t stop here. There’s a wealth of further wisdom on leadership and management in the books mentioned, and in countless others.

Get the key lessons in no time by reading them on Blinkist, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a level 5 leader.

While you're here...

... let us tell you a little about who we are.

Blinkist Magazine is made by the same people who make — yep, you guessed it! — Blinkist. We spend our days transforming crucial insights from the best nonfiction books into powerful little packs of wisdom that you can read or listen to in a matter of minutes.

If you’re curious about the app, why not ? If it’s not for you, just cancel your subscription during the trial period and you won’t be charged. Happy learning!

Google + Facebook Twitter Tumblr Instagram LinkedIn Flickr Email Print