The Book Corner - Review
2006 Volume 9 Issue 2

The Book Corner

The Book Corner

Featured in this issue:

Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership through Literature

By Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business School, 2006

Recommended by Robert M. Fulmer, PhD, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Strategy

Joseph Badaracco, a Harvard Business School professor specializing in leadership and business ethics, presents eight fundamental challenges that test a leader’s character and proposes exploring them through literary works rather than by using traditional HBS cases. His selections include Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Sophocles, Antigone, and Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More’s dealings with Henry VIII. These, as well as lesser known writings, allow readers to examine their own characters by reflecting upon the actions of fictional leaders. The major issues raised include testing the moral compass or dreams of leaders, discovering their role models, and selecting their dedication and commitment to their dreams. As Badaracco points out, “Leaders are tested again and again throughout their careers, and the self-knowledge gained from these tests of character is truly at the heart of leadership.”

Through literature, Badaracco explores the emotional and psychological strength needed to actually take command of a situation. He contends that, “Serious literature offers a view from the inside. It lets us watch leaders as they think, worry, hope, hesitate, commit, exult, regret, and reflect. We see their characters tested, reshaped, strengthened, or weakened.”

Although using literature to teach character lessons is not a new convention—the Aspen Institute has been doing that for decades—this book is a thoughtful, well written work that combines insight regarding the challenges of leadership with the wisdom of good literature. It gives the reader a sense of what it would be like to be in the classroom of the popular course that Badaracco teaches on this subject at Harvard.

Badaracco’s cross-disciplinary approach is clear and direct. His eight chapters frame key leadership issues in the form of questions that engage the reader directly. A brief list of the works examined and the key issues that they address follows:

  • In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller demonstrates how the wrong dreams can poison the dreamer and those who come in contact with this toxic dream. We are warned never to confuse dreams and visions with true entrepreneurship.
  • In Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe reveals that leaders need moral codes that are complex, varied and as subtle as the situations in which they find themselves. Things tend to “fall apart when the leader is not able to adapt and read the complex environment in an appropriate way.”
  • Allen Gurganus’ Blessed Assurance is used to show how good role models have to be judged by what they elicit from a person and what they help that person comprehend and understand.
  • Scott Fitzgerald’s The Love of the Last Tycoon is used to answer the question, “Do I really care?” This work speaks to the need for an intense accountability to oneself and a genuine commitment to others. These traits enable a leader to persevere and truly enjoy the complexity of great challenge over the long haul.
  • Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer is used to address the question “Am I ready to take responsibility?” This vivid account of the challenges of taking responsibility reveals why the leader needs to master himself before leading others. It also implies that a leader will sometimes face morally ambiguous situations that require a reasoned level of flexibility.
  • Louis Auchincloss’s I Come as a Thief illustrates the importance of keeping perspective and a healthy distance from the pressures that surround success. The question for this chapter is, “Can I resist the flow of success?”
  • A Man for All Seasons is used to discuss “How well do I combine principles and pragmatism?” For years, Thomas More managed to safeguard himself, his family and his convictions through gentle humor, a skillful use of power, and an ability to elicit empathy. Unfortunately, there was a limit to how long these skills could help More avoid the ultimate penalty for opposing Henry VIII.
  • Sophocles’ Antigone is used to reveal the painful and dire consequences of failing to find ways to reflect during periods of enormous pressures and complex distractions. The question of “What is sound reflection?” is an appropriate concluding point for this series of essays.

I wish that Professor Badaracco had more fully summarized the examples from the less familiar readings he selected, or had picked more widely known works than Things Fall Apart, by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, or the short novel Blessed Assurance, by Allan Gurganus. Perhaps “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but Badaracco criticizes the leader in Things Fall Apart for a lack of flexibility, then is impressed with Sir Thomas More’s ability to minimize conflict through careful phrasing of responses to difficult questions, and then admires Conrad’s young ship’s captain for knowing how to bend or break rules. One could argue that in protecting a sailor accused of murder from the authorities, Conrad shows too much moral flexibility, yet the issue is framed so as to provide an awareness of the ambiguity of “facts” and acknowledges the importance of good judgment in difficult situations. More’s unwillingness to bend to King Henry’s wishes was a courageous stand, but it did lead to More’s death. The key issue is not just balancing pragmatism and principles, but one that leads the reader to ask: “Under what circumstances would I be willing to disagree with the chief executive even if it means my head—or my job?”

To me, the best chapter was the introductory analysis of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Badaracco summarized the story line in an engaging manner and points out, “A good dream is a critical inner resource for leaders. The wrong dreams are slow acting poisons. Miller shows readers the toxic power of Willy Loman’s “wrong dreams.” Badaracco goes on to point out that the recent Internet bubble wasted billions of dollars on unrealistic business dreams.

The book is a stimulating read, despite some minor reservations. It would be a great text for a class patterned after the HBS course. This could be a course that would be fun to teach—or better still, a wonderful class to take.

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Leading Strategic Change

By J. Stewart Black and Hal B. Gregersen
Financial Times: Prentice Hall, 2002

Recommended by Jack Green, PhD, Associate Professor of Strategy

The authors provide interesting frameworks for addressing strategic change in organizations. There are three broad categories of change:

  1. Anticipatory change: This is the most difficult to initiate, but it is the least costly.
  2. Reactive change: This is less difficult to initiate, but its costs are moderate.
  3. Crisis change: This is the easiest to initiate; however, its costs are much higher.

In the book, Black and Gregersen develop a map or framework to assist in mastering the challenge of leading strategic change. Barriers to change fall into three groupings:

  1. When opportunities or threats confront people, why do people fail to see the need to change?
  2. Even when people see the need to change, why do they often still fail to move?
  3. Even when people move, why do they fail to finish—not going far or fast enough?

To address these roadblocks to change, the book investigates why we often fail to see such roadblocks—even when a threat or an opportunity is visible. To address this challenge, the authors detail ways in which we can break through this barrier and help others to see the change.

Next, Black and Gregersen explore the reasons why, even though the need for change is obvious, we often fail to move. In response, the book provides keys to overcoming this powerful mental barrier by providing keys to help people actually move once they see the need for change.

Finishing is the final barrier to change that is addressed. Based on the research and experience of the authors, they propose a simple framework for overcoming this challenge and provide specifics on how to break through this barrier and help people complete a major change initiative.

A toolkit is provided toward the end of the book to assist leaders in guiding change and channeling efforts in training, educating, and empowering others to meet this challenge. Finally, the book addresses the issues of the time it takes and the endurance that is required to produce results and suggests how to move ahead of the change curve to anticipatory change instead of toward crisis or reactive change.

The authors have provided an easy to follow and logical text to assist managers in leading strategic change. The book is recommended for those who have responsibility in their organizations for ensuring that required changes are both identified and then implemented using logical frameworks and mental maps.

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Blue Ocean Strategy

By W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Harvard Business School Press, 2005

Recommended by Jack C. Green, PhD, Associate Professor of Strategy

Kim and Mauborgne use the metaphors of Red Ocean Strategy and Blue Ocean Strategy throughout their book to describe competition in existing market space (red ocean) and creating uncontested market space (blue ocean). The basic framework covered by the authors in the red ocean strategy’s approach is to beat the competition, exploit existing demand, make the value-cost trade-off, and align the whole system of a firm’s activities with its strategic choice of differentiation or low cost. Alternatively, the authors approach to a blue ocean strategy is to make the competition irrelevant, create and capture new demand, break the value-cost trade-off, and align the whole system of a firm’s activities in pursuit of differentiation and low cost.

The premise of the book is to look at value innovation in which the company’s activities and actions affect both its cost structure and its value proposition to buyers. The authors propose that the “strategic move,” and not the “company” or the “industry,” is the appropriate unit of analysis for explaining the creation of “blue oceans” and sustained high performance.

The book provides a framework for both formulation and implementation of their blue ocean strategy. Initially, the authors cover the following: 1) creating uncontested market space, 2) designing the planning process that goes beyond incremental improvements, 3) maximizing the size of the blue ocean, and 4) building a viable business model. In terms of implementation, the book introduces “tipping point leadership” that explains how to overcome important organizational hurdles that block implementation. Further, the book argues for integrating execution into the formulation process. Finally, the book concludes with the dynamic aspects of blue ocean strategy in terms of sustainability and renewal.

Although the authors allude to “revolutionary” strategies, the ideas echo the writings of Gary Hamel[1] in which he argues that we are at the end of incrementalism. Although Hamel’s approach for new-to-the-market ideas is framed differently, the concepts proposed by Kim and Mauborgne are strikingly similar. In fact, some of the companies mentioned in both books are the same.

The book is well written and easy to follow. It is recommended for serious managers who wish to explore different concepts for formulation and implementation of strategy.

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Why Should Anyone be Led by YOU?: What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader

By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
Harvard Business School Press, 2006

Recommended by Carol Sexton, PhD, Practitioner Faculty of Applied Behavioral Science

“Why should anyone be led by you?” I think that I heard that same question the last time I watched Donald Trump fire yet another would-be apprentice in the board room. The question is daunting, and the authors suggest that it is not about what you do: performance reviews, lists of accomplishments, technical abilities, and curriculum vitae. Instead it is about who you are: your authentic self. Leadership, they say, is being yourself, but skillfully. This authenticity differs dramatically from what Goffee and Jones describe as the “able role player” who leaves us with a suspicion of being “worked.”

Authentic leaders work hard at being persons who are vulnerable, intuitive, empathetic, and unique, both skillfully and appropriately within the various contexts of their work. In practical terms, this means that they reveal their weaknesses at the same time that they highlight their strengths. They capitalize on their individuality while conforming enough to keep the organization together. They establish intimacy with followers, yet maintain enough distance to be respected by those they lead.

This balancing act is admittedly hard work. The authors offer great examples of authentic leaders from their study of several hundred leaders. They suggest that rather than attempting to mimic the actions of the great, the only way to be truly authentic is to seek self-awareness and to learn to use that insight effectively.

The book provides guidelines for developing leadership skills, but the authors also warn that “…unless you are clear about your purpose and your values and are doing something that you really care about, it is difficult to act as a leader.” To their credit, the authors never stray from this message, and it is this core belief that makes the book much more than just another recipe for success.

This book resonated strongly with me as a member of the Graziadio community, where self-awareness, strong values, ethical behavior, and real purpose are part of the air we breathe. Why Should Anyone be Led by YOU? is a great question. The book is a convincing and perceptive analysis for anyone who is genuinely interested in finding the answer to that question.

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The Theory & Practice of Investment Management

Co-Edited By Frank Fabozzi and Harry Markowitz
John Wiley & Sons, 2002

Recommended by Steve Ahn, Adjunct Professor of Finance and Mergers & Acquisitions

This is an excellent read for those who seek a well-organized, balanced approach to learning about investment management based on sound theory and featuring a strong practice-focused approach. Several highly ranked MBA programs already use this investment book as a course text. Readers seeking to enter the field of investment management with a broad understanding of this area of business will find this book extremely informative, easy to understand and useful as a reference. Pure academicians and get-rich-quick readers need not check it out.

Highly noticeable to some readers will be the fact that Harry Markowitz, world-renowned Nobel laureate and the widely acknowledged “father of modern portfolio investment theory,” takes second billing for the book behind commercially prolific Frank Fabozzi. Thus is derived the excellent balance of the book between theory and practice.

An appropriate overview of key theoretical concepts of portfolio selection, statistical tools, asset pricing models, and performance evaluation starts the reader on his quest of discovery. Rightfully so, Markowitz’s contribution to the book is focused here. Thereafter, Fabozzi leads the reader through a practicum in the key aspects of investing in debt and equity securities as well as in real estate and alternative investments, including the increasingly popularized private equity and hedge fund investing. I would expect to see this section significantly expanded and updated in any future edition.

A well-organized, easily read book, The Theory & Practice of Investment Management seemingly ends with a literary dénouement, if ever a finance book could have one. The last chapter on asset allocation neatly brings together all of the investment management tools covered in the book. This chapter would have immensely benefited, however, from Markowitz’s input, particularly given his contributions to the field of asset allocation. However, this omission leaves those readers who are more academically inclined are left with the irresistible urge to go back to Markowitz at the beginning of the book armed with a newfound broader understanding of investment management. Others are left with an inexplicable urge to analyze a few stocks, bonds, and real estate trusts, and to call a broker the next morning. Most readers may find themselves doing both.

[1] Hamel, Gary. Leading the Revolution. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000. Revised 2002.

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