04-11-07 Leadership

This Weekly Reader is about leadership. There are at least three reasons why I think it’s important for all of us in DHR to think and talk about leadership. First, meaningful change requires leadership. You can preserve the status quo without leadership, but you won’t change squat.

Second, leadership creates the conversation for accomplishment. Leaders call people to action. They carefully choose the conversations they spend their time in, listen intently, mean and follow through on what they say, and make requests that will be agreed to and will get results.

Third, leadership is not limited to people with authority. Some of the best leaders I know have little formal authority. They move things forward through the ideas they produce, the people they talk to, and the agreement they generate, often without any formal power over anyone. Organizations that make big progress are filled with leaders. Gandhi drove the British out of India without anyone ever giving him and those alongside him managerial titles and job descriptions. There was a good article recently on the MIT-Sloan website about “Leading from Below.” The article talks about a corporate environment but addresses settings that seem to me analogous to DHR. It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal if you want to take a look:


I know a few people who seem to be natural leaders. But for most of us, leadership is a life-long quest that requires attention, learning, and analysis. I’ve described below a few of my favorite books on leadership, all of which relate to solving difficult organizational and personal challenges, and thus, to my mind, speak to what we are up to here even if they are in a different context.

First some basics, especially for people early in their careers. Accomplished people (especially of a certain age) often use the language of Stephen Covey, so if you haven’t read “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” it’s a must. When someone says dismissively: “he spends all his time in Quadrant Three,” it’s nice to understand what that means (he spends his time on things that are urgent but not important). There is a reason that book has been on the best seller list for umpteen years. One of the best leaders I know re-reads it every year. John Gardner’s classic “On Leadership” has greatly influenced my thinking about educational leadership. Gardner described the poetry of visionary leadership long before vision became a debased buzzword. Another classic is Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.” Collins’ concepts are widely known among the country’s top leaders in every field.

My two favorites for people who have managerial responsibilities are Larry Bossidy’s and Ram Charan’s too-long but excellent book “Execution,” and an out-of-print book by James Autry called “Love and Profit, the Art of Caring Leadership.” Bossidy tells you how to have the hard, disciplined conversations that leadership requires. Autry tells you how to retain your humanity while you’re doing it.

In the educational arena, I like Gordon Donaldson, Jr.’s book “Cultivating Leadership in Schools.” Richard Dufour (any of his books) writes compellingly about leading professional learning communities. His work has in many ways become the lingua franca of school leadership. If anyone knows an inspiring leadership book written by a principal who has turned around a low-performing urban school, please let me know.

My two favorite leadership books for sports fans are “Wooden on Leadership” and Mike Krzyzewski’s “Leading With the Heart.” Wooden set the standard for leading with personal integrity; Krzyzewski shows just how big a request you can make of someone you believe in, and how often talented people will step into what a leader believes is possible. For a great example of how a well-intentioned leader can destroy a team, read Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season” (ok, I’m a basketball fan).

Finally, my favorite book about what stops leaders from succeeding, and what, exactly, can be done about it, is “The Last Word on Power,” by leadership coach Tracy Goss. It’s a tough go, but quite worth it.

I have some of these books in my office. Stop by if you want to borrow one. I also have a collection of leadership books and articles on CDs if you prefer to listen.