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‘The Edge: How Ten CEOs Learned to Lead — And the Lessons for Us All’, by Michael Useem

At the core of this uneven book are 10 short but detailed case studies, from which veteran management academic and CEO-whisperer Michael Useem extracts a “leadership road map” to show others what gives individual leaders an elusive “edge” over competitors.

The case studies are not all portraits of single chief executives. One, George Washington, is not a chief executive at all, at least not in the modern corporate sense. Some are depicted as first among equals, or as co-leaders. William Lauder, head of Estée Lauder, is praised for recognising that the cosmetics company would be better run in partnership with a strong outsider, Fabrizio Freda. Others are lauded for heading a collaborative effort, such as Jeffrey Lurie, owner of the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles, for whom leadership “begins not only with the top executive . . . but also the top team”.

Useem weaves his experience and wisdom through his interviews. He touches on many of the 21st century challenges of leading complex organisations, for which total shareholder return is no longer the sole mantra. Yet this remains a portrait of leadership that would be recognisable to the quintessential late 20th century business leader, Jack Welch, whose TSR-focused approach at General Electric opens the book.

“We intuitively know how much of a difference even a single person can make,” Useem writes. The destiny of most of the businesses covered here is largely in the hands of one man (the book’s core examples are mostly men and mostly American). And yet the pandemic, a challenge too recent and too consequential for Useem to tackle in any depth, shows that leadership’s “impact is greatest when it is coming not only from the apex but also from the middle ranks and front lines”.

‘Too Proud to Lead: How Hubris Can Destroy Effective Leadership and What to Do About It’, by Ben Laker, David Cobb and Rita Trehan

The hubristic CEO is not a new phenomenon. But the chances of one cropping up in your organisation has increased thanks to the modern trend to treat entrepreneurs as celebrities and the hyperinflation of executive pay. Together, these things often make business leaders believe their own hype. Hubris has also survived the push for greater diversity on boards as CEOs have adapted their strategies to maintain control.

As this book notes in its various case studies, it can happen in the latest tech start-ups such as Uber, as well as in traditional companies like Deutsche Bank. Hubristic CEOs also exist in all spheres of life: this book’s examples range from the failures of the CEO of Swedish football club Halmstads BK to the way US carmaker General Motors missed the electric car revolution.

It is also a self-help guide, enabling readers to assess their hubris levels and deal with overconfidence.

The book is punctuated with research on why hubris happens at the top of organisations and practical solutions to help those with the power to do so to try to stop it happening. This is done through greater collaboration, self-reflection and transparency.

Hubris is unlikely to be eradicated but this book might help leaders to understand why it happens. As a result, they might just be able to avoid some of the worst pitfalls.

‘Leading Remotely Achieving Success in a Globally Connected World’, by Mike Parkes

Business leaders have always had to adapt to the changes of team working, as companies expand globally, so do their teams. Now, leaders are facing another obstacle because of the pandemic: managing employees remotely.

Mike Parkes shares empirical research collected over 15 years to show how leaders have successfully navigated the challenges of remote leadership and aims to answer the fundamental question, how do you stay close to the business while operating from afar?

An experienced leadership consultant for 35 years, Parkes notes that the toughest transition occurs when leaders take their first step out of a single-site location and move to a leadership role where teams are not located at one site.

He explores how remote leading differs from on-site leadership roles and how such leaders need to develop a skillset that empowers their team to make decisions when problems occur, as they are further removed from the action.

Parkes’ provides perspectives from 10 experienced remote-leaders who reflect on their experience and offer their top tips: they outline the importance of transparent communication within teams and connecting with teams on a personal level to build trust.

‘Flamin’ Hot — The Incredible True Story of One Man’s Rise from Janitor to Top Executive’, by Richard Montañez

Richard Montañez believes that each one of us is born with the ability to succeed. With that in mind, he walks us through how he rose from a janitor to a top executive — fighting racial, ethnic and socio-economic barriers to become one of the most influential Latinos in corporate America.

Flamin’39; Hot is part inspiring biography of a man born to migrant farmworkers who found hidden opportunities to advance in the rigid US corporate structure, and part lessons on leadership and entrepreneurship. The book also covers topics such as branding and marketing. 

Chapters combine Montañez’s biography, his journey of developing a revolutionary snack food recipe that gave him fame and strategies to implement great ideas, with creative thinking and a few powerful mindset shifts.

Montañez considers etymology — the process of investigating words — and the impact it has on communicating powerfully, the “leadership lesson number one”. People with a richer vocabulary usually feel more confident in expressing their ideas and are less intimidated to speak up. 

Perhaps the main messages are always to act like the owner of a company as well as explore effective leadership styles to climb the corporate ladder, understand the whole operation of companies and do not be afraid to ask questions. We can break out of our career routine and not let the present circumstances dictate our future. Just keep asking: What if? What then?

‘RED Marketing: The Three Ingredients of Leading Brands’ by Greg Creed and Ken Muench

As Greg Creed and Ken Muench put it: “Marketing is half science and half art” and although this activity is not easy, what differentiates the authors from the industry’s theorists is that they actually market.

Years of experience combined with research and a hands-on approach led the executives from Yum Brands — Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut — to create RED (relevance, ease and distinctiveness): a clear and effective marketing approach to guide us through the complicated and turbulent industry landscape.

First, we are introduced to the process of uncovering the cultural, functional and social relevance of a product, with insightful exercises and examples. Most brands manage the functional and social relevance well but usually forget about the cultural element, which gives consumers identity and a sense of belonging to a brand.

Moving on, we are presented to the importance of a product being easy to notice and get access to. The idea is that we consumers are naturally slothful and our choices, in almost everything, are determined more by what is easiest and least painful to obtain than what is actually in our best interests.

Some insightful questions could help to make products more accessible, such as: “Can you allow your customers to virtually experience what you are selling, with zero commitment?”

The final part is about distinctiveness and why marketing campaigns should be memorable, unique and consistent. Brands that are distinctive and magnetic are giving would-be customers a reason to look at them. Examples range from Apple to Nike: brands that are broadly known, consistent and unmistakable.

Creed and Muench also explain how to prioritise each of the three elements to build a powerful brand. They believe that by following RED, the process to winnow out bad ideas and narrow in on the good ones is made quicker.

‘The New World of Work: Shaping a Future that Helps People, Organizations and our Societies to Thrive’, by Peter Cheese

In the past 18 months, every consultancy, business think-tank, research organisation and business school worth its salt has produced at least one report, sometimes more like dozens, on the future of work. Many of them are summarised in The New World of Work, the latest in a growing wave of titles on the subject.

The CIPD, the professional body for people managers, has produced some of this analysis itself, and, Peter Cheese, its chief executive, has a useful platform from which to survey the rest of the uncertain landscape. He makes clear from the outset, though, that this is not “a ‘how to’ guide but . . . more of a broad reflection”.

The book lays the economic, geopolitical, social, demographic and technological groundwork thoroughly. Cheese is less keen to commit to controversial positions and predictions. That may be sensible given the timing of publication, as the economy reopens in the UK and remains shuttered in other parts of the world, but it makes for a sometimes predictable read.

The book’s principles for the future, for instance, from “clarity of purpose” to “fairness, inclusion and diversity”, while correct and lightly progressive, do not seriously threaten the workplace status quo. Cheese is bolder in challenging human resources executives — in other words, the CIPD’s members — to rise to the challenge of the pandemic and take advantage of the new recognition of their work by chief executives and directors.

The New World of Work is most valuable, though, as a guide-of-guides, a meta-analysis of existing research from which it may be possible to shape the workplace of tomorrow.

‘Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life’, by Luke Burgis

In his twenties and thirties, Luke Burgis was a serial entrepreneur. One day he walked away from one of the companies he had founded — FitFuel.com, which sold wellness products — and felt relieved. He had a crisis of meaning and in setting about exploring what lay behind his ambition, he came upon the ideas of René Girard, an influential academic who discovered that most of what we desire is mimetic or imitative, not intrinsic. 

Girard’s theories centre around the idea that humans learn — through imitation — to want the same things other people want.

This imitation, writes Burgis, leads people to pursue things that seem desirable but eventually leave them unfulfilled. But Girard believed it possible to break the cycle. Burgis is clear that he does not claim that overcoming mimetic desire is possible: his aim is to help readers be more aware of it so that they make better decisions. 

The book is detailed and complex with many examples from and references to the business world, whether it be the CEOs themselves or organisations and how they create desire or how they rise above it to make something better. It is split into two parts and throughout Burgis provides a set of “tactics” so readers can develop techniques to counteract mimetic forces.

The exploration that Wanting encourages means that readers can build a better understanding of why they want what they want in work and in life. You may not entirely agree with Girard’s concepts, but the book does offer some fresh perspectives on our desires, what is really driving them and how we can take more control. 

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