I’ve been lucky enough to have some down time over the last couple of weeks and in between packing up the house for our impending move to York I’ve had the chance to catch up on some reading. I’ve devoured a fair few novels but what really stopped me in my tracks were two books ostensibly both non-fiction and on leadership. Honestly, usually I pick up books on leadership and by the second or third chapter I need to take a break, there’s something dehumanising about a lot of leadership writing which doesn’t speak to me. Not so these two, both kept me rapt, eagerly turning the page for the next chapter, and importantly both have really made me reflect on my own leadership style and actions. They spoke to me with a persuasive, gentle authority, based on very personal experience and the expertise that comes from the practice of leadership, rather than the practice of theorising about leadership.
The first was Flawed but Willing: Leading Large Organizations in the Age of Connection by Khurshed Dehnugara. I’ve followed Khurshed on Twitter (@relume1) for some time and have watched videos of him speak so I was really looking forward to reading his second book. It is something very special. In the vast shelves of leadership tomes it stands out as a raw, yet beautiful, evocation of the challenge of leadership in our fragile, socially, connected age. Khurshed has crafted a book which will really speak to you whether you work in a large or small organisation, in the commercial or not for profit sectors. It’s rare I find a leadership book un-put-downable but I read this in one sitting. It’s uniqueness comes from the emotion packed into each page, the stories that are told are not tub-thumping fists on table messages about leadership but gentle, uncertain whispers speaking about inner strength, resilience and a willingness not to have all the answers. The superman/woman myth of so many leadership books is firmly put to bed, in its place the reality of flawed but willing leaders in uncertain times who are learning to listen to others, their environment and their own inner voices to manage the challenges and seize the opportunities they are faced with.
Put simply, it is brilliant and quite unlike any other leadership book I’ve read for a long time, it offers no answers, or models, but instead a series of questions which encourage you, the reader, to stop and reflect on how you act, or react, on who or what you listen to and whether you could do things differently. The emotion weaved into the individual stories is far removed from clinical case studies you typically find and all the more powerful for it.
More than once I found myself completely wrapped up in those stories and carried back to moments in my own career when I’ve faced similar challenges or issues. When I finished it I felt touched and heartened by the message that it’s OK to be flawed but willing, that there is a way to navigate leadership which draws on love, valiance, gentleness, awareness and persistence to create something shared and human. you can read more about Khurshed and his organisation here.
The second book – Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet (@ldavidmarquet) was, on the surface, a whole different proposition. Marquet writes about his time serving in the US navy and specifically, about his first command as the captain of the Santa Fe a US nuclear submarine and the ‘cast of characters’ he inherited as his crew. He brings the crew and their stories alive by describing his own challenges as he sought to literally to turn the submarine around in reputation, performance and morale. I make a point of keeping my eye out for books from military authors not least because my brother is a long-serving naval officer. We’ve talked about the challenges of leading a crew of hundreds on a ship in the middle of the ocean so I spy books he might enjoy and invariably find myself reading them too. This one caught my eye a while ago when I saw this animation which neatly sums up the story David tells in his book:
What David describes is a form of leadership where you return intent and control to people in your organisations, where you subvert the traditional command & control model and find an alternative proposition which engages and empowers people at all levels. He’s talking about a new form of leader-leader leadership not the traditional military leader-follower or even servant leader models favoured by military organisations. But he’s also not talking holocracy, after all this is a nuclear submarine, but he does argue that older uni-directional command chains can’t manage the complexity of our modern world and workplaces, submarine or not. Even in that challenging environment with such high stakes he describes how simple changes can produce dramatic results. Most simple of all was a single change from the crew asking for ‘permission to…’ to presenting what they ‘intend to…’ do.
Here is where the two books converge both authors portray the importance of dialogue and context, of listening to each other and working collaboratively. David perfectly captures the futility of not listening and talking to each other when he describes the state of play when he first joined the Santa Fe where orders were given and carried out unwaveringly even if they were poorly judged, where crew unaccustomed to being asked their views, kept their views to themselves. Unlike the first book David does provide a series of steps (yes a model!) for how he achieved the shift aboard the Santa Fe, this simple act of getting his teams to talk to one another about what they intended to do before carrying it out led to huge changes. I loved how he described the traditional hush of the submarine being gently, slowly replaced by a low-level hubbub of crew members explaining to each other what they were about to do (he calls this deliberate action and sees it as something which underpins competence), providing valuable checks and balances on each other’s decisions, alternative perspectives and on occasion the few minutes needed to avert a serious mistake. This is ‘working out loud’ writ large. Importantly leaders need to have confidence to let go of their power and sit in whatever discomfort that may bring in the short-term because the end results of empowering others will be worth it. Like Khurshed, David writes that leaders need to let go of their power and control and learn to sit in the discomfort that may bring them in the short-term, to realise the long-term value of letting go. Read more about David here.
I’ll leave you to discover the rest of both books for yourself, I hope you do. Both books are worthy of your time and if you do read them then you’re treating yourself to two great examples of authentic storytelling. Both felt more like novels than non-fiction texts to me and made more of an impact for that reason. I was moved and inspired twice in one week, thanks to both authors who have set me up nicely to enter my new role with a heightened sense of self-awareness and some great ideas for things I can try to inject into my daily practice. If we all recognise we’re flawed we can open ourselves to coming together to turn our own ships around to face wherever they need to head next.