What I read in April

Charlie “Tremendous” Jones once said, five years from now, you will be the same person you are today except for two things: “the people you meet and the books you read.” Well, thanks to COVID-19, I didn’t meet too many new people last month. But, also thanks to COVID-19, I had a lot of extra time to read.

And, as promised, I’m sharing the best of what I read last month.

The Invisible Leader

According to author Zach Mercurio, most organizations are not tapping into their most powerful leader. That leader isn’t in the C-suite – in fact, it’s not a person at all. That leader is a compelling, authentic purpose for the organization – an Invisible Leader. The reason that this most powerful leader is untapped is that organizations are primarily focused on results: grades for students, quotas or other KPIs in business, etc. At best, these provide short-term motivational pushes – cramming to get a grade on a test, a flurry of activity at the end of the month to achieve a sales quota – but they don’t last. It’s authentic purpose, which Mercurio defines as “a person or organization’s genuine and unique reason for existence that is useful to others in society,” that acts as the ultimate differentiator and motivator.

Marketing Rebellion

We are in the midst of a third marketing rebellion, where consumers are rebelling (for perhaps the final time) against advertising. The first rebellion – in the early twentieth century – brought an end to the lies of the advertising that sold snake-oil and other dubious products. The second came with the internet, bringing an end to the secrets that advertisers had depended on (think MTV VJ turned podcaster Adam Curry saying, “There are no secrets, only information you don’t yet have”). The third marketing rebellion that we’re in the midst of is bringing an end to control. In this new era, two-thirds of a consumer’s purchasing decision involves “human-driven marketing activities like internet reviews, social media conversations, and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family, and online experts.” Author Mark Schaefer points out: two-thirds of your marketing is not your marketing. Then, he asks: So, what do you do? You forge human connections with your customers. Thus the tagline of his book: “the most human company wins.” At FiveFour, we say that your marketing is your customer experience, and most of Schaefer’s examples of human-centered marketing are what we would call customer experience. Consumers can see through lies, there are no secrets and businesses are no longer in control of their marketing. They want a human connection with the companies that want their business. Consumers are demanding remarkable customer experiences. And, as previous rebellions have shown, in the end, the consumer always wins.

Living Life Backward

I can’t remember the first personal development session I sat in that had me write my obituary, but I know I’ve done it several times. The intent of the exercise is to get you – as Stephen Covey has coined it – begin with the end in mind. According to David Gibson, the preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes did that same thing over 2,000 years ago. Life is short – a mere breath. The world is confusing. We have far less control over our circumstances than we would like. The only certainty is our eventual death and the likelihood that none of our accomplishments will survive us. By confronting us with these realities, the Old Testament book asks how we should live in light of them, right now. The answer it provides is to stop trying to escape the limitations of life. Stop treating your life as a problem to be solved. Stop worshiping and depending on stuff. Be content with your circumstances. Be grateful for the rhythms of life, for they are a gift from God. “Gift, not gain, is your new motto.” Be generous with your time and possessions. Pay attention to the world around you rather than the distractions of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry, not because that’s all there is, but because that’s what there is.” What can help us do this? The reality of death. “Preparing to die means thinking about how to live.”

Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick Lencioni has long been one of my favorite business authors and perhaps the best there is on organizational health. His style of writing easily-accessible business fables that teach timeless truths has led to millions of book sales. By far the most famous of those fables is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable and those dysfunctions are worth listing: The first is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. A failure to build trust sets the tone for the second dysfunction, which is a fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. That ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, leading an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction. Without committing to a clear plan of action, people often hesitate to hold their peers accountable, which creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive: inattention to results. If none of those dysfunctions sound familiar, you’re either not on a team or you are in a state of blissful ignorance. Every team suffers from at least one of these dysfunctions and could benefit from reading both books. While the fable clearly lays out the impact of these dysfunctions, it’s this Field Guide that shows you how to overcome them. And isn’t that the whole point?

the path between us

There is no shortage of personality and behavioral tests: Myers-Briggs, DISC, Motivators, the Five-Factor Model and an endless number of lesser-known models. In The Path Between Us, Suzanne Stabile introduces the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing system that leads to self-discovery. From the Greek words ennéa, meaning “nine” and grámma, meaning something “written” or “drawn” the nine-pointed Enneagram is a typology of nine interconnected personality types, each with distinct strategies for relating to the self, others and the world. It has become commonly used in the Christian community as an aid to spiritual formation. I first heard about it on the podcast of Donald Miller, read The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery and took the Enneagram test. It was fairly easy to identify myself and it taught me some important lessons about how I engaged with the world. Almost simultaneously, my wife was engaging the Enneagram in a study with her friends, so we decided to listen to The Path Between Us during a weekend getaway and it gave us valuable ways to better interact with each other. In my work, I lead teams through the DISC and the most valuable learning is always through their interactions with each other. The Enneagram is the same. It’s one thing to discover my type and learn more about myself. But the real insight comes from how I interact with others. That’s the insight that comes from The Path Between Us.

What You Do is Who You Are

Ben Horowitz is at pains in this book to explode the myth that you can establish culture simply by writing it down. That’s an important first step. You have to first define what you want. But it’s not enough. It’s not even enough to model the culture you want, even though that’s incredibly important. You must make sure that the values you want in your business are actionable, be crystal clear what those actions are, and constantly reinforce them. Horowitz goes back in history to draw lessons from obscure cultures like Haitian slaves, prison gangs and the samurai to show his main point: “Culturally, what you believe means nearly nothing. What you do is who you are.” A good read for those who need to define the culture of their organizations.

Jack’s Life: The Story of C.S. Lewis

This biography of C.S. Lewis was written by his stepson, Douglas Gresham. The book both benefits and suffers from that fact. The benefit was in the first-person account. The drawback was his tendency to cast Lewis in the best possible light, no matter what the circumstance. For example, the falling out between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t even register. Ultimately, the book would have been improved had it included more first-person narrative and less defense of Lewis. However, given the relationship between the two and the fact that Gresham is no author, it’s understandable and the book is worth reading by fans of Lewis.

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I also read Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham. Many of the lies recast familiar learnings from his earlier books, but my favorite of the lies was #3: the best companies cascade goals. Not true, says Buckingham. The best companies cascade meaning. Crushing It! By Gary Vaynerchuck was a good reminder that, no matter how good you or your idea, success requires total commitment. Due to its role in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a compelling read. And I blogged about Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi here and here. Finally, I read Lancelot by Walker Percy, which had some profound points while being profoundly weird.

What are you reading? What should I read this month?

Finding flow in reading

This morning, I was listening to Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who originated the concept of Flow. Something he wrote about reading and flow jumped out at me. But to understand it, you’ll have to understand the concept of flow.

Flow, which is also known as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.

As Csikszentmihalyi points out, flow can happen with any activity, but is most common where the level of challenge to the person and the level of skill in the person are both high (see image).

Now, back to the book. Here’s what Csikszentmihalyi said about the difference between two common leisure activities, reading books and watching television:

People who view television more often than the average tend also to have worse jobs and worse relationships. In a large scale study in Germany, it was found that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claimed to have. While the opposite trend was found for watching television. The most flow was reported by individuals who read a lot and watched little TV. The least by those who read seldom and watched often.

As I said in my last post, we cut the cable cord long ago and I read, on average two books a week. I can tell you that this quote is definitely true of my experience. I can easily get lost in a book, but rarely enjoy watching television. In fact, last night I was watching a movie with my family and went to bed before the conclusion because I was tired. Then, I read for a while before going to sleep.

Do you get into flow when reading? If so, what books challenge you? If not, what gets you into flow experiences?

What I read last quarter

I read. A lot. Last year, I read 164 books. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, that’s an average of three books per week. I’ve been asked how I can possibly get to that many books and there are three reasons:

  1. I don’t sleep much
  2. I cut the cable cord years ago and mostly replaced it with audio books
  3. I love to read all kinds of books

And thanks to COVID-19, I’ve suddenly had a lot more time to read. It’s not because work has changed; for me it really hasn’t. But, rather, all of the family activities have been canceled and I have more of my nights free. Since we’re all dealing with social isolation, I thought it would be a good time to launch this blog.

I had planned to start it anyway, because this year I’m taking a little more time to document what I’m learning from all these books. So, each month I’m going to write a paragraph on each of my favorite books from that month and share it all with you. For this first one, I’m going to cover the first quarter.

The books will be broken into three sections:

  1. Those related to my work. Business, organizational culture, teamwork, sales, communications, customer experience and leadership.
  2. Fiction and biography. I read fiction and biographies to calm my brain at night before sleep.
  3. Everything else. I also read a lot philosophy, theology, history, biography and really anything else that catches my eye. I post favorite thoughts and excerpts on my Tumblr blog.

If waiting a month between recommendations is too long for you, I post snippets from my work-related reading here, on LinkedIn and Tumblr. I also post all of these reviews on Goodreads. Here they are from the first three months of 2020:

The Infinite Game

Start With Why is one of the most important business concepts of the last 20 years. But Simon Sinek’s book of the same name is mostly forgettable once you understand that concept. Which happens about 20 pages into the 250-page book. Save yourself the time and money and just watch the Ted Talk. But Leaders Eat Last was a little better and Find Your Why even better. But The Infinite Game is without question Sinek’s best work. Unlike sporting events (before they were all canceled) that have firm rules and clear endpoints – that are finite – business has no such game to win. There’s always a new set of challenges and no such thing as “winning” – business is an infinite game. The goal is not to win, but to out-innovate and out-last competitors by playing an infinite game. Businesses get into trouble when they try to play an infinite game with a finite mindset. So, what do businesses with an infinite mindset do? They follow five essential practices: they Advance a Just Cause, Build Trusting Teams, Study their Worthy Rivals, Prepare for Existential Flexibility, and Demonstrate the Courage to Lead. This is a must-read for business leaders who want to operate for the future; not just the next financial statement.

The Fearless Organization

Remember Project Aristotle? This was from Google’s research to discover why some of their teams performed so much better than others. Things like the structure and purpose of the team mattered, as did the belief that the work the team was doing made a difference. But none of those mattered as much as psychological safety – the individual’s perception of what happened when they took a risk. Those teams whose members felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable outperformed the others. If psychological safety is a new term to you, Amy Edmonson’s book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, is all about how to create a culture of high standards and psychological safety. Psychologically safe team members are willing to take risks, admit mistakes, have productive conflict and share information. This is a big deal in the modern workplace because teamwork is how most work gets done today. If you manage a team (or teams), you’ll want to read this book.

Lead Like Walt

Only by being a great leader could Walt Disney accomplish the amazing things he did. This book is a catalog of the leadership lessons we can learn from Walt. A paragraph in the final chapter summarizes those lessons well:

“He dreamed big dreams – impossible dreams they told him. Then he moved heaven and earth to make his dreams come true. When you, as a leader, start with a vision, then communicate that vision to the people you lead, utilize your people skills to motivate and inspire them, maintain your character and integrity at every decision-point, command with competence, lead with boldness and confidence, and support your people with your serving heart, your vision will become your reality.”

Better Under Pressure

The best business book I’ve read so far this year. Author Justin Menkes, a consultant who evaluates and places CEOs, wrote this book based on his experience evaluating leaders and interviewing some of the most recognized CEOs from recent decades. Menkes shows how the complexity of modern business necessitates a leader’s ability to function under extreme pressure. But the best leaders not only survive tough times – they thrive in them. He identifies three traits that CEOs must have to perform under pressure: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos. A common theme throughout the book is the need for leaders to continually learn because change is so constant.

The Motive

My favorite organizational consultant, Pat Lencioni, is back with his 11th book and what he says should have been his first. Why? Because his first 10 were about the “what” of leadership and this one covers the “why.” According to Lencioni, there are two motives for becoming a leader: as a personal achievement of status or to serve others within the organization. Leaders who are in it for status will typically avoid the hard work necessary to lead, while those with the right motive will do the difficult things, like lead good meetings and hold their people accountable.

Catch and Kill / She Said

Harvey Weinstein has got to be one of the most evil scumbags on the planet. To call what he did “sexual harassment” doesn’t even come close to capturing the depth of his depravity. For decades, he used his position of power to prey on women with dreams of acting, assaulting and raping them and then terrorizing or bribing them into silence. But what is equally unconscionable is his paid army of lawyers, publicists, and private investigators who – after he physically attacked these women – carried out the financial and emotional attacks that cowed them into silence. These two books were from the journalists who did heroic work to uncover the story in the face of that onslaught from Weinstein’s army. If you only have time for one, Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow was by far the better read.

Midnight in Chernobyl

The best book on the Former Soviet Union I’ve read since Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Higginbotham tells a story that is incredible, suspenseful and captivating. I’m just waiting for it to be made into a movie.

What Higginbotham shows so well is that Chernobyl was far from an “accident” but rather was the inevitable outcome of a society so built on lies that it couldn’t tell the truth if their lives depended on it…which, by the way, for millions of people around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, it did.

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The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen contains lessons from the desert fathers of Christianity, teaching that we all need a little solitude and silence and a lot of prayer. This book was a short, good reminder for a driven person like me.

The Platinum Rule by Dr. Tony Alessandra takes readers through the four behavioral types (DISC) and how to do unto each the way they would have you do unto them.

I also enjoyed Crushing It! by Gary V, Get Sh*t Done by Jeffrey Gitomer, Servant Leadership in Action by Ken Blanchard, Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday, the Making of a Leader by Robert Clinton, and many more. But the two best books I read last quarter were both re-reads: The Hobbit and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Both are beyond parallel in world creation and storytelling.

Happy reading.