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.

More

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?

Paying Attention to the Obvious

Because I consume a lot of content, I frequently read things that overlap with other things I’m reading, podcasts I’m listening to, blogs I’m following, etc. I try to pay extra attention to those things when they happen, believing that those serendipitous moments often happen for a reason.

Recently, that forced me to pay more attention to…attention. At the same time I was reading Finding Flow, which I blogged about here, and learning about the importance of attention to achieving flow, I was also participating in a class at my church called The Journey. In preparation for a recent session, we read Jesus’ Parable of the Sower and the Lamp Under the Jar.

The Parable of the Sower is all about the different ways that people receive the Word of God and what kind of fruit it allows them to bear. And it turns out that the difference boils down to one thing, and it’s Jesus’ instruction from Luke 8:18a: “Pay attention to how you listen!”

The message was the same to each individual. The difference was in how much attention the recipient paid to it. This made me think about the importance of paying attention. It’s so easy to get on auto-pilot in our busy, distracted world and fail to pay attention to everything happening around us.

It reminds me of the famous Kenyon College graduation speech from novelist David Foster Wallace, this is water. Click here for full transcript and audio. But I really like the shorter clip from this video:

Stop and pay attention this week. See how it causes you to order your life differently.

The Purpose, Partners and Plans of Paul

We’re in Holy Week and today is Maundy Thursday, so I thought it appropriate to post about a sermon my friend Jason Folkerts preached at our church a little over a month ago.

Jason preached on Acts 18:1-4. To me, the four verses seemed like an unimportant introduction to the rest of the chapter, but in Jason’s hands, they uncovered the most important thing about Paul’s mission to take the good news of the Gospel beyond his nation.

Purpose

“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth (18:1).” Athens was the intellectual center of the world. A place where the scholar and theologian Paul would have felt right at home.

What would cause him to leave Athens for a port town like Corinth? His was following his purpose that we learned about in Acts 9:15. Pursuing his calling necessitated that Paul leave the familiar and comfortable for something new and uncertain.

Partners

“There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. (18:2-3).” Paul didn’t go to Corinth and try to do it all on his own. He got partners from the city and worked with them.

As Jason pointed out, when God is up to something really good, it’s rarely around one person. Even someone as influential as the Apostle Paul had partners that he worked with throughout his ministry.

Plan

“Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks (18:4).” Lastly, Paul had a plan for accomplishing his mission. Every sabbath he went to the place where practitioners and seekers of religion gathered for debate.

I like the word “every” at the start of verse four. To me, it shows commitment to the plan. I think of Paul on the days he didn’t feel like going to the synagogue, but doing it anyway out of commitment to his plan. His plan wasn’t just a dream. He built a routine.

So, the Apostle Paul had a purpose that was bigger than himself, he joined with other people to complete the important work, and he followed a plan.

How did that turn out? Maundy Thursday is a celebration of the Last Supper, when most of the Christians fit around one table. Today, Christianity has almost 2.5 billion followers. That would require a little bit bigger table.