BOOKCASE Super Heroes & Super Obvious

Living Leadership: Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes
By: George Binney, Gerhard Wilke & Colin Williams
Publisher: FT Prentice Hall
Price: $35.99

Leadership – being rare and precious commodity – is regularly mined by publishing companies. The trick is to come up with some new way of saying what is (a) fairly obvious and (b) has been said hundreds of times before.
One way is to provide the good oil courtesy of famous name, preferably someone like former stormin’ sort of general or mayor who inspired New Yorkers after 9/11 or someone who saved IBM from itself.
This book, and its authors, offers more realistic, less idealistic view of leaders. Based on several years of case study observations supplemented by over 700 interviews, it concludes that people in organisations have the potential to lead much more than they do at present. As authors Binney, Wilke and Williams say: “The way to realise this potential is not by looking out there for the answer – but by returning to things you know, things that life has already taught you.”
Living Leadership is divided – complete with distracting graphics – into two parts. The first explains the idea of ‘living leadership’, which boils down to: connecting effectively with others, practising the art of the possible, and making use of one’s life experience, both strengths and apparent weaknesses.
Sensibly, the book does not mince its words about transformational leadership: “In the last 20 years the business and organisational world has overdosed on the idea of leaders as transformational heroes. … Leadership has been identified with transformation and transformation with leadership. In time when people generally are sceptical of heroic figures, business keeps looking for great individuals to bring about heroic change. … We found in our research that the model doesn’t work, has many damaging consequences and is now crumbling.”
The second part of Living Leadership is about ‘how to’: negotiate realistic expectations, be in good enough shape to lead others, select and engage with people, manage the dynamics of groups, set direction and encourage others to take responsibility. Chapters are studded with case studies.
Living Leadership is sensible, down-to-earth, practical. Its words of undoubted wisdom will provide both relief and reassurance to all those in responsible positions who have much to contribute, but are not in the ‘visionary’, ‘inspirational’, ‘superhero’ or ‘heroic’ moulds. IFG

How People Work: and how you can help them to give their best
By: Roderic Gray
Publisher: FT Prentice Hall
Price: $55

This is one of those books that specialises in stating the obvious. Author Roderic Gray argues in his introduction that he intentionally steers away from theoretical perspectives on HR in order to facilitate what he calls the book’s “Tuesday morning test” when managers crash back down from the cerebral highs of new ideas to face their workday realities.
That’s all very well, but any writer who feels the need to explain concepts such as feedback, skills or training may be pitching below the IQ of our readership. Here’s hoping, anyway.
It’s also shame because with his PhD in organisational behaviour and an MSc in human resource management – plus oodles of “real-life” experience as consultant, coach and trainer – Gray obviously knows better.
How People Work provides nine-point outline for outstanding workplace performance (Gray’s “catechism of excellence”). Chapters are coached in accessible first person terms and range from the introductory “I know what I’m expected to do” through “I want to do it”, “I have the ability to do it” to “I know how well I’m doing it”.
Later sections cover processes, resources, the workplace environment and how to do things better the next time round, with the final chapter examining how to put these concepts together.
Gray is right in his basic premise that in today’s flatter organisations – where power has shifted from an automatic assumption of authority based on title to more nebulous mix of mana and mental muscle – management needs to provide the right setting if it wants to lift individual performance. And he is sassy enough to steer clear of simplistic flowcharts, instead viewing people management as an immensely complex jigsaw of what he calls the psychological landscape of an organisation.
Don’t expect to complete this particular jigsaw in one sitting on rainy afternoon. In burst of academic reasoning, Gray identifies at least 380 interlocking parts with multiple ways of connecting each to the others.
As Gray sees it, managing organisational behaviour is not about short cuts, simple triggers or even control but about addressing concurrently all the underlying issues.
“But if complexity can be intimidating it can also be exhilarating,” he reasons. “Complexity is synonym for richness.”
This book won’t make it into Harvard Business Review but it may help struggling new HR manager or two out of tight spot. RLP

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