Summer Reading III: The Many Faces of Leaders and Followers

July 13, 2010 — From Harvard University scholars to Dr. Seuss, many people have written about leadership. Two University of Virginia leaders, women's basketball coach Debbie Ryan and Harry Harding, dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, recently offered book suggestions that explore not only the dimensions of successful leadership, but also the important factors in being valuable and respected followers, colleagues or team members.

Debbie Ryan: Reading as Team-Building

Years ago, Ryan began an informal project of having the coaches and players read and discuss books that provide an entertaining outlet. The books she recommends are not about playing sports, but apply to all kinds of group settings and organizations.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

This summer, the team will read "The Fred Factor" by Mark Sanborn, a book that came out of a remarkable postal carrier's customer service and kindness.

Each of us has the potential to be "a Fred," according to Sanborn.

The author presents the four basic principles he identifies as "the Fred factor" that can help people bring fresh energy and creativity to their life and work: how to make a real difference every day, how to become more successful by building strong relationships, how to create real value for others without spending a penny and how to constantly reinvent yourself.

Ryan said it's about how to be successful by being passionate about something you do. "Obviously, we are passionate about basketball and how to transfer that passion into success," she said.

Everybody reads the book and gets together to talk about it, and then she has two or three participants make a presentation about sections of the book.

"They can do a little skit, they can do an explanation, they can do a story. They can do whatever they want to do, but each group has to be creative ... and everybody looks forward to sitting down and talking about," said Ryan, who has coached the Cavaliers for 35 years.

"Another book I'm going to read is 'Everybody Communicates, Few Connect,' which I think, in my profession and what I do, is really, really important," she said. "Our job is all about relationships. We want to have the best relationships we can have across the board."

The last book the team read together was "The Go-Giver" by Bob Burg and John David Mann. Instead of being a "go-getter," the authors advocate being a "go-giver." It's written in the style of a parable.

"It's about how to be successful in life through giving, and how the gift of ourselves is the greatest gift we can give to anybody. It supersedes money or cars or material things.
It's just a really good book for a team," she said.

The players love books that tell stories to illustrate their topics, she said.

"Sometimes we'll read children's books. 'Yertle the Turtle' has a great story about leadership and how it can fall apart if the leader doesn't take care of the people they are leading," Ryan said.

Harry Harding: Leadership in Context

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

Several of Harding's book suggestions discuss leadership, using the American presidency as an example. Nevertheless, they, too, provide life lessons for anyone.

A pair of books that pose an interesting contrast, according to Harding, is "The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership," by George Edwards, and "Leadership Without Easy Answers," by Ronald Heifetz.

"These two books debate a very interesting and popular concept, which is called 'transformational leadership,'" Harding said.

"Heifetz is of the school of thought that says leaders have to make big changes. They have to figure out what's wrong with an organization or a society," he said.

Edwards is more pragmatic, discussing what Harding calls "facilitative leadership."

"He says in a democracy, presidents don't have that much power to be transformational all the time," Harding said.

"Basically what a president can do is to try to find out what the people, in that broad sense, see as the problems, what they are ready to do and to facilitate it," he said.

Edwards argues that the history of presidents shows that those who tried to be transformational regularly failed, while the most effective presidents have been those who have been more strategic and facilitative.

Harding pairs another couple of books, "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens and Why It Matters" by Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman, with Fred Greenstein's "The Presidential Difference." The latter book has been updated to include President Obama in its analysis of leadership styles starting from Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Greenstein talks about a president's ability to establish a vision, communicate what he wants, understand emotional intelligence, make deals, use political skills and ethical judgment. Kellerman talks about all the obvious bad things – incompetence, indifference, an overly assertive and sometimes very cruel and overbearing form of leadership, Harding said.

"What strikes me as so fascinating in looking at case studies of leaders, though, is how it's not a matter of either having it or not having it, of being either a good leader or a bad leader. The problem is that leadership is so contextual that we have many cases in which people who have been really good leaders in one setting have then failed in others. And we've had situations in which people who were not that good really rose to the occasion," he said.

Harding offers two examples of his own, not mentioned in the books: Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal, until recently the commander of Allied forces in Afghanistan.

He said about Giuliani: "According to some of the case studies of his work, he was not that great a mayor of New York, excepting after 9/11. His particular style, his emotional make-up, was exactly what New York City needed at that particular time. So he was great for the moment, but he was not so successful either before or after."

McChrystal, recently fired from his position for an interview he gave with Rolling Stone in which he criticized the Obama administration, is "a great warrior general," Harding said. "But as he rose up to the point where you have to be a political general, he clearly did not have the skills or the personality that would enable him to succeed. In fact, many generals succeed at one, but not the other."

Harding also recommends a book that looks at the part that followers play in an organization. "Followership," also by Kellerman, represents an important trend in the study of leadership in the last couple of years, he said.

"I think what Kellerman's book shows is that followers, good followers, are those who are, in effect, always walking a kind of a tightrope.

"On the one hand, you want followers to be loyal; you want them to be obviously effective and committed. But at some points, followers have to say 'no' to leaders if leaders are making mistakes, if they're doing unethical things, if they're going in the wrong direction," he said.

"Followers have an obligation to be, in effect, disloyal – maybe not openly, but they need to say, 'Boss, you're doing it wrong,' and if the leader then does not take corrective action, then followers face the very difficult choice of going public or even resigning," Harding said.

Whether readers consider themselves leaders or followers, these books give a better understanding of how people can work together more successfully.

-- by Anne Bromley

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The Book List

  • "The Go-Giver," by Bob Burg and John David Mann
  • "The Strategic President: Persuasion and Opportunity in Presidential Leadership," by George Edwards
  • "The Presidential Difference," by Fred Greenstein, third edition
  • "Leadership Without Easy Answers," by Ronald Heifetz
  • "Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens and Why It Matters," by Barbara Kellerman
  • "Followership," by Barbara Kellerman
  • "Everyone Communicates, Few Connect," by John C. Maxwell
  • "The Fred Factor: How Passion in Your Work and Life Can Turn the Ordinary into the Extraordinary," by Mark Sanborn
  • "Yertle the Turtle," by Dr. Seuss