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The Best Books for Leaders, 2018

These are the books published this year that taught me the most about leading: about learning, listening, collaborating, and innovating for maximal impact. My comments for each book are intended to briefly introduce what I perceive to be a main source of value in each book, not to comprehensively summarize or criticize these works.

Amy Edmondson - The Fearless Organization

If you’ve worked with me in the past three or four years, you’ve probably heard me talk about psychological safety at least once. Psychological safety is a group-level dynamic in which people are comfortable expressing and being themselves- even when that means sharing concerns, mistakes, or warnings. Psychological safety is key to effective teamwork, innovation, collaboration, and impact; in short, it’s an essential ingredient to leadership in the 21st century. Amy Edmondson is world’s preeminent researcher of psychological safety and The Fearless Organization, rigorously evidence-based yet supremely practical, is thus far the definitive volume on the subject.

Heidi Grant - Reinforcements

Leading isn’t a solo activity. Human beings naturally want to be helpful but many of us - myself included - are not comfortable asking for the appropriate help at the appropriate time. This holds us back. The key to the best requests for help, and therefore to getting people to help you, Grant argues, is making the act of helping mutually beneficial. Usually lessons on this topic are easy to grasp on a cerebral level but difficult to implement in real world situations. This book bridges that gap in a way that I found, in a word, helpful.

Priya Parker - The Art of Gathering

Leaders show up and they invite others to show up as well. How does one make the most of the opportunities when your leadership resonates, when people do show up? How can we maximize for safe spaces for all? From the physical to the psychological to the emotional, Parker shares great advice on how to make your meetings, convening, conferences, networking gatherings, one-on-ones, etc. more effective, meaningful, and fun.

Tom Peters - The Excellence Dividend

The Excellence Dividend reads like the feisty younger sibling of 1982’s In Search of Excellence, co-authored by Peters and Robert Waterman. This book is direct and unrelenting in compiling the core elements of effective leadership that Peters has learned throughout a career spanning five decades. People and passion, not spreadsheets and software, will drive the best businesses of the 21st century. The little things - such as listening, investing in yourself & in your staff, and a genuine desire to helpful to others - done with care and done consistently are what leadership mastery is all about.

Edgar Villanueva - Decolonizing Wealth / Anand Giridharadas - Winners Take All

I’m grouping these two books together because, while hardly identical, I feel they prompt common questions framed with similar rhetoric: What is the measure of a leader? What is the measure of success? How do we think about what counts as “doing good”? How can we do better? Elite institutions and ultra-wealthy philanthropists are not spared by the critical eye of Villanueva or Giridharadas who speak truth to power regarding how dominant economic paradigms, privilege, and systemic inequalities are germs poisoning society, and how no amount of handwashing (or charitable giving) can rid society of those ills while operating within the framework that created those unjustifiable disparities in the first place. These books are food for thought that should oblige all readers and all leaders to consider shifting a few, or many, habituated mindsets about capitalism and philanthropy.

What books did you read in 2018 that made you a better leader, that made you think, or that made you want to give copies away to friends and colleagues? Please share in the comments section below.

Best wishes for 2019!

Leaders, Leadership Typology, and The Status Quo

This June there has been plenty of dialogue about the leadership in the city where I live: Cleveland, Ohio. This dialogue is necessary and reflection on this dialogue is vital.

A theme in these discussions of city and regional leadership is the old guard versus the new guard. In articles, at public forums, and on social media many seem to be drawing a distinction based on age and years of tenure: that new, younger leaders might advance the regional economy in ways that eluded current, more tenured, older leaders. They may be right. I’m not writing to weigh in on that position.

I’m writing because I think we need to take a deeper, more nuanced look at leadership. Age and years of tenure – whichever way you view them – are a poor proxy for leadership capacity. It is much more important in my opinion to consider how individuals conceive of the role of a leader.

There are many leadership typologies. Two clusters I view as relevant are: 1) those who think the role of a leader is to preserve the status quo, and; 2) those who think the role of the leader is to build a better future for society, and will work toward that end even if it requires a break from tradition, from the status quo. This distinction is particularly important to the current discussions in Cleveland because – as almost everyone has pointed out – the status quo is not working.

Some – perhaps those who think the dilemma is as simple as the old guard and the new guard – may look at these differing views of leadership and claim that many of the established leaders in the Greater Cleveland area fall into the first category. Some may even conclude that in general the younger emerging leaders in the region fall into the second category. Again, those conclusions may be empirically warranted.

However, I urge us all – wherever we are – to continue exploring the nuance of leadership typology; to not just collapse the discussion back to the crude categories of old guard and new guard. Why? Because there is danger in sidestepping the question of what leadership actually means. This danger can have very real consequences. Looking at my own experience with leaders of all ages and persuasions I feel that there are some current, established leaders in Greater Cleveland who understand that leadership should be about building a stronger future for all and who have demonstrated the galvanizing vision for systems change that get us a step closer to that future. These leaders should not be put out to pasture simply because they have a few grey hairs or have been in leadership positions for some time.

Even more dangerous than disregarding the old guard en masse is wholesale endorsement of any and all younger emerging leaders. As someone who has championed in various forms the voices of younger leaders in Cleveland I don’t say this lightly. The unfortunate fact is there is no shortage of younger emerging leaders chomping at the bit to be the next generation of status quo defenders. Luckily there are just as many young emerging leaders who embrace the view of leadership that seeks to improve the status quo. Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are young in the same way that Cleveland will not be well served by status quo defenders who are old. How someone views their role as leader is more important than their age or years of tenure.

This tension shines some light on what’s so tricky about the status quo, or any dominant paradigm for that matter: it is very good at resisting change. The status quo has inherent incentives to resist change. Change, even when necessary, is difficult.

I agree we need some fresh leadership.

I agree we absolutely need better leadership.

We need leaders with the awareness and humility to know when the status quo represents a downward trajectory, when mindful change is necessary for the future vitality of the region.

We need leaders with the genuine desire, curiosity, and vision for creating a better future for all.

We need leaders with the collaborative leadership capacity, the risk tolerance, and the ability to challenge institutional assumptions required to execute on that vision.

Those are the leaders we need, regardless of their age and years of tenure.

Relationship Building: Networking for Mutual Benefit

One of the most influential accounts I follow on Twitter belongs to Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton School of Business. A few weeks ago he shared an article about the three biggest networking mistakes one can make.[1]

The advice in the article is generally sound. However, one statement early on in the piece gave me pause: “I would not gain anything professionally from helping a person I don’t know find a job.”

The mindset embedded in that statement is not conducive to effective networking, authentic relationship building, and maximizing the mutual benefit of connections you make. You can reap numerous benefits by helping someone you don’t know find a job. In fact, the practice of building and cultivating relationships – including putting forth effort with someone you may not know – is based on reciprocity and mutual benefit. Below are six benefits to relationship building.


Effective networking entails meeting with professionals from a diverse array of fields, with different backgrounds and different perspectives. You don’t know this person—okay, that is no reason to think there cannot be anything gained in meeting with her and learning from her experiences. Maybe there’s a shared passion for a particular cause, maybe she can introduce you to concepts that you have no experience with that you can uniquely apply to your work. Perhaps you might even – gasp – like this person and develop a friendship or a peer mentor relationship with her. People have developed mutually beneficially mentor-mentee relationships in much more unlikely settings.

2.    ACCESS:

Building relationships outside of your network, thereby expanding your network and perhaps even extending it into a realm you previously had no access to, is intrinsically valuable. If you know how to make your network work for you, growing your network is never a bad thing.

For example, if you run an arts and culture nonprofit and this person is your only contact in the med-tech field, she becomes a potential gateway for you to access others in that field. You might not learn much from talking to the person unknown to you, you might not even be able to help her land a job, but if you are professional, thoughtful, and genuine in your interaction with even minimal follow-up and relationship maintenance you have probably earned yourself someone who will always be wiling to at least answer a question or make an introduction for you. This gives you access to a new field.


Whether you work in business development and are hoping to secure a new client, are a fundraiser for a nonprofit looking for new donors, or a public official looking to better serve your constituents, meeting with others – even those you do not know – lays the groundwork for the main objective of your job. While some may look at meeting with an unknown individual pessimistically, you are probably better served by optimism: you do not know this person, therefore it is possible she could be just the connection you have been searching for.


It is broadly beneficial for the economic ecosystem in your community or region for the right talent to be matched with the right job. You may agree with this argument but still think, “Sure, but won’t my connecting one person to the right job be just a drop in the bucket?” But it’s not just you connecting one person to one job. Imagine if everyone who was presented with the opportunity of helping someone they do not know find a job; maybe only 5% of the time people are able to help in a way that matches talent with a job; the benefits of this practice in the aggregate are enormous. No matter your business interests they are certainly better served by an efficient economy where other businesses are maximizing talent to perform at high levels.


It is no secret that social capital greases the wheels of business and civic transactions. More often than not, knowing the right person or being able to leverage your network can play a major role in whether you get a foot in the door or are left on the outside looking in. Reciprocity provides the engine of social capital’s functions in the practice of relationship building.


Even if you do not see any direct benefit from networking with an individual you do not know, it is intrinsically rewarding to help others. Ann Landers put it best: “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” 

While the previous points are based on the argument that meeting with an unknown individual can provide a benefit to you, even if you assume there is nothing to be gained from this person, it is nevertheless courteous, conscientious, and considerate to listen fully to the person and assist her if you can and the request is within reason.


You still have to evaluate the expected return on investment on a case-by-case basis. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t make sense—for instance, you could be facing an imminent deadline and the opportunity cost for taking a coffee meeting or a phone call might seem too high right now. But saying that you have nothing to gain professionally in helping someone you do not know is a bad assumption to make. Moreover, it is a claim that will be proven false by experience more often than not. I encourage everyone to try it sometime.

Have you ever helped someone you didn’t know find a job? Have you yourself accessed an opportunity through networking with someone you did not know? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Finally, if you don’t want to miss out on future thought provoking exchanges using 140 characters or fewer, follow me (@JohnGLynch) and Dr. Grant (AdamMGrant) on Twitter.

© John G. Lynch

[1] https://twitter.com/adammgrant/status/568046537848139776




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