Category Archives: Books

Book Review: True North – by Bill George with Peter Sims

Ture North – by Bill George with Peter Sims

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

This book is all about following one’s moral compass, as a leader and about authentic leadership. In many ways it is refreshing, as it emphasises that there are no cookie-cutter rules about leadership, so differs from other leadership books that may be more prescriptive. It encourages one to figure out one’s true values, strengths and weaknesses and understand this deeply. True values only come to light when one has to choose between close trade-offs, often in a crisis situation.

The book traces in depth, through interviews, the leadership lessons and ups and downs of well-known leaders such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks Coffee, Chuck Swab of Charles Swabb, Narayana Murthy of Infosys, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox, Dan Vasella of Novartis, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America and others.

The book also gives useful insights on why leaders may lose their moral compass, being driven by external factors, rather than internal ones, drawing upon the experiences of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, contrasting this against that of Ronald Reagan.

It is easy in today’s world to get lost in all the external demands and short termism and to forget what we are good at, what our natural styles and values are. This book is an excellent read – a reminder to stay grounded and follow the all important moral compass when all else is in chaos.

Book Review: Ethical Issues in Accounting – Edited by Catherine Gowthorpe and John Blake

Ethical Issues in Accounting – Edited by Catherine Gowthorpe and John Blake

This book is concisely written. It has a number of contributors and a large list of references. Although first written in 1998, the issues are highly relevant today and provide valuable insights into ethical issues in the profession.

It covers all the critical aspects of the subject – creative accounting, whistleblowing, the ethics of tax practitioners, the role (and shortcomings) of the professional bodies in ethical issues, auditors and moral issues, self-regulation vs. independent regulation, public service (and the tensions and conflicts of interest with management there), the environment and corporate social reporting.

There are interesting (and shocking) insights from the authors’ own experiences at work, and the lack of power to be able to speak up against unethical practices. There is critism of the partisanship of professional bodies. There is also critism of their role as guardians of accounting and auditing ethics, suggesting that these bodies themselves routinely compromise their own ethical position. Balancing arguments are also presented, suggesting that the radical critics’ views are sometimes overstated and misrepresented.

Overall, it has been a fascinating read for me. I am very impressed with how the crux of issues and debates are packed into this very informative little book (under 200 pages). I learnt and became aware of a lot through reading it. Some if it, I have to admit, was a little above my head because of the academic approach to the discussions in places, but I would be tempted to read it again to get round this, given its usefulness.

Book Review: Say it Like Obama – by Shel Leanne

Say it Like Obama – by Shel Leanne

I’m not one for “spin”; in fact I find it quite troubling how many people seem enamoured more by powerful oratory than by substance, hard facts and tested results – I have alluded to this in a number of my previous posts, e.g. “Narrative Fallacies Galore“, “Book Review – The Believing Brain“, “Book Review – Redirect“, etc.

Having said that, one does occasionally have to speak in public and it helps to maximise the impact of what one has to say. The author does a very thorough job of analysing Obama’s speeches in detail, giving very structured and well written explanations of each of the techniques used, with clear examples of how these techniques have been applied. Having been a member of Toastmasters International for almost 5 years, most of the techniques described in the book are quite familiar to me – voice and intonation, powerful imagery, anecdotes, repeating or using similar sounding words (anaphora, epiphora, alliterations, triads etc.), gestures and pauses at the right times.

My purpose of reading this book was to see if there was anything additional I could glean on this subject of public speaking, as practised by President Obama. There certainly were a few new ideas.

The first is on breaking down barriers – acknowledging the “elephant in the room”, such as his race or different name and achieving trancsendence by finding common ground and talking about shared dreams and visions. Tackling the “elephant in the room” head on at the beginning then makes for a more comfortable atmosphere with the audience during the rest of the time the speech is being delivered.

The second is on conveying admirable ethics (e.g. being gracious, even after being insulted or made to feel awkward by a previous speaker), in order to earn trust and confidence. This point may be more about leadership. By building a good ethical reputation, if and when controversy arises or accusations come forth, these attacks tend to bounce off rather than stick.

The third is on overcoming obstacles and weathering controversies or accepting responsibility for errors. (Again, this may have more to do with leadership.) These should be tackled at the beginning, with humility rather than defiance. After addressing this (and with the audience then in a more forgiving and receptive state), Obama would then go on to reiterate his beliefs and deliver tough messages.

For anyone interested in the subjects of public speaking and leadership, this book does offer a few good tips.

Book Review: Barack, Inc. – by Barry Libert and Rick Faulk

Barack, Inc. – by Barry Libert and Rick Faulk

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

This book is about the “Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign”. It may seem at this point in time, four years after President Obama was elected, that many are disillusioned by the state of the economy (although some would argue he inherited a terrible economy and has done a reasonably good job on it). Four years ago though, the campaign that won him this term in office, was regarded as a resounding business success and offered valuable lessons to be learnt.

The authors are the director and CEO respectively of Mzinga, a leading provider of social software solutions that help corporations create online communities – hence there is a deep appreciation in particular, for the phenomenal success of Obama’s use of social networking that contributed to this campaign’s success.

The crux of the lessons in the book can be distilled to the following key themes:

  1. Staying cool
  2. Unleashing social technologies
  3. Embracing and embodying change

These were particular strengths of this campaign compared with other political campaigns in the past and hence the leadership lessons here are fresh and unique. There are many anecdotes of what happened throughout to illustrate the campaign’s strengths in these areas and the tactics and principles that were utilised. The book is well structured with a bullet list of lessons at the end of each section, and is an easy read, with just 146 pages.

Shakespeare’s Wisdom – Centuries On

I didn’t do Shakespeare at school. Previous generations of students sometimes had it as compulsory study. For me, it wasn’t an option in the science stream. I suspect, the influence of Shakespeare’s writing and plays has reduced over time, even elsewhere in the world. Many a tourist would go to see Shakespeare’s birthplace, a few people would go to see the odd Shakespeare play and students of Shakespeare would study it formally – that would appear to be the extent of Shakespeare’s influence in today’s world of text messaging and social media. Even as a kid, I found the language difficult to understand in the plays. I only read a few of the simplified versions of the stories.

Some of Shakespeare’s phrases are of course, famous and still in widespread use today in the English Language – “to be or not to be” and “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” to name a couple.

One particular verse that struck me as being full of meaning and wisdom even in today’s world is from McBeth.

The trudge of daily life, with us all often going on and on and on like hamsters on a wheel are captured beautifully in the lines:

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time.”

The way humans often blunder through life during our short lives (in the relative span of the universe) only to die an inconsequential death is reflected in these famous lines:

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.”

The melodrama we observe in the modern world (often amounting to nothing) is captured eloquently when Shakespear says (of life):

“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Perhaps there are many more gems in Shakespeare’s works that still hold true today and could serve as valuable thoughts to ponder on. This has led me to a new resolution – one day I shall dig up this treasure and read through the works of Shakespeare that I have missed.

Book Review: Timbuktu – by Paul Auster

Timbuktu - Paul AusterTimbuktu – by Paul Auster

This is the second Paul Auster book I have now read. There is a certain intrigue about these books that draws one to them…the unusual storyline, the stretching of the mind to look at things from a different perspective and the sometimes bizarre plot. I must say, this plot in Timbuktu was quite straightforward, unlike the plot in “Travels in the Scriptorium“, which left me feeling quite baffled.

“Timbuktu” is a refreshing sort of story, which looks at the world through the eyes of a doggy and takes the reader through a delightful journey of joys, sorrows, reminiscences and thoughts. It is simple, yet has a richness of adventure resembling a travel to another world. This is where Paul Auster shows brilliance, juxtaposing doggy simplicity with an out-of-this-world experience for the human reader. It’s another short book by the author, just about 180 pages long and it gave me the feeling throughout like I was on a trip somewhere! Very nice…

Book Review: Tougher Boards for Tougher Times – by William A. Dimma

Tougher Boards for Tougher Times (Corporate Governance in the Post-Enron Era) – by William A Dimma

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

On the one hand, as it has been a while now since this book was published in 2006, and considerable discussion and developments on corporate governance have taken place over these years, I felt I did not benefit as much, reading this book only now, as I might have when it was newly published. On the other hand, coming from someone who is an authority on the subject,  who has held directorships for over 40 years, it emphasised and crystallised the most important issues for me.

The book is succinct, very well written and focuses on the crux of the issues, not just from a “best-practice” prescriptive viewpoint, but with real-world experience thrown in. There are 3 chapters written by 3 guest authors on board committees (audit, compensation and “governance and nominating”). It highlights the new demands and challenges of directorships, the far greater effort and time that should be required of independent directors (to acquire knowledge, as knowledge is power) and discusses stock options (their uses and abuses), dual-class share structures, comparisons of corporate and not-for-profit governance and ethics, among other things. It is certainly a useful read; however, I would look to read a more contemporary book on the subject.

Book Review: Travels in the Scriptorium – by Paul Auster

Travels in the Scriptorium – by Paul Auster

There was a decided mysteriousness and ingenuity about this plot, which is the whole point about the style that is said to be characteristic of Paul Auster. (This is the first I have read of his books.)

It was easy to get through this book – it is just 145 pages long; the story is engaging and well written. Fitting the whole plot together after reading the ending is what stretches the mind and elevates it onto a philosophical plane.

I shall not give away the story here. Suffice to say, the book is worth an encounter if just for curiosity to experience the different type of world one travels into. Perplexing in some ways, it is an unusual sort of theme to be explored – a journey into a writer’s mind.

Book Review: Carly Fiorina – Tough Choices (A Memoir)

Carly Fiorina - Tough Choices (A Memoir)Carly Fiorina – Tough Choices (A Memoir)

Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

This is a story told from the heart, from a lady who was passionate about her job and actually achieved a tremendous amount during her career. There are many leadership lessons throughout, as well as important observations for any woman in the business world. We learn of Carly Fiorina’s guiding principles throughout the book, such as: “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.” and “Leadership is about the integrity of one’s character, the caliber of one’s capabilities and the effectiveness of one’s collaboration with others.” We learn also about her diligence, thoroughness and dedication throughout and about the seemingly insurmountable challenges she faced, and how she dealt with them.

One area of interest to many is what happened at the end of her tenure. It is well known that under Carly Fiorina’s leadership, her company did exceedingly well. She pulled off the merger between Hewlett Packard and Compaq and proved to be right about it, despite all the naysayers. The results spoke for themselves. Yet, in the end, she had felt that she had been betrayed.

Initially, I was disappointed, as this part of the story seemed to be skimmed over at the end. However, there is a whole section (the Afterword) dedicated to this at the end. The Afterword of the memoir explains what others (board members etc.) had said about this later on (e.g. in TV interviews such as The Charlie Rose Show) and Carly Fiorina’s own views. The Afterword ends with more leadership lessons, thoughts and optimism about leadership in the world in general.

I found this book to be an intriguing read, from a person with a very rich experience. I would probably read it again when I have a chance and would recommend it to anyone interested in management and leadership.

Book Review: The Believing Brain – by Michael Shermer

The Believing Brain – by Michael Shermer

TheBelieving Brain Everyone gets something different out of a book. The opinions here are mine only.

There is so much about the brain and its complex workings that we do not understand. Every time an expert explains a little more, learnt through scientific study and controlled experiments, this becomes quite helpful.

I found the book particularly useful as it it very well written, very readable and informative; at the same time, it is not too technical (except for a few small sections) for the lay person. The author takes on a number of the “strange” phenomena witnessed in the world head-on (such as sensed presences, experienced by athletes, mountaineers and in Charles Lindburgh’s transatlantic flight), describing real, specific examples, and explains what goes on in the brain during those times. The way human brains work gives us the tendency to look for patterns and infuse them with meaning (whether correct or not).

Michael Shermer also presents in some detail, the various cognitive biases that affect us when forming  beliefs. Most of us are vaguely aware of some of this (e.g. anchoring bias and framing effects) but having such a comprehensive list explained is very helpful. I see the usefulness of applying this knowledge whenever we are presented with a persuasive argument, thinking about what traps we may be falling into.