Tag Archives: book

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: 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.

Introvert vs. Extrovert

Introverts and ExtrovertsIn recent times we have heard Susan Cain speak, in the TED video of the Power of Introverts. She has also written a book entitled “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking“. I am sure this has delighted many introverts. I am more of an introvert myself and am relieved that somewhere, some people value our quiet virtues!

Getting on my flight back from London, I had looked forward to a relaxing time in the skies, watching movies, listening to music, reading and dozing off occasionally. No sooner had I settled in to my seat, my neighbour appeared, an unmistakeable extrovert, laughing along his way to his seat on the aisle, telling me he would leave his coat in his seat and going off to talk to others.

I do sometimes engage in conversation during a flight but prefer this to be just a little. I was determined this flight, to stick to my introverted activities, headset on whenever possible. The last time I obliged a talkative neighbour and engaged in conversation throughout a flight, the constant turning of my head to talk had left me with a serious neck ache.

Well, this flight, when my neighbour returned, he struck up conversation with a few others around who didn’t have their eyes closed. Later on, to my surprise, when I returned after going to the washroom, I found him sitting in my seat! His rationale? Well, he said, it was all the same and we were all going to end up in the same destination. (I believe he was just restless and needed to talk.) I politely requested to have my seat back, a request he acceded to, then I promptly plonked my headset back on.  Okay, on hindsight, maybe I should have lightened up, taken the little joke and engaged in light banter. Horrible me! Later on in the flight, I heard (despite my headsets), loud laughter from him for a good half an hour as he watched the inflight entertainment – a reminder to me of the similar scene in the movie “Anger Management”.

In the end, I felt a little sorry and mean. I guess to an extrovert, having me as a neighbour that flight would have been awful. After all, extroverts derive their energy externally and need the external stimuli and introverts get their energy internally – we just cannot help it. It really is hard for introverts and extroverts to understand each others’ inner worlds.

“Yes, Prime Minister” TV comedy series….coming back?

Yes, Prime MinisterMany of us enjoyed this satirical British TV comedy series shown mostly in the eighties. We have been missing it for a long time…and perhaps for far too long.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it playing live in the theatre (Trafalgar Studios) in London this month – futher conversations revealed that the much loved TV series will be making a debut again following its success in the theatre over the last few months.

We managed to get tickets for the play and enjoyed a night of laughter. Sir Humphrey was as brilliant as ever with his convoluted sentences and profound experience of the inner workings of government, much to the bewilderment of the baffled Prime Minister, often caught in a ridiculously impossible situation.

We often hear of books being turned into movies. In the case of “Yes, Prime Minister”, I don’t think I have heard of any book about it. I think it would be a nice idea to capture it all in a few books – I would certainly enjoy reading this. I saw the TV series when I was still in school, so think I would appreciate the humour even more now – having lived in the big, bad world for a while! I am certainly looking forward to watching the TV series again.

Narrative Fallacies Galore

Narative Fallacies Galore“Narrative Fallacy” is a term I first came across in the book, “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

“Storytelling” and “business narratives” are increasingly touted as the effective way to get the message across – politicians, business leaders and motivational speakers all have this indispensable tool in their armoury – the more wonderful the story, the more we are blown away and buy into it, so the more correct these successful storytellers must be, apparently. True, pure facts and figures bore most of us; we need a compelling story to bring the message to life. The problem though, is that people are often so enamoured by any good, well-articulated story that we fall into the “narrative fallacy” trap without asking the tough questions about whether it all really makes sense.

An example of story-telling gone horribly wrong was in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The facts and details were too difficult, too tedious or too boring for most people to process; even experts fell into this trap. Conversly, the stories were exciting, compelling, marvellous. Most people bought the stories. It took someone like Michael Burry (as told in the book “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis), with Asperger’s Syndrome, to see the pattern of a mortgage bubble forming way ahead of others, even experts, and bet against this, making good returns for the investors in his fund, Scion Capital. (Those with Asperger’s Syndrome sometimes possess great talents in seeing patterns, but unfortunately, for various reasons, have difficulties with other abilities and with fitting into society.) Of course, a number of factors can be blamed for leading to the sub-prime crises; our vulnerability to get carried away by narratives just added fuel to it.

Narrative fallacies trap us everywhere – politics, commerce, belief in the paranormal etc. etc. It helps to be cognizant of how our brains unwittingly deceive us and not place undue faith in great narratives and good storytelling.

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.

Book Review: Zero Degrees of Empathy – by Simon Baron-Cohen

Zero Degrees of Empathy – by Simon Baron-Cohen

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

The author’s aim in writing the book was to stimulate discussions on the reasons for human cruelty (or treating other humans as objects) from a realm of science. The focus is on studying empathy and the social and biological factors contributing to it. Zero degrees of empathy (or being at the lowest end of the “empathy spectrum”) is what leads to “treating people as objects”.

What is appealing about the book is that it is concise and presents the explanations in an easy-to-understand and structured way. The author presents an “empathy spectrum”, with the shape of a bell curve. He also introduces another spectrum, representing degrees of “systemizing”, which is also bell-shaped. The human mind looks for patterns and ways to systemize information. A high degree of systemizing can indicate strength in mathematics, science, music or other systemizing fields. However, extreme (high) degrees of “systemizing” can be associated with Asperger Syndrome and classic autism (an example of a symptom of this is going beserk when something is not exactly in its expected place in a room).

Those with zero degrees of empathy can be “zero-negative” (no positive effect) – this includes borderlines, psycopaths and narcissists. On the contrary, others with zero degrees of empathy can be “zero-positive” (with a high degree of systemizing) and therefore with extraordinary abilities but who also treat humans as objects.

The very last section of the book talks very briefly about the importance of empathy (perhaps just for completeness), but for a discussion on this, I would read books by authors such as Daniel Goleman and Stephen Covey who tackle this topic in depth.

The book provides valuable insights through scientific study. For a lay person like me with an interest in the subject, the simplicity of the presentation (apart from a few pages with technical terms on parts of the brain) made it a fascinating and enjoyable read. It is peppered with many true stories and examples to illustrate the points.