Saturday March 31, 2012
Adversity gives birth to great leaders
Review by NICK WALKER
Title: Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others
Author: Justin Menkes
Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press
SUFFICIENTLY enormous pressure can as the cover of this book acknowledges turn an unsexy lump of coal into a diamond. And it can also turn a business leader into an inspirational hero. Or a nervous wreck, of no use to anyone, except perhaps the owner of his favourite bar.
In Better Under Pressure, the author explains in breezy, accessible and unadorned prose, how business leaders can prevail, enhance their leadership style and revitalise profitability in the face of the most menacing adversity.
With lingering uncertainty on the horizon for many business leaders in Malaysia, this work is certainly timely. But is it any good? Yes. Menkes gets the chief executive officers (CEOs) featured and interviewed here to really open up. Perhaps all the more so, because, as a consultant with an executive search company (Menkes' day-job), he's got the goods on these masters of the universe already.
Therefore, we're spared all the usual truisms and tired-old-adages about how to succeed in business during hard times. Instead we get the nitty gritty: candid, never-before-shared yarns that might give shareholders heart palpitations, but certainly make for engaging reading.
Tough choices, like omelettes, require breaking a few eggs, as well as shattering a few egos. That's how these ballsy leaders got to the top.
Even more gratifyingly, we learn about failure so as how to avoid it. Failure is of course a guilty pleasure in the business community, but only when it's other people's.
Menkes takes the reader frame-by-frame through a series of slow-motion leadership train-wrecks, explains why these leaders freaked-out at moments in which other, more adept, CEOs would have kept their nerve.
The business leaders who crumpled under pressure are not named Menkes is merciful but their varied and well-described downfalls are instructive, in a how-not-to sense.
Drawing on in-depth interviews with dozens of executives from an America-centric array of companies (including Avon, Yum Brands, Southwest Airlines, and Procter & Gamble) and a wealth of other data, Menkes reveals that great executives strive ferociously to maximise their own potential. We all know that. But then he gives us what we came to this book for. What factors make for the difference between the victorious corporate generalissimos and the defeated ones?
Three things, Menkes asserts. Firstly is, “realistic optimism”. They recognise the risks threatening their organisation's survival, in addition to and their own failings, while remaining confident in their ability to prevail.
Secondly is through “subservience to purpose”. These winners dedicate themselves to both pursuing a noble cause and winning their team's commitment to that cause.
And thirdly is through “Finding order in chaos”. The shrewdest leaders find clarity amid the many variables affecting their business, by eschewing surplus data and swiftly arriving at the key conclusions that matter most to the company.
The good news is these three capabilities can be learned. Menkes demonstrates how each of these tools manifests itself in the real world, and empowers top performers even under crushing duress. He also shows you how to develop and deploy those attributes by means of timed self-assessment exercises so you too can transform yourself into a player who shines brightly under intense heat, rather than one who turns into ash. You really have to apply yourself though. This is not a text for wimps.
The corporate-leadership genre often casts back to ancient China for timeless wisdom, and Menkes cannot resist this temptation either. Usually it is Sun Tzu's The Art of War that is sourced. But Menkes goes for a passage from that mellower book, Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tsu's succinct explanation of the universe and its workings.
Better Under Pressure concludes with an examination of how Kroger CEO David Dillon “elucidates all three catalysts for realising potential in a global economy.” Throughout the massive economic downtown in recent years, Dillon acknowledges that he was both “scared every day, almost all the time” and confident that the problems however severe were “just obstacles to be overcome, things to be fixed.” By example and with sturdy faith, he inspired others to embrace Kroger's commitment to “find a way to make their customers' lives better.”
Finally, Dillon recognised that “a gigantic shift” was taking place, elicited the information he needed to understand the nature of this shift, and then oversaw his company's triumph over formidable competition.”
Better Under Pressure provides generous support for the reader. The insider knowledge of high-flying C-suite talent evaluator Menkes, plus a little Taoist pragmatism, plus some sound business fundamentals, and plenty of encouragement and guided instruction, all adds up to an outstanding title.