Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Book Review: Lessons on Leadership

Jack Stahl, the former President of Coca-Cola and CEO of Revlon, has written Lessons on Leadership: The 7 Fundamental Management Skills for Leaders at All Levels.

That sentence will cause some readers to crouch behind the sofa. "Another leadership book by a CEO?" they'll gasp. "Can't we be spared another tale of corporate heroism?"

Fortunately, Mr. Stahl does spare us at least most of his heroic tales in this readable review of leadership lessons. My favorite anecdote was how Coca-Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta once used a mistake to teach a powerful lesson. Goizueta had noticed an error in an internal management report. He called Stahl, who had just arrived in Austria for a week of review meetings. The conversation went as follows:

Goizueta: "This report is wrong. It needs to be fixed. Find out how this could have happened."

Stahl: "I am already aware of the error, Roberto, and our financial people are working on the issue. As soon as I get back to Atlanta next week, I'll resolve it, and will let you know the outcome."

Moment of silence.

Goizueta: "Jack, what flight will you be on tomorrow morning to fix this problem?"

Stahl: "I have meetings scheduled here in Austria all this week - it's being worked on, and I will focus on it as soon as I return to Atlanta from Vienna next week."

Goizueta: "No, Jack - I want you back here on the first plane tomorrow to deal with this."

Stahl notes that Goizueta used the mistake as an opportunity to send a powerful and pointed message about the importance of accuracy in reports. One can imagine the effect that the story of Stahl's early return had as it rippled through the organization.

Although this and similar examples of the intangible aspects of leadership may be the most interesting parts of Lessons on Leadership, they are not necessarily the most helpful. Stahl is a systems advocate who is aware of the continuous need to search for what he calls "cracks in the execution of details" and he deftly covers the importance of developing people as well as creating a high-performance organization. With regard to the latter, he notes:

Great performance and results do not happen by accident. They are most often the product of improvements in overall critical capabilities, which are driven by the leadership of the organization. However, even good leaders sometimes miss this point: Like sustainable increases in performance, new strategies also require organizational capability shifts.

He sees connections. He appreciates how cost reduction programs may require negotiation training for the employees who will have to bargain for low-cost raw materials or how a new information system may be needed to measure the costs and expenses. He notes that cries for new products should also be accompanied by a reassessment of how new products are developed. Stahl clearly understands how positive pressure in one area can cause a negative result in another.

Since this is a leadership book for a general audience many readers will find sections that are more than familiar. That is the nature of general leadership books, however, and it should not detract from the real value of Stahl's ideas. [He tucks "Valuing a Business Using the Discounted Cash Flow Approach" and "Determining the Cost of Capital" into the back of the book, possibly so they won't scare off the average reader.]

I found Lessons on Leadership to be a practical and insightful guide on how to gain control of the myriad details and pressures that confront the modern leader/manager. If you are a new leader or a seasoned one who wisely wants to review your assumptions, it's well worth your time.

Check it out.

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