Harder Than I Thought: A book review by Bob Morris

Harder Than I Thought: Adventures of a Twenty-First Century Leader
Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell
Harvard Business Review Press (2012)

How and why “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” in today’s business world

Most of the material in this book consists of a fictional business narrative that focuses on Jim Barton, the “newly minted” CEO of Santa Monica Aerospace (SMA). The challenges he faces are by no means unique (e.g. completing a high-risk, high-reward acquisition of a larger company) and as the story line begins, at least some board members and C-level executives have reasonable doubts. Robert Austin, Richard Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell are by no means the first to write a fictional business narrative but, to the best of my knowledge, they are the first to interweave the plot with end-of-chapter “Reflection” sections and five “Interludes” that serve as “time outs” during which two or three characters share their thoughts and feelings about key issues. Eliyahu Goldratt, for example, never becomes directly involved and Patrick Lencioni waits until the completion of his narrative before suggesting the meaning and significance of what has happened.

The subject of my review was excerpted from this passage in Abraham Lincoln’s “Annual Speech to Congress, on December 1, 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves….” More recently, Albert Einstein observed, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” The title of one of Marshall Goldsmith’s most valuable books proclaims, “What got you here won’t get you there.” By the end of this book, Austin, Nolan, and O’Donnell have skillfully guided Barton through a process of discovery that enables him to respond effectively to the given challenges. The details are best revealed in context, within the narrative’s development. However, I presume to suggest that, before reading the book, it would be a good idea to check out the “Cast of Characters” (Pages 301-304) and then refer back to it whenever needed.

These are among the passages in the book that were of greatest interest and value to me, each accompanied by what I think is one of the co-authors’ key leadership lessons to be learned:

o Jim Barton’s “game plan” (Pages 7-9)
Key Lesson: Focus on what is most [begin italics] important [end italics], not only on what is most urgent.

o First Interlude: “The Lords of Leadercraft” (35-39)
Key Lesson: Don’t wait until everything is perfect because it never has been and never will be.

o Second Interlude: “A Leader of Men” (71-72)
Key Lesson: With friends and foes alike, always negotiate on common ground and seek mutually beneficial agreement.

o Third Interlude: “Your Lineup Is a Mess!” (119-122)
Key Lesson: Focus on those who are most important, not on what is expedient.

o Fourth Interlude: “Execute, Execute, Execute” (229-231)
Key Lesson: As Thomas Edison once observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

o Fifth Interlude: “The Leadership Main Course” (283-284)
Key Lesson: What you “eat” (e.g. challenges, opportunities) is who you are and determines what you do and how well you do it.

With rare exception, when someone assumes substantially greater leadership duties and responsibilities, it is just about impossible for that person to understand fully the nature and extent of the challenges, and, how difficult it will be, therefore, to achieve the given objectives. I commend Robert Austin, Richard Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell on their skills as raconteurs, especially given the challenges they embrace when telling their story with supplementary devices that remind me of how Thornton Wilder develops his plot in Our Town. Bravo!

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