Learning to Lead: A book review by Bob Morris

Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization
Ron Williams,
Greenleaf Book Group Press (May 2019)

“People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Theodore Roosevelt

In this book written with the assistance of Karl Weber, Ron Williams shares what he has learned about becoming a leader from his wide and deep as well as diverse experience in the business world. One of the most valuable lessons is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to lead others — and certainly not an entire organization such as Aetna — unless and until you have learned how to lead yourself. Williams makes it crystal clear that who and what you are able to lead will be determined almost entirely by (a) what you learn and (b) how well you apply what you have learned.

In this context, I am again reminded of the concept of what Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham aptly characterize (in 1955) as “the unknown unknowns.” That is, ignorance of one’s ignorance. This is is probably what Mark Twain had in mind when observing, ” It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Yes, it is very important to recognize what our specific knowledge needs are, relevant to the given situation.

It is even more important to recognize that what we may think we know — but in fact do not know — especially what needs to be known when a serious question must be answered or a serious problem must be solved.

The first step is to separate facts from opinions. The next step is to verify the facts. Only then can we formulate an enlightened decision based on those facts.

As Williams observes in Chapter 8 when discussing how to ask questions that open minds, “Sometimes the most effective leader is one who knows what he doesn’t know — and uses well-crafted questions to uncover hidden realities that make innovation possible.” He focuses on five types:

1. questions that highlight key problems
2. clarify the facts
3. probe an underlying story
4. suggest alternatives
5. drill down to basics

The last type is especially important. More often than not, discussions of problems to be solved focus on their symptoms rather than on root causes.

These are among the dozens of other passages of greatest interest and value to me, also shared to indicate the scope of Williams’ coverage:

o Soaking Up Learning, with No Specific Goal in Sight (Pages 15-21)
o Ursula Burns: “An Engineer Looks Like Me — And Yoiu!” (38-41)
o Seizing the Opportunity to Learn (50-55)
o SEAL or Sailor? Making the Choice (68-70)
o Assume Positive Intent(73-83)

o Defining Reality — The Crucial First Step (88-91)
o Aetna system for information processing and distribution (93-104)
o Reframing for Business Leaders (127-134)
o The Neglected Art of Smart Project Planning (158-163)
o Demographic Inclusion: It Still Matters (181-185)

o The Realities of Work-Life The Crucial First Step Balance (189-191)
o Communicating with Those on the Front Line (211-216)
o Defining the Values That Shape Your Dreazm (237-241)
o Making Human Connections (281-286)
o The Health-Care Reform Challenge (291-297)

I highly recommend this book to those who aspire to become leaders. There is much of value for them to learn from Williams as well as from those — duly acknowledged with gratitude — who have had a significant impact on his personal growth and professional development. Those eager to learn how to lead have no shortage of sources to explore, rich in enlightening knowledge and experience.

Here’s one of my own favorites. When Donna Dubinsky’s friend and colleague at Apple, Bill Campbell, was named CEO of Claris, the software company that was spun out of Apple, she offered this insight: “Bill, your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader.” By then, Campbell had already demonstrated several leadership qualities as Columbia University’s head football coach — notably being detail-oriented, results-driven, and passionate about “winning,” whatever the given competition may be. However, Dubinsky was concerned about Campbell’s tendency to tell everyone what to do and how to do it. He got the message, later telling a struggling manager, “you have demanded respect, rather than having it accrue to you. You need to project humility, a selflessness that projects that you care about the company and about people.”

These are among the lessons that Ron Williams also learned along the way to become a great leader. With the assistance of Karl Weber, what he shares in this book can be of incalculable value.

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