Lynn Harris’ Unwritten Rules: A book review by Bob Morris

Unwritten Rules: What Women Need to Know About Leading in Today’s Organizations
Lynn Harris
BookSurge Publishing (2010)

The question “Where are all the women?”  is not being asked by anyone familiar with enrollment statistics for colleges, universities, and graduate schools at which women comprise a steadily increasing majority. Rather, it is asked when anyone reviews the latest data on the number of women who occupy C-level positions and who serve on governing boards. Lynn Harris has written a book in which she provides “what women need to know about leading in today’s organizations.”

She carefully organizes her material within three Parts: First, she explains why there are so few women at the top of organizations by revealing “critical information that women need to know about today’s organizational environments.” (Note: The book was published within the past year, lest you were wondering. Her insights and recommendations are based on recent as well as extensive research.) Next, she suggests several pragmatic solutions “about how women need to develop themselves to progress within this context and how to succeed within the unwritten rules that show little sign of changing.” Of course the rules to which she refers are unwritten.

In an increasingly more litigious society, many of the rules violate one or more laws. Then in Part Three, she provides a stimulating “exploration” into the worlds of women who have become “corporate refugees,” who have left their traditional organizational jobs to “express their leadership capabilities in different arenas.” More than half of those interviewed left leadership positions in large corporation s to start their own businesses. “The common thread that unites them all is that they confronted their dissatisfaction and created positive change in their livers.”

Many business books published in recent years have focused on women who are included among what I view as “celebrity CEOs.” In 2005, for example, Fortune identified and celebrated Meg Whitman (eBay), Anne Mulcahy (Xerox), Brenda Barnes (Sara Lee), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo), Andrea Jung (Avon), and Pat Woertz (Chevron). With all due respect to what these and other prominent female CEOs have achieved, Harris identifies and (yes) celebrates others…most of whose names are unfamiliar to most of those who read this book. I admire Harris for doing so and I also admire Sue Van Der Hout, Susan Mey, Barbara Laskin, Susan Macaulay, Linda Ward O’Farrell, Zelma Guzman, Rebecca Stewart, and others who summoned the courage to re-write the “rules” by which they would live and work, thereby changing the “game” in ways and to an extent that will serve as a beacon of hope as well as an illumination of perils to countless others.

One final point: Men as well as women are victimized by the unwritten rules that are identified in this book. It is in everyone’s best interests to expose the inequities and indignities such rules nourish and sustain. As Lynn Harris makes abundantly clear, these are not gender issues to be addressed; rather, they involve human rights that must be not only affirmed but vigorously protected. If denied to anyone, they are compromised for everyone.

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