The Good Struggle: A book review by Bob Morris

Good StruggleThe Good Struggle: Responsible Leadership in an Unforgiving World
Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

A brilliant response to the “enduring questions of responsible leadership” in the market-driven world in which we live and work

Many years ago, one of Albert Einstein’s colleagues at Princeton pointed out to him that he asked the same questions every year on his final examination. “Yes, that’s quite true. Every year the answers are different.” I thought about that response as I began to read Joseph Badaracco latest book. In business as in the natural sciences, many of the questions asked haven’t changed much (if at all). Badaracco poses five for leaders to consider:

1. “Am I really grappling with the fundamentals?”
2. “Do I know what I am really accountable for?”
3. “How do I make critical decisions?”
4. “Do we have the right core values?”
5. “Why have I chosen this life?”

He then identifies and examines what he characterizes as “emerging answers” to these questions, answers that are best revealed within his lively and eloquent narrative, in context. However, I am comfortable when discussing why I think this is his most valuable book…thus far. In my opinion, Badaracco is among the most thoughtful business thinkers, one who is eager, indeed passionate to understand a business world in which change really is the only constant and changes occur faster than ever before, and have wider and deeper impact than ever before. This is what Richard Dawkins has in mind when observing, “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

I cannot recall a prior time in U.S. business history when such occurred faster and had greater impact than it does now. Organizations and their leaders face daunting challenges of unprecedented peril. This is what Badaracco has in mind when observing that “responsible leadership is, quite often, a version of a good struggle: it is a long effort, demanding perseverance and courage, to make good on serious but profoundly fallible commitments in an uncertain and often unforgiving world…Struggle has always been central to accomplishing anything worthwhile, and this is especially true today.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Badaracco’s coverage.

o Lessons from Entrepreneurs (Pages 4-6)
o The Enduring Questions (15-17)
o Emerging Answers (17-20)
o The Era of Big Machines (29-32)
o The New Fundamentals (32-45)
o Vertical Accountability: Boring and Brilliant (56-67)
o Market-Based Accountability and the Good Struggle (75-80)
o The Twentieth Century Template (87-91)
o The Challenge Today (91-95)
o Cathedrals and Architects (118-123)
o Consensus Values and Core Values (124-147)
o The Good Struggle (158-170)
o The Burden of Freedom (170-172)

I agree with Badaracco that responsible and accountable leadership is commitment, and, that commitment is struggle. Warren Bennis and Bob Thomas are among those who also have much of value to say about the “crucibles” that all leaders encounter but from which not all of them emerge stronger and wiser. For me, one of the most effective ways to demonstrate “the burden of leadership” is to examine a series of photographs of a U.S. president – Abraham Lincoln, for example – from when he assumed office until just before leaving it.

Joseph Badaracco’s reference to the “burden of freedom” correctly suggests that it involves a commitment to, in his words, “grasping the fundamentals, defining their accountability, getting critical decisions right, making a few crucial values real and effective in an organization, and finding purpose, guidance, and solace for what is often a long, hard journey.”

I congratulate him on his latest book, a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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