The Secret: A book review by Bob Morris

The Secret: What Great Leaders Know and Do
Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller
Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2009)

The power and privilege of leadership as service to those entrusted to one’s care

In this second edition of a book first published in 2004, Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller make skillful use of the business narrative when offering what they have learned about what “great leaders know and do.” However, in fact, their focus is on an aspiring, struggling executive, Debbie Brewster, who confides, “I’m holding on for dear life and might lose my job.”  Her motivations remind us of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy needs”: first survival, then security, and eventually, perhaps, self-actualization. To date, her performance as a team leader has been poor. She knows she needs help and finds in a relationship with a mentor within her company, its president, Jeff Brown. Thus begins what becomes a journey of discovery of the “secret” to which the book’s title refers, for both Debbie and the book’s reader. The details are best revealed in context, within the narrative, as Debbie’s performance as a team leader gradually – and predictably — improves.

Does she become a great leader? No, at least not by the book’s conclusion, but that is not Blanchard and Miller’s ultimate objective. Rather, their purpose (in my opinion) is to examine a process by which almost any executive can become a more effective supervisor. More specifically, they focus on specific skills that include situation analysis, setting priorities, making decisions, getting associates engaged and in alignment, avoiding or removing barriers, and meanwhile demonstrating the values of what Robert Greenleaf once characterized as “the servant leader” in an essay published in 1970.

In a second essay, “The Institution as Servant,” Greenleaf observes: “This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other, is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions – often large, complex, powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative forces operating within them.”

I highly recommend this book to C-level executives and others who have supervisory responsibilities as well as to direct reports who aspire to become leaders. I also presume to suggest checking out the wealth of information now available at the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Finally, here are some other sources that may be of interest and value: Michael Ray’s The Highest Goal, James O’Toole’s The Executive’s Compass, and David Whyte’s The Heart Aroused.

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