3 Books on Leadership, a Vision of Life as Play, and Acting on What Matters


The lenses you use to view your business will determine how it will grow. Leadership, vision, and acting on what matters are indispensable components of the mix for that growth to become a long term promise and value instead of short term gratification, as tempting as that may be.

As you reflect on your results of this past year and prepare for what's next for your business development, I thought of connecting the dots on a couple of resources that continue to serve me well.

Leadership-and-the-New-Science Leadership and the New Science (Amazon affiliate link) by Margaret Wheatley tackles the thorny issue of restoring hope and sanity to organizations by showing how new discoveries in biology, chaos theory, and quantum physics can help you with new ideas, new ways of seeing, and new relationships.

The answers are in the webs that connect us — relationships, cooperation and participation. Chaos and change are the route to transformation. Some of my favorite parts in the book drive home simple points. Simple is not easy though.

We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable, and we search continually for better methods of objectively measuring and perceiving the world. Sounds familiar? Read all about organizations defending themselves even against their employees…

We have drawn boundaries around the flow of experience, fragmenting whole networks of interactions into discrete steps. However, we get what we wish for — we experience what we choose to notice and worry about.

The answer is fewer descriptions of tasks and learning how to facilitate process. All of us, writes Wheatley, need to become better at listening, conversing, respecting one another's uniqueness, because these are essential for strong relationships. And strong relationships make for strong organizations.

A living being is not a stable structure, but a continuous process of organizing information. Of course, such freedom is exactly what management tries to prevent. Management's task is to enforce control, to keep information contained, to pass it down in such a way that no newness occurs. Information chastity belts are a central management function. Belts that handcuff organizations to steady decline.

Information is not power — it's nourishment for resilient organizations. The times of the lone ranger are long gone. Success depends on networked capabilities. Non linear and messy are native environments for thinking creatively and leapfrogging on problem solving.

Organizations still have technical and mechanistic approaches. But most basic human dynamics are completely ignored: our need to trust one another, our need for meaningful work, our desire to contribute and be thanked for that contribution, our need to participate in changes that affect us.

In addition to a mechanistic world view, the other two primary Western cultural beliefs that keep people apart, according to Wheatley, are individualism and competition. When people are free to make their own decisions based on shared meaning and values, order emerges out of chaos — and problems are solved. Read all about these ideas at work in the real world section.

Finite and Infinite Games There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. In Finite and Infinite Games (Amazon affiliate link), James Carse delivers on this thought-provoking premise.

So many books attempt to prove or disprove a thesis and exhaust you by asking you to expend energy in going through the reasons why/why not. Carse shares his vision of reinterpreting the world. From it you can draw your own insights.

I loved the part about storytelling:

Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail. A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounding way of looking to an horizonal way of seeing.

If the first book was about process, this one is about pattern. A new perspective will be your reward after reading it.

The Answer to How is Yes The Answer to How is Yes (Amazon affiliate link) is the seminal work of Peter Block, a thinker I have long admired because acting on what matters is important to me.

Doing more and more about things that mean less and less is at the root of the love affair with the "how" question. How is a way of avoiding why and its related questions of purpose.

Organization cultures of control and dependency are bankrupt. Keeping your head down instead of acting on your intentions is not a strategy. When we think that the only way to get what we want is to bargain for it, we hand over power to others, including the power to define reality.

Block talks about the importance of intimacy and the illusion of electronic reality. Why do so many espouse a bias for action? Thinking, reflection, and going deeper take time and require us to get personal — to question our own beliefs, theories and feelings.

Depth is also a victim of this love affair with speed. Do you digest everything in sound bites and executive summaries? You can, all you have to do is lower your standards. Shortage of time is an artificial scarcity.

We need a self-designed course in the "humanities", writes Block, and he goes on to outline what that curriculum would look like. Your boss doesn't have what you want. I had two managers in my career who understood this — I have been very fortunate to recognize and value this skill.

Learn about the mindset of the social architect and the real meaning to finding your own voice.

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Warning: control freaks will not enjoy these books.

They are not new, nor are they easy pieces. The authors tackle some fundamental questions we should ask ourselves and think about. Buy at the peril of rethinking your approach and changing the way you look at things, and maybe, just maybe, your mind, too.

As you can see, much of the ground that is being covered today has been covered before. The opportunity is to build on it, to take the baton forward.

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0 responses to “3 Books on Leadership, a Vision of Life as Play, and Acting on What Matters”

  1. I have not read the Wheatley or Block books, but have added them to my reading list. I have read the Carse book several times, and gain new insights every time I do.
    Here are a few more gems from the book, that I rediscovered after a 2006 re-reading in the context of reflecting on – and blogging about – the pervasiveness and permeability of games worlds:
    * A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play.
    * A finite game has temporal, spatial and membership boundaries that are externally defined, with rules that cannot change during the course of play
    * The rules of an infinite game must change in the course of play
    * Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
    * The joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.
    http://gumption.typepad.com/blog/2006/05/the_pervasivene.html

  2. @Alex – happy holidays to you. I’ll look for your take on the books.
    @Renee – a good rule of thumb is if the book is still on my shelf instead of being donated to the local library, I’ve read it at least twice and used the information. That’s a good book.
    @Joe – it is such a treasure trove of insights that little book, isn’t it? It was a friend met through blogging who recommended it a couple of years back.

  3. I always know if you recommend a book, it’s a worthy read. And now here are three more to add to my list – I appreciate your point that these are not for control freaks nor easy. Makes me want to read them even more.
    So here’s a quick note of thanks for your thoughtful book reviews featuring your distillation of the key points presenting a clear reason why one should read each. They’re immensely valuable and one of my favorite parts of your site.

  4. Patrick:
    These are well worn, too. I find well written books on leadership and organization development relaxing compared to many marketing books filled with “how to” stuff. My brain needs inspiration and insights more than practical instructions more often than it used to. Maybe it’s because we’re getting so much of that every day. It’s a way to step back and ask the why questions. Which is, by the way, how I choose which books get reviewed. If I find I ask a lot of why questions, think about it deeply, then I figure it would be helpful to the community. Plus, I like to uncover gems not talked about by everyone. Thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot to me.

  5. Your post prompted me to go back and re-read several chapters in the Carse book. I noticed that you’d used “horizontal” rather than “horizonal” in the excerpt above. This may represent a typographical error, but I wanted to point it out, because I think the single letter (“t”) represents an important distinction between Carse’s definitions of society (which has boundaries, and is thus a finite game) and culture (which has [only] horizons, and is thus an infinite game).
    In Chapter 45, he writes:
    “One never reaches a horizon. It is not a line; it has no place; it encloses no field; its location is always relative to the view. To move toward a horizon is simply to have a new horizon. One can therefore never be close to one’s horizon, though one may certainly have a short range of vision, a narrow horizon. … Who lives horizonally is never somewhere, but always in passage.”
    Thanks again for reminding me of Carse’s infinitely unfolding wisdom.

  6. Very interesting typo, I agree. I guess my brain wanted to complete the word automatically. Once, I was dubbing some medical lectures into Italian. I had done several hours with the headsets in this tight booth and kept going with the script and timing the talking with that of the speaker I was dubbing. Out of the blue, I was supposed to say “fortune” and I ended up blurting “profume”. I have no idea where it came from, I guess it was filed next to the other word in my brain.
    I’m going back to fix it. Thank you for pointing out the significance of the word. I’m a linguist, I love words. Duh!

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