The Right Kind of Books are Honest

The Right Kind of Books are Honest


“The Conscious Leader flows effortlessly between the masculine to the feminine,” says Rúna Bouius. Jonathan Cook adds: “… and in flowing between masculine and feminine, trades in the territory between, discovering dimensions of identity that are neither and both. The flow is the thing. This is commerce.”

This exchange is an inspiring example of what online dialogue could bebuilding on ideas. You can still find this structure in some books. Those become classics. In Italo Calvino's definition of “classics”: “those books that are treasured by those who have read and loved them.”

“Books are not meant to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry,” said Umberto Eco. “When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means.” For this reason, I found Eco's most insightful writing in his novels. His Minerva column on Espresso was good, too.

Books are wonderful partners in thinking. Reading is a form of freedom.

Every new parent in my circle gets a copy of How to Teach  Your Baby to Read. I translated and worked with Glenn Doman for more than six years. He was spot on when he talked about developing human potential as a form of “gentle revolution.”

When I read the rare business book, I look for honesty. I've written before how we need more of the right kind of books. One aspect I've since realized that makes a nonfiction title work for me is a broader context.

Like online dialogue, books can provide a better experience.

They can help us expand our horizons,

gaze into “what is” and show us “what could be.”


Two books I'm reading now

I came across a short HBR podcast with Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever. “Profits should come not from creating the world's problems, but from solving them” may seem easy to say, hard to do in the current system. Tweaking has taken center stage: don't rock the boat.

Polman admits as such in Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More than they Take. Polman (@PaulPolman) authored the book with Andrew Winston (@AndrewWinston). The fact that companies are making some progress in some areas is heartening.

“We got it all covered” is


Net Positive is about why this mindset shift is critical. Conscious leadership is not, “How do we create more Paul Polmans?” Which is the question many books about leadership try to answer. The point is a collective stepping up. Not as individuals, as communities, associations, etc.

He had me at staving off a hostile takeover bidthanks to NGO and union leaders who supported Unilever with its board. Having worked in risk management for a few years, I've come across the devastation of mergers and acquisitions. A few work short-term for the balance sheet.

But we don't live there. Too many business models serve “a handful of owners of capital and funnels the gains to them.” They take “limited responsibility for externalitiesthe spillover impacts on othersof the business.”

The second model Polman describes is emergent. “Net positive” is “more good,” rather than “less bad,” the current compromise. It's not just about carbon footprint, nor it is about shared value. As usual, the words are the hardest to get right, because inappropriate use tainted so many.

Polman believes in systems change, and in action. Think about industry sectors, and what things could look like if the companies in the supply chain helped solve the biggest problems. Some examples in the book (quoted):

Food and agriculture companies embracing regenerative practices, making the soil richer, protecting biodiversity, and sequestering millions of tons of carbon.

There's a very good reason why Luigi Einaudi, economist and prolific writer, bought a vineyard. Beyond getting grounded, which is always helpful, working the land teaches you a lot about what it actually takes to grow something, and the impact of context.

I've read many stories of people who dropped everything and became growers during the pandemic, especially in Italy.

Consumer goods:

Consumer product companies increasing human and planetary well-being with everything they sell. [Unilever provides a specific example of this. The company's] purpose-driven brands, those that connect to larger societal issues, such as sanitation and children's health, and work to help solve them have grown 60 percent faster than the rest of the business and with higher margins.


Apparel companies decoupling their growth from further resource use, providing living wages, restoring dignity, and helping develop communities in their supply chains around the world.

Every industry has its dark side. Imagine if financial companies leaders behaved like banking genius Amadeo Peter Giannini.

The second book I'm reading is hard to put down. Because the writing is that good. Stacey Vanek Smith has done her research on one of my favorite writers: Niccolò Machiavelli. Talk about words being tainted! Say Machiavelli, and most people jump to conclusions.


But the real story, as you look more closely into it,

is surprisingly evergreen, modern even.

Thus while the title, Machiavelli for Women, could be a turnoff, it's appropriate. I was curious to figure out what parts of being more strategic worked on illuminating the avalanche of biases and practices that (still, in 2021) hold women back.

The result of Vanek Smith's (@svaneksmith) cultural heavy lifting and conversations with women executives yields 7 power strategies:

1. Always get the truth, even if it hurts. “There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you.”

Asking for feedback is tricky, because it makes you vulnerable. So watch who you ask. Do you trust them? Is there respect between you? If the relationship is not one of trust, and to help the peer you're asking, I suggest asking for advice.

2. Cultivate your network. Carla Harris, Morgan Stanley senior banker, to Sally Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest: “All the important decisions about your career are made when you’re not in the room. People decide to hire you, fire you, promote you, fund you, send you on the overseas assignment, all when you’re not there. So how do you ensure that you have someone in the room fighting for you? I would strongly argue that you need to have in place your Personal Board of Directors. Those are your mentors, your sponsors, your confidantes.”

It reminds of Jeff Bezo's, “Your brand is what people say when you're not in the room.” In the executive suite, influence is often informal power to support and help coordinate resources.

3. Stand up for the less powerful. “The Prince ought to make himself the head and defender of his less powerful neighbors, and to weaken the more powerful amongst them.” “By arming them, those arms become yours.”

Even social media is not immune to the opposite, counterproductive, trend: elevating the powerful and popular. Well, Machiavelli says that's a double-edged sword.

4. If it comes down to being liked and respected, choose respected. “Here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. . . We should wish to be both; but . . . if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”

This is not an easy choice for women. Because we're raised to the being liked tune. Jana U. Ehrhardt and Eva Ehrhardt wrote a book to address this, Good Girls Go to Heaven, Bad Girls Go Everywhere.

5. Watch your back. Two dangers here: flattery, the favorite tool of manipulators, and extreme negativity.  “As soon as you have opened your mind to a malcontent, you have given him the material with which . . . he can look for every advantage.”

6. Avoiding risk is risky; when in doubt, take action. “I know that many say a policy of neutrality is the safest option. I believe to the contrary that neutrality is an exceedingly dangerous path.” This is especially true for a leader.

7. Embrace the struggles that arise; they're setting you up for success. “They who . . . acquire with difficulty . . . keep with ease.” “Fortune, especially when she desires to make a new prince great . . . causes enemies to arise and form designs against him, in order that he may have the opportunity of overcoming them. . . . Princes become great by vanquishing difficulties and opposition.”


One book I'm curious about

Michael Bhaskar (@michaelbhaskar) anchors the future in the past in Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking (out Nov 2.) He asks:

Does the 21st-century offer the right breeding ground for the sort of big ideas we need to resolve the massive challenges facing humanity from climate change to viral attack? Are the days of the brilliant inventor over? Can really big ideas make it in the brave new corporate world?

As Rilke said, it's important to “live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live into some distant into your answers.”


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