Book Review - HBR’s 10 Must Reads – On Leadership

Book Review

Title: HBR’s 10 Must Reads – On Leadership

ISBN:   978-1-4221-5797-8

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press

Reviewer:   Kenneth W.  Moore

Professor of Strategic Management, State University of New York at Albany

With thousands of articles and academic papers that have been written over the years on the subject of leadership, it is always difficult to select the best or most intriguing commentaries and narrow those down to a top-10 must read list.  It’s akin to selecting the 10 best movies of all time or picking the 10 best soccer matches that have ever been played.Everyone will have his or her list which makes for good conversation at cocktail parties.

Nevertheless, Harvard Business Review has done a credible job of selecting a variety of thought-provoking articles on the general subject of business leadership that have been published in their magazine from 1990 to 2007. Most of the 10 articles advance the authors’ theories and research results that add to the body of leadership knowledge, but do not necessarily challenge existing leadership concepts.Since leadership is a qualitative subject, its values are subject to individual interpretation. This makes it difficult to be codified into a useful formula for identifying current or future leaders.

The first article in any anthology typically sets the tone for the following articles and it is true for this book.  It was this, and the last article, that made me pay closer attention to the eight articles in between.  

Daniel Goleman’s lead-off article, What Makes a Leader, describes his concept of Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence, or E.I., has generated a lot of enthusiasm over the past decade, in part because defining corporate success now involves more than just financial performance.   It involves an awareness and acceptance of inherent human strengths and weaknesses and allows leaders to relate to their subordinates, customers and shareholders on a more human level.Goleman makes persuasive arguments linking improved corporate performance to leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence.  

His description of E.I. encompasses five leadership characteristics that separate great leaders from merely good leaders.  Two jumped out at me: self-awareness and empathy.  These two themes are repeated in at least half of the commentaries. 

Self-awareness is not a new philosophy.  Indeed, from the Delphic Oracle advice to ‘know thyself” to Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true”, self-awareness of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives – and their impact on others – has always been a critical attribute of leadership.  These characteristics include self-confidence, a realistic self- assessment, a thirst for constructive criticism, and a sense of humor.  Leaders with high Emotional Intelligence take their work seriously, but are personally more down to earth and open to alternative strategies.  

Empathy allows a leader to understand his or her team’s emotional make-up. Since human action comprises of a healthy balance between rational thought and non-rational or emotional responses to any given situation, followers are more open to creative problem solving and execution when they know that their emotional drivers are taken under consideration.

Certain authors will automatically be included in a “must read’ collections.  Peter Drucker’s article entitled What Makes an Effective Executive?  merits inclusion because of his deserved reputation as a leadership guru with an uncommonly high degree of common business sense and low egotism. One cannot disagree with Dr. Drucker without a well reasoned counter argument.  Few corporate leaders are capable of taking on that challenge.

The other articles are very well written and well thought out with concepts born of extensive research.  Yet it can be intimidating.  Within the 10 articles, there are 54 recommendations for the readers to consider as they seek higher insight into their leadership effectiveness.  Fortunately, the last article, In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, suggests that “It’s time to end the myth of the complete leader. The sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organization will be.” Developing leadership skills is a lifelong process with no definitive ending and full of continuing challenges.  

Despite the wealth of accumulated knowledge and research in these articles, there are some negatives that stand out.  First, of the 20 contributing authors, fifteen are academics, two are consultants, and three are from industry.  This suggests an uneasy separation between academic research and leadership reality.  Furthermore, the most recent article was written in 2007, before the global economic meltdown.  It will be interesting to see how current leaders compare against their predecessors under new and seemingly uncharted leadership challenges.

Second, all of the writers are from the United States or Great Britain. In today’s global economy, national cultural differences often play a large role in leadership capabilities and results.  Despite the preponderance of American and British research, I would like to see a comparison study of “10 must reads” on leadership from other researchers and scholars from the European Union, Asian, and Middle Eastern perspectives. 

Nevertheless, Harvard’s 10 Must Read series are valuable development tools worthy of serious discussion, whether it takes place on the golf course, in leadership seminars, or in board rooms. 



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