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Top Ten Business Books on Being a Better Leader – Nigel Hunton

Posted on May 3, 2011.

Since joining the Bath Fifteen leadership mentoring group in 2003, I’ve probably read more books than I can imagine and I’ve learned not just to read a business book, or copy a quote, or make a comment unless there’s some meaning behind it, or something that you can believe in. Much of the value of the books I’ve read has been in the ideas they stimulate. You can always copy ideas, you don’t always have to reinvent or make up everything yourself.

There are lots of great  ideas out there, examples of where people have made mistakes, had an experience and you can learn from them.

The ten business books that I think are worth you reading are:

Chocolate Wars – Deborah Cadbury

This is the best business book I have read so far – and one that even highlights the benefits of using a vacuum pump to improve a manufacturing process in 1868 – and it is clearly thought provoking in a similar way to Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith which I discuss later.

I thought that I would highlight some of the takeaways for me:

English business ethics of the early 19th Century

The chocolate companies in the UK (Cadbury, Rowntree and Fry) and many of the banks and other leading companies were run by Quakers – driven into business by their rules forbidding them from running for Parliament or being lawyers.  They played a key role in the Industrial Revolution and set standards for the commercial world, and in particular food safety.

Quakers believed that their wealth creation should fund social projects and, as a result, the book gives the history and a unique insight into the growth of the Bourneville community that delivered affordable housing, open parks and recreational facilities for Cadbury’s workers; again showing the importance of supporting the communities around businesses and responsible leadership.

USA business ethics of the early 19th Century

Milton Hershey’s mother was a strict Mennonite and again the business funded social projects and turned personal wealth back into the communities.

Role of finance, risk taking and early investment funding

Key to Hershey’s success was Frank Brenneman stepping in and lending $700 and trusting in the opportunities and vision of Milton Hershey – the rest is history.

Hard work and focus is a key attribute for any organisation

Richard and George Cadbury inherited their father’s business in 1861 at a time that it was haemorraging cash! They personally put their money and more importantly time and energy into keeping the company afloat, they survived through hands-on leadership and a can do attitude, again flagging the constant focus on cash.

Change and embracing new technology

The book has many examples where embracing change and innovation turned into success. The Cadbury brothers invested in new machines to develop new products, challenged the status quo and improved process efficiency…an early form of Kaizen and continuous improvement.

Code-of conduct and ethics

The book includes some lessons on how not to collect competitive data or use supplies from countries using slave labour.

Importance of marketing, advertising and brand recognition

The book highlights the increasing importance of advertising, sustainability of quality brands and of course the importance of protection through patents and trademarks, something you need to always be thinking about.

End of Cadbury’s and the Kraft take-over

Kraft Foods mounted its hostile takeover of Cadbury in late 2009 and it was a business deal backed by City investors whose goal was short-term profit. The board lost control of a company that had taken over 186 years to build and which had flourished on its Quaker principles; the impact of the financial market’s appetite for profit over national interest or social welfare.

Trivial Pursuits Q&As

Cadbury’s launched the brand Dairy Milk in 1905 with its “glass and a half of full cream milk” as the strap-line.

M&Ms stands for the initials of the surnames of the company’s owners Willliam Murrie and Forrest Mars.

Success comes in Cans – Kriss Akabusi

Written by fellow Bath Fifteen member the simple theme of the book is to promote high performance, with a can do attitude:FIT….Focus….Innovation….Teamwork. If you can get these right then you have the platform to succeed.

Kriss also talks in the book about the Five Rs (Readiness, Resourcefulness, Resilience, Remembering and Reflection)…the skills, attributes and attitudes that underpin an organization. The one that made me think was Reflection. It is probably worth spending some time just thinking about 2010.  What would you have done differently?  Whether it is learning from mistakes or looking for refinements that could make a big difference in 2011, you should build this into your appraisal process and discussions, then set your goals and move forwards. As Chris says “Time waits for no one”.

Dragonfly Effect – Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith

Overall an interesting read, and it provides a road map for harnessing social media for social good, but the messages can be used in the business world as well.

A review states “DRAGONFLY EFFECT shows me in clear actionable ways how I can get better at my day job in marketing”

It explains a way of using a design thinking process to optimise web campaigns and communicate quickly and effectively.  It also helps explain the effective use of target settings and short term versus long term goals.

In summary, this book is not (as I originally thought) just aimed at nonprofits and companies involved in cause related marketing.  And it is readable on a long haul flight…so about an 8 hour read.

For marketing communications, the book shows solid ideas that can be used to build better links and therefore relationships with our customers as well as employees.

It was also definitely thought provoking and impactful, so one to consider reading – www.dragonflyeffect.com

Ten Heads are Better than One – Nigel Risner

This is a quick/easy read but more importantly it is an exercise book to list your goals, teams, etc., and get focused on success using the power of teamwork. It includes the reminder that when you commit something in writing, your chances of achieving it increase dramatically. It certainly makes you focus on what you committed to deliver in 2011. Whether you reach your goals or not will largely depend on your actions.

The book proposes some new rules for building and using teams to realise your dreams. Mastermind the power of a team to ‘quantum-leap’ your results and live a totally balanced life. This book has it all, how to get what you want through the power of a team and how to live the life you always dreamed of.

Without help from other people you stand little or no chance of achieving your goals. Learn how to get and give more and see how ‘Masterminding’ the power of a team to ‘quantum-leap’ your results will help you realise your dreams and live a totally balanced life.

Clever – Rob Goffee

A book about leading your smartest most creative people that I would recommend, as all of us have the task of managing “clevers”.

Some of the observations may seem very obvious, but the book should open your eyes to the process of running a department with smart, creative people in it.  And you will no doubt be able to align some of the case-studies with people you know!

Some thoughts from the book:

Some of the challenges/observations that leap out of the book are:

The Making of Modern Britain – Andrew Marr

The book is a historical chronicle of Britain during the first half of the twentieth century, starting with the death of Queen Victoria and ending with the finish of the Second World War. It details the social, economic and political evolution.

It was also a time that witnessed the birth of the media and the importance of communications, and of British technology with superior capabilities such as the Spitfire plane.

It explains the start of organic food and also how the bankers and politicians of the UK are the same today, as they were at the start of the 20th century, they clearly haven’t changed over the years!

The most interesting part for me was that it covered the periods of Churchill’s leadership – he was a great military leader with integrity, high energy, self belief and he clearly was someone that was decisive in his decision making…and an effective communicator

A good quote from Churchill in 1940: “Courage is going from failure to failure, without losing enthusiasm.”

Some key takeaways:

The Dip – Seth Godin

This is another short business book easy to read in a one to two hour read.

Every new project starts out exciting and fun. Then it gets harder and less fun, until it hits a low point – really hard, and not much fun at all – and then you find yourself asking if the goal is even worth the hassle.   Maybe you are in a Dip – a temporary setback that will get better if you keep pushing. But maybe it’s really a Cul-de-Sac, which will never get better, no matter how hard you try.  According to bestselling author Seth Godin, what really sets world-class teams apart from everyone else is the ability to escape dead ends quickly, while staying focused and motivated when it really counts.  I see this as a key attribute of our technology, manufacturing and applications teams today, and in the future.

The book highlights that the real winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt, until they commit to beating the right Dip for the right reasons. In fact, winners seek out the Dip. They realize that the bigger the barrier, the bigger the reward for getting past it. If you can become number one in your niche, you will get more than your fair share of profits, market share, glory, and long-term success.

Godin states that: “losers, on the other hand, fall into two basic traps. Either they fail to stick out the Dip – and then give up – or they never even find the right Dip to conquer.” He also says that: “successful people don’t just ride out the dip. They don’t just buckle down and survive it. No they lean into the dip. They push harder, changing the rules as they go.” We all need to remember that priorities change, markets change and we have to respond quickly, and this is sometimes misunderstood by the organization. Successful people embrace the challenge.

The book will inspire you to make tougher decisions and be the best in the world. If not, it will help you find the courage to quit, so you can be number one at something else.  As we look at product rationalization and our market strategies, let’s ask the question…”when is it time to quit a product?” As Jack Welch said, if you can’t be number 1 or number 2 then get out of that sector.”

Another review on the web highlights the following:

Applying The Dip principle to business can help you make the best use of your time. Think about projects that seemingly don’t go anywhere, versus those that in the long run will pay off. Evaluating the end-game before signing onto assignments is what Seth Godin discusses in The Dip. If you do sign on, slugging through the dip can translate into new business and establish your credibility in the market.

The Dip is a great read for anyone looking to take on big projects, whether it’s med school or a work-intensive assignment. If you like The Dip, you’ll enjoy his other books, particularly Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us and Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable.

The Art of War – Sun Tzu

This is a quick one-hour read that really brings home the importance of a clear strategy, in particular:

Finally it confirms the importance of developing better leaders within an organization in order to make better decisions and deliver better results, in other words inspiring them to be the best they can be.

Let’s remember that none of us is as smart as all of us……and we can learn from each other

Tribes – Seth Godin

In this book Seth talks about:

Let’s recognize why companies get stuck and fail:

In summary:

The market place will reward companies that change things and create remarkable products and services

Other reviews off The Web on Tribes:

If you want to change the world, or change your bit of it, this is the book for you!

Seth Godin focuses on the role that LEADERSHIP plays in change and makes some powerful observations about the difference between MANAGEMENT and LEADERSHIP. Management is about maintaining stability, about perpetuating the status quo, it is about ensuring that things are done the same way that they have always been done. It is about avoiding change. For managers, change equals risk. Leadership, on the other hand, is about creating change that people can believe in. Leadership doesn’t avoid change, it thrives on it. For leaders, change equals opportunity.

The book is incredibly well written. It feels as if every page has been handcrafted. Some many find the lack of chapters disconcerting. For me, it just helped the whole flow of the book. Ironically, it almost reads as a set of blog entries (no surprise for anyone that has read “Small is the new Big” or Seth’s blog). I find it amusing that many said that the online world would kill off traditional publishing. Well, here is an example of the online world inspiring traditional publishing!

It is very easy to read. I read it in a couple of sittings and the only thing that slowed me down was the fact I made so many notes in it! I highly recommend it. If you are interested in leadership, then you MUST read this book. You will not be disappointed.

Seth Godin has written a short, inspirational book about leadership, communities and change. The book won’t give you many concrete tools or approaches on how to become a leader or effect change in your organization, but it does inspire you to become a leadership figure and find your tribe.

Throughout the book Godin skillfully dissects management and shows how it’s not synonymous with leadership. This aspect of the book alone makes it a must-read for all who are managers or who work for managers that aren’t leaders.

Tribes won’t turn you into a leader, but it will inspire you to try.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the new CEO recognises that the company has innovative products and great talent, however the executives are not working together as a team, negating the advantages of the company’s innovative products and talented people. The team are struggling with their situation and are unable to come to agreement on an appropriate solution to their problems. The team dynamics erode into naming, blaming and shaming, no one is accepting responsibility, deadlines are being missed and morale is on the decline. The executive team are unable to make important decisions and, as a result, the company is losing the battle for market share.

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

To get the people in a team aligned and rowing in the same direction requires leaders to address the following five dysfunctions of a team.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

The first dysfunction is the absence of trust amongst team members. The type of trust the author is talking about here is the ability of group members to show their weaknesses, to be vulnerable and open with one another. Trust is never generated in teams when the team members are not prepared to be vulnerable. Instead they feel the need to be right, to be strong and competent, so much that they are unable to be vulnerable and open with one another. Trust requires that team members have confidence in each other intentions, that they are good and therefore have no reason to be protective and careful in the team. The ‘when I‘m vulnerable it will not be exploited and used against me by the team.’ The lack of trust amongst teams is a huge waste of time and energy as team members invest it in defensive behaviours, reluctant to ask for help and to assist others.

The key to overcoming a lack of trust is shared experiences, multiple follow-throughs and integrity. In the fable the team completes a Myers Briggs assessment to get the team talking about one another’s strengths and weaknesses and so become comfortable with one another.

“teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

The primary role of the leader is to lead by example, be the first one to be vulnerable, and create an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable. Building trust makes conflict possible!

Dysfunction 2: Fear of Conflict

Trust is the foundation of great teams and it’s trust that makes team conflict possible. Teams become dysfunctional when they are unable to productively deal with conflict. All meaningful relationships require productive conflict for them to grow. Healthy conflict occurs when people talk about the issue at hand avoiding personal attacks, looking for the best solution for the team. Teams tend to avoid conflict often replacing it with an artificial harmony.

“Harmony itself is good, I suppose, if it comes as a result of working through issues constantly and cycling through conflict. But if it comes only as a result of people holding back their opinions and honest concerns, then it’s a bad thing.”

We wear masks and focus on being nice to everyone. However, productive conflict is required for teams to become functional. This allows for meaningful dialogue where people are open to share, without feeling fearful of reprisal or criticism. One of the worst team dysfunctions is when you have a team of “yes men”.

Leaders need to encourage debate, support it and keep it productive. Teams who avoid conflict spend much time “off-line” never making decisions that the group can commit to. Healthy and productive teams accept that conflict is a normal part of being in a team to learn to deal with it productively.

“…meetings and movies have a lot in common. A movie, on average, runs anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours in length. Staff meetings are about the same. And yet meetings are interactive, whereas movies are not. And, more importantly, movies have no real impact on our lives and, every great movie has conflict. Without it, we just don’t care what happens to the characters.”

When working with teams a leader needs to understand the importance of conflict in teams, being careful not to try and steer the team towards premature resolution of conflict with the intention of protecting people. It’s important for leaders to help the team members to learn and develop positive conflict resolution skills. The best way to do this is for the leader to “lead by example”, modelling the appropriate behaviours, rather than trying to smooth over the conflict.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of Commitment

When teams engage in productive conflict they can confidently commit and buy-in to decisions. Commitment is a function of clarity and buy-in. Productive teams make clear decisions and are confident that they have the support from every team member. A lack of commitment usually arises from not hearing all the team’ concerns before making a decision. There can be no commitment without debate. People will not buy into something when their opinions and thoughts on the matter were not included and discussed. “If they don’t weigh in, then they won’t buy in.” This is not as much about seeking consensus as it is about making sure that everyone is heard.

“The point here is that most reasonable people don’t have to get their way in a discussion. They just need to be heard, and to know that their input was considered and responded to.”

At the end of the day everyone needs to get to the point where they can say, “I may not agree with your ideas but I understand them and can support them.

“When people don’t unload their opinions and feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t really get on board.”

Leaders can help to facilitate commitment by reviewing all key decisions made at the end of team meetings, making responsibility and deadlines clear.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of Accountability

Without team commitment you cannot have accountability. If the team is to be accountable, everyone must have a clear understanding of what is expected of him or her.

“People aren’t going to hold each other accountable if they haven’t clearly bought in to the same plan.”

At the end of the day it’s about each team member being accountable to the team. This means that a team member never lets the team down when it comes to meeting commitments. The team needs to hold their peers responsible for achieving results and working to high standards. It’s the responsibility of each team member to hold one another accountable and accept it when others hold them accountable.

It’s often the case, that when teams are not holding one another accountable it’s usually because they’re not measuring their progress. It’s important to make clear what the team’s standards are, what needs to get done, by who and by when. Ambiguity is the enemy of accountability.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to Results

When teams are not held accountable, the team members tend to look out for their own interests, rather than the interests of the team. A healthy team places team results as the most important goal. When all team members place the team’s results first the team becomes results orientated.

“Our job is to make the results that we need to achieve so clear to everyone in this room that no one would even consider doing something purely to enhance his or her individual status or ego. Because that would diminish our ability to achieve our collective goals. We would all lose.”

Leaders need to make the team’s results clear for all to see, rewarding the behaviours that contribute to the team’s results. It’s the responsibility of the leader to keep the team’s focus on results.

Cohesive Teams

By addressing these dysfunctions, what results is a cohesive team….

“…and imagine how members of truly cohesive teams behave:

1. They trust one another.
2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.”


The is a really great book on team dynamics and team work, in fact it’s one of the best books on the subject that I’ve read. The book is written as a fable which helps one get a really vivid picture of how a healthy team interacts and what it feels like to be part of a successful team. Although written as a fable, the book provides practical advice, which leaders can use in their own teams.

The book is a small and easy to read and the model provided is simple to understand making it a powerful tool for helping teams improve. I highly recommend this book to anyone who leads a team. This book will help you understand what a successful team looks and feels like.

Nigel Hunton has had a long and distinguished career ending as Chairman of Edwards Vacuum. He is currently working for Edwards as a consultant and considering his next move. You can read elsewhere about his experiences as one of the longest standing members of the Bath Fifteen leadership mentoring group, find out How Footdown has Helped him be a Better Leader and also about Edwards use of Footdown’s Insight product.

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