Book Notes by Abi Noda

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership

ISBN: 978-1422157978
READ: Jan 15, 2015

Critical Summary

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership is a collection of ten HBR essays on leadership. Every article essentially tries to answer the same question: "What are the qualities of a great leader, and how does one gain those qualities?".

More specifically, the essays cover the following questions:

While reading, it's impossible not to notice the fact that while many of the articles attempt to answer same questions, they arrive at a very different conclusions. Several of the articles openly admit that while thousands of scholars have attempted to produce a cookie-cutter leadership profile, none has emerged. Successful leadership is highly circumstantial, and its effectiveness in of itself is difficult to measure or compare.

Overall, I walked away with greatly improved perspective and understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader, as well as tools to help me grow and handle various situational challenges.

Below are reviews of each article:

"What Makes a Good Leader?"

Daniel Goleman's article describes emotional intelligence as one of the keys to being an effective leader. For someone already familiar with Goleman's work or emotional intelligence, the concepts in his article won't be new. Nonetheless it is helpful to see them described within the context of leadership.

"What Makes an Effective Executive?"

Peter Drucker's "What Makes an Effective Executive?" was one of my favorite. It lays out a simple set of actionable leadership tasks for people in both new and existing leadership roles. As someone who's recently taken on a new leadership role at my company, this article was immensely helpful to me in clarifying what I should be doing. I believe notes from this article should be reviewed regularly.

"What Leaders Really Do"

This article is a great complement to Drucker's "What Makes an Effective Executive?". Kotter describes how to set business "vision" and direction and what a leader must do to successfully move an organization toward achieving it. Kotter also breaks down differences between management and leadership to frame differences as well as the importance of both.

"The Work of Leadership"

This article centers around the concept of "adaptive challenges", which are described as "murky, systemic problems with no easy answers" such as increasing competition in an industry.

The authors argue that such challenges require an entire organization to adapt and change, and that the role of leadership is not to set the direction or develop solutions, but rather to frame questions and issues and create an environment for people across the organization to achieve solutions.

While I found the overall points helpful, I found the article verbose and confusing at times. Even the word "adaptive challenge" is abstract to the point where I constantly had to review what it was referring to.

"Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?"

This article suggests four personality traits needed to inspire others and retain committed followers. I found it to be a simple and actionable set of qualities that a leader should try to embody in their presentation and interactions with others.

"Crucibles of Leadership"

This article describes how many successful leaders have gone through "crucibles", or life experiences where they faced adversity and emerged transformed. The article identifies the specific skills and traits needed to overcome and emerge positively from these experiences, and argues that they are the same skills and trains needed for successful leadership.

"Level 5 Leadership"

Jim Collins describes "level 5 leaders" (the highest level of leadership) as embodying the dualistic personality traits of personal humility and fearless professional will. While emphasizing the critical importance of "level 5 leadership", the article also describes other leadership strategies that turn good companies into great ones.

"Seven Transformations of Leadership"

This article describes a hierarchy of leadership styles, ranging from ineffective to highly effective. The purpose of this hierarchy is to be able to identify someone's (or your own) leadership style, and figure out how to grow to the next level. While I was able to identify with some of the styles listed and found the breakdown helpful as a whole, I'm not sure if I walked away with much benefit from this article.

"Discovering Your Authentic Leadership"

This article argues that no cookie-cutter leadership formula exists, and that you cannot become a trusted leader by trying to imitate someone else. You can and should learn from others' experiences, but the only way to become an authentic leader is to be you and commit yourself to lifelong learning and self-development

"In Praise of the Incomplete Leader"

This article highlights the danger of assuming that leaders should do and be everything. The article breaks down leadership into four distinct competencies that can be developed or distributed, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of a leader and the needs of an organization.

"What Makes a Good Leader?"

by Daniel Goleman

Most effective leaders have a high degree of emotional intelligence, which include self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill.

I know that I embody this type of motivation, however I need to work on pushing toward keeping score and being more expressive about it in general so that I can motivate others.

Signs of intrinsic motivation = seek out challenges, love to learn, take great pride in a job well done; unflagging energy to do things better, restless with the status quo, persistent with their questions about why things are done one way rather than the other; eager to explore new approaches to their work.

People with high motivation also have strong optimism, even in the face of failure.

Socially skilled people do not arbitrarily limit the scope of their relationship. They build bonds widely because they know they may need help someday from people they are just getting to know today.

I should devote more effort to this. For example, after taking on the Head of Product role at DBC, I saw the importance of having an extensive network within the company in order to lead change.

A leader's task is to get work done through other people.

"What Makes an Effective Executive?"

by Peter F Drucker

Effective leaders get the right things done, in the right ways—by following eight simple rules:

  1. Ask "what needs to be done?" Not "what do I want to do?"
  2. Ask "what's right for the enterprise?" Although owners, investors, employees, and customers are important constituencies — don't antagonize over what's best for them. Decisions that are right for your enterprise are ultimately right for all stakeholders. Failure to ask this question virtually guarantees the wrong decision.
  3. Develop action plans - Knowledge is useless until it has been translated into deeds. Begin with desired outcomes and develop action plans that anticipate the need for flexibility and include a way to check results against desired outcomes and expectations.

Napolean allegedly said that no successful battle ever followed its plan. Yet Napoleon also planned every one of his battles meticulously.


A decision has not been made until people know:

Employee Performance

Executives owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.

Allocating the best people to the right positions is a crucial, tough job. Very often, decisions do not produce results because the right people are not put on the job.

People who have failed in a new job should be given the chance to go back to a job at their former level and salary. Organizations that offer this option can encourage people to leave safe, comfortable jobs and take risky new assignments.


Types of opportunities to look out for:

One way to staff opportunities is to ask each member of management to prepare two lists every six months—a list of opportunities for the entire enterprise and a list of best-performing people throughout the enterprise. These are discussed and melded into two master lists, and the best people are matched with the best opportunities.

"What Leaders Really Do"

by John P. Kotter

Leader is different from management — they are two distinctive, complementary roles. Most U.S. corporations today are over-managed and underled.

Management = coping with complexity and carrying out plans in an efficient, predictable manner

Leadership = setting direction and producing change

I. Set the direction

Leadership's function is to produce change, and set the direction of that change.

The aim of management is predictability—orderly results.

For example, companies manage complexity first by planning and budgeting–setting targets or goals for the future, establishing steps for achieving those targets, and then allocating resources to accomplish those plans.

By contrast, leading change begins by setting a direction–gathering a broad range of data to look for patterns, relationships, and linkages; and develop a vision of the future along with strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision.

Coming up with a "vision"

Most discussions of "vision" have a tendency to degenerate into the mystical. But in reality, setting good business direction is a process of gathering and analyzing information.

A successful direction-setting process provides a focus in which planning can then be realistically carried out. It helps clarify what kind of planning is essential and what kind is irrelevant.

Visions do not have to be brilliantly innovative; in fact, effective business visions regularly have an almost mundane quality, usually consisting of ideas that are already well-known. The particular combination or patterning of the ideas may be new, but sometimes even that is not the case.

As Head of Product of Dev Bootcamp, I shouldn't be striving for some brilliant new innovative direction. Rather, I should be focusing the organization around our clear purpose—impacting as many lives as possible through career change. I should help the rest of the company embody this purpose.


CEO of Scandinavian Airlines's vision was to be the best airline in the world for frequent business travelers. The ideas behind this were simple, but in an industry known for bureaucracy, no company had ever put these simple ideas together and dedicated itself to implementing them. SAS did, and it worked.

The hard part isn't coming up with a vision—it's executing on it and communicating it to others in order to produce actual change toward it.

What's crucial about a vision is not its originality, but how well it serves the interest of customers, stockholders, and employees, and how easily it can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy. Bad visions tend to ignore the legitimate needs and rights of certain constituencies.

II. Align

Managers organize to create human systems that can implement plans as precisely and efficiently as possible.

Leaders align people—getting people to get behind a shared vision and take initiative based on it.

Aligning people is a big communication challenge. The targets are not only a manager's subordinates, but also bosses, peers, staff in other parts of the organization, as well as partners, customers, and anyone who can help implement the vision and strategies or who can block implementation is relevant.

Trying to get people to comprehend and believe a vision is a big communications challenge. It's the difference between a football quarterback attempting to describe the next two or three plays versus his trying to explain a totally new approach to the game to be used in the second half of the season.

Reference Made to Stick

Alignment helps empower people in at least two ways:

  1. When a clear sense of direction has been communicated throughout an organization, lower-level employees can initiate actions without the same degree of vulnerability or hesitance
  2. Because everyone will be aiming at the same target, the probability is less that one person's initiative will be stalled when it comes into conflict with someone else's.

III. Motivate

Managerial processes must be as close as possible to fail-safe and risk free. Motivation and inspiration is almost irrelevant.

Leadership is different. Achieving grand visions always requires a burst of energy. Motivation and inspiration energizes people and helps them overcome inevitable barriers to change.

Good leaders motivate people by:

  1. Articulating the organizations vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing, in order to make the work feel important
  2. Involving people in deciding how to achieve the organizations vision, giving people a sense of control
  3. Supporting employee efforts to realize the vision by providing coaching, feedback, and role modeling—helping them grow professionally and enhancing their self-esteem
  4. Recognizing and rewarding success—not only gives people a sense of accomplishment but also makes them feel like they belong to an organization that cares about them

Reference the SCARF model

Creating a culture of leadership

Companies can create more leaders by providing people an opportunity to lead; and then making these people visible to senior management so they can judge for themselves who has potential and what the development needs of those people are.

Over the years, 3M has had a policy that at least 25% of its revenue should come from products introduced within the last five years. This encourages small new ventures, which in turn offer hundreds of opportunities to test and stretch young people with leadership potential.

Career patterns of effective leaders:

  1. Significant challenge early in a career—leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both trumps and failures. These opportunities are essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change.
  2. Lateral career moves and breadth of knowledge/experience

"The Work of Leadership"

by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie

"Adaptive challenges" = murky, systemic problems with no easy answers. eg. stiffening competition, teams that aren't executing effectively.

The six principles for leading adaptive work:

  1. Get on the balcony. Move back and forth between the "action" and the "balcony". This high-level perspective helps you spot trends and prevents you from unwittingly becoming a prisoner of the system.

An example of an adaptive challenge: growing competition in the bootcamp industry and Dev Bootcamp's market leadership waning.

"The key is to let them discover the problem. You won't be successful if people aren't carrying the recognition of the problem and the solution within themselves."

"Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?"

by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jone

There are four core qualities that make a leader inspirational. These qualities cannot be learnt and used formulaically—they must be a part of an executive's personality. Come up with a personal style.

  1. Selectively reveal weaknesses. Show you're human.. Whether it's admitting that you're irritable on Monday mornings, or somewhat disorganized, exposing weakness makes you more genuine, trustworthy, and relatable.

    This is similar to Daniel Goleman's point about self-deprecating sense of humor being a hallmark of self-aware leaders.

    If you don't show some weakness, then observers may invent one for you. Celebrities and politicians intentionally give the public something to talk about so that they don't come up with something worse.

    If you communicate that you're perfect at everything, there's no need for anyone to help you with anything.

    Tip: Don't pick a flaw that jeopardizes central aspects of your professional role—pick a tangential one (this also diverts attention from major weaknesses). And pick a flaw that others consider a strength.

  2. Become a sensor. Collect and interpret subtle interpersonal cues so you can sensitive in how you interact with people. Know how far you can push the limits of your leadership without losing followers.

  3. Manage employees with tough empathy. Empathize passionately with your followers–care intensely about their work. Practice tough love–give them only what they need.

  4. Be different. Capitalizing on what's unique about yourself lets you signal your separateness as a leader and keep a social distance.

    Inspirational leaders use separateness to motivate others to perform better. They recognize instinctively that followers will push themselves if their leader is just a little aloof.

    Be careful not to over differentiate yourself and lose contact with your followers or stop being a good sensor.

"Crucibles of Leadership"

by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas

One of the most reliable indicator and predictors of true leadership is an individuals ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.

The skills required to transcend adversity through creative interpretation and hardiness are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.

"What Leaders Really Do" by John P Kotter says nearly the same thing.

In interviewing more than 40 top leaders, the authors found that all of them were able to point to intense, often traumatic, always unplanned experiences that had transformed them and become the sources of their distinctive leadership abilities.

These "crucible" experiences were a trial and a test, and a point of deep self-reflection that forced them to question who they were and what mattered to them. It required them to examine their values, question their assumptions, hone their judgement, and emerge stronger and more sure of themselves and their purpose, changed in some fundamental way.

My "crucible" = my stint as CEO of OrangeQC

A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or altered sense of identity.

"Level 5 Leadership"

by Jim Collins

Level 5 Leadership = humility + fearless will

Personal humility: Modest, shuns public adulation, never boastful. Credits others, luck, and external factors to success.

Professional will: Does whatever must be done to produce the best long-term results.

When an originally under-qualified CEO was asked to reflect on his exceptional performance, he said: "I never stopped trying to be qualified for my job"

Level 5 leaders + the following drivers turn good companies into great ones:

There's no "ten steps to Level 5 Leadership". Best advice is to practice the other good-to-great disciplines.

"Seven Transformations of Leadership"

by David Rooke and William R Torbert

Leadership persona ladder:

Least effective

Mildly effective

Most effective

How to help others grow:

I want to talk with you about your future here at our company. Your completion of the Czech project under budget and ahead of time is one more sign that you have the initiative, creativity, and determination to make the senior team here. At the same time, I've had to pick up a number of pieces after you that I shouldn't have had to I'd like to brainstorm together about how you can approach future projects in a way that eliminates this hassle and gets key players on your side. Then, we can chat several times over the next year as you begin to apply whatever new principles we come up with. Does this seem like a good use of our time, or do you have a different perspective on the issue?

^ Clear praise, clear description of a limitation, a proposed path forward, and inquiry that empowers the recipient to reframe the dilemma if he wishes.

"Discovering Your Authentic Leadership"

by Bill George, Peter Sims. Andrew N. Mclean, and Dianna Mayer

No one can be a trusted leader by trying to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them.

“How can people become and remain authentic leaders?”

Analyzing 3,000 pages of transcripts, our team was startled to see you do not have to be born with specific characteristics or traits of a leader. Leadership emerges from your life story.

Genuine and authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their minds.

Discovering your authentic leadership requires a commitment to self-teaching and self-development. Like musicians and athletes, you must devote yourself to a lifetime of reaching your potential.

"In Praise of the Incomplete Leader"

by Deborah Ancona, Thomas W. Malone, Wonda J. Orlikowski, and Peter M. Senge

Leaders are expected to be and do everything. This is a myth that needs to end.

Leaders should find and work with others who can provide the capabilities they're missing.

Four competencies that make up the model of distributed leadership:

  1. Sensemaking - Understanding your company and how external changes in the business environment affect your industry and company. Look for help in this capability if you are at risk of getting blindsided by changes in your industry or are not in touch with your customers.
  2. Relating - Building trusting relationships and cultivating networks of supportive confidants. Look for help if you feel others are to blame for failed projects or that they are constantly letting you down and can't be trusted.
  3. Visioning - Creating and communicating a compelling vision of the future and rallying the company around it. Look for help if you often wondering "why are we doing this?" or "does it really matter?", feeling a lack of excitement about work, or are missing a sense of larger purpose.
  4. Inventing - Coming up with new and better ways of doing things, and overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems. Look for help if you have difficulty relating the company's vision to what you're doing today, or notice gaps between your firm's aspirations and the way work is happening.

Rarely will someone be equally skilled in all four domains. Incomplete leaders differ from incompetent leaders in that they recognize what they're good at and what they're not, and work with others to build on their strengths and offset limitations.

Sometimes, a leader needs to develop the capabilities they are weak in. Other times, its better for a leader to find others to compensate for their weaknesses.