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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Important Leadership Books for Fall Reading

This summer I read four very important leadership books that I commend to you for your fall reading. You may not see them on the best-seller lists, but let me assure you that all four have more substance and depth than most of the books on those lists. All of them are written by extraordinary leadership scholars whom I have known for many years.

Here are my recommended books, followed by my thoughts on each of them:

Driven to Lead: Good, Bad and Misguided Leadership (Paul Lawrence)

Professor Emeritus Paul Lawrence was one of the dominant leadership thinkers of the 1960s and 1970s. He was my professor at Harvard Business School in 1965-66.  Years later, he and Professor Jay Lorsch (also one of my mentors) wrote Organization and Environment: Managing Differentiation and Integration, a breakthrough book in 1986 that described the shape of emerging organizations. Now 85 years old, Lawrence has spent the past decade attempting to develop a comprehensive theory of leadership, something no leadership scholar has ever accomplished.

To formulate his theory, Lawrence has gone back to Charles Darwin’s second book, Descent of Man. There he discovers what he argues are Darwin’s real theories about the evolution of the species. In the Introduction, he cites Darwin’s famous quote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable.”

Lawrence describes how the leadership brain is evolving to have the capacity to integrate the four drives of man – security, material acquisition, bonding, and comprehension – into an integrated, holistic decision-making process. He proposes that this is the capability that effective leaders must have in order to deal with all the pressures they are under and resolve them to make effective decisions.

Lawrence’s notion of the four drives is not new. He and Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School, presented this idea in their 2002 book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. Unfortunately, these ideas never caught hold because they were overwhelmed by the economists’ theories about people being driven only by material acquisition, which conveniently aided their mathematical modeling of human behavior.

Lawrence describes the leadership brain which has the capacity to evolve leadership abilities and decision-making. His hypotheses are very consistent with the breakthrough scientific work of Dr. Richard Davidson. Davidson uses fMRI technology to test the evolution of the neo-cortex with meditators to develop increased self-awareness and self-compassion. These new research findings are demonstrating that these portions of the brain can be evolved, even in as short a time span as eight weeks. Thus, neurological scientists are moving away from the notion of the entire brain being hard-wired to recognize how it evolves, which they term neuro-plasticity.

Throughout the book Lawrence attempts to apply his emerging theories to practical situations, with greater and lesser success. In some ways we should consider this work as an evolution in the thinking of a great scholar, not a finished product. Nevertheless, it is a most important step in understanding leadership and leadership development at much deeper and more scientific levels than have been previously attempted.

Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership (Warren Bennis)

In contrast to the scholarly depth of Lawrence’s work, Bennis’ memoir is a delightful journey through six decades of the evolution of a great leadership scholar and, literally, the field of leadership itself. Bennis has been my mentor for the past dozen years and has served as conceptual editor for all my books, which like Lawrence’s recent work have been published as part of Jossey-Bass’ Warren Bennis Series.

Bennis breezily navigates through seven decades of his adult life and introduces the reader to myriad leadership scholars such as Douglas McGregor and Erik Erickson, with whom he worked earlier in his career. He shares openly his frustrations with being a university president (at the University of Cincinnati), his exploration jaunts to teach in Switzerland and live on a houseboat in Berkeley, and his multiple marriages that ultimately brought him back to his first true love and current wife, Dr. Grace Gabe.

As we accompany Bennis on his personal journey, we get to see first-hand the evolution of a great leadership scholar, who has legitimately earned the title of “The Father of Leadership.” Along the way we learn how the field itself has gone from fledgling efforts to a dominant area of both academic and practical focus. Bennis has the unique ability to span both arenas without compromise.

Yet he never loses his humility or his humanity. He remains throughout a gentle soul, a mentor to many, and a guiding light to all who seek his wisdom. In the words of his tribe, he is indeed a mensch.

Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads (Srikant Datar and David Garvin)

In 2007 Srikant Datar and David Garvin, two of my most distinguished colleagues at Harvard Business School, undertook a two-year field study of leading business schools throughout the world that led to this most timely study of the current state of MBA education. Unlike many of the critiques of graduate business schools, which devolve into more of a polemic than a rational analysis, Datar and Garvin have undertaken extensive field research, including an in-depth examination of leading MBA schools, interviews with their deans, and extensive discussions and interviews with leading business executives.

With compelling logic, the authors make a persuasive case that “it is indeed time to rethink the MBA.” As a result of decades of increasing focus on economics-based disciplines, they argue that “the center of gravity of MBA education shifted strongly toward ‘knowing’ and away from ‘doing’ and ‘being.’ We believe it is now time to rebalance the scales.” They assert that “a number of critical managerial and leadership skills are simply not being taught fully or effectively. . . Remedying these deficiencies will require a substantial shift in pedagogy away from lectures and greater use of reflective discussions, practical exercises, personal coaching and experiential learning.”

For anyone interested in educating business leaders for the future, this book is a must read.

Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana)

This collection of 26 essays by world-renowned leadership scholars is edited by two of my closest colleagues at HBS, Nitin Nohria, the new dean, and Rakesh Khurana, whose seminal work, Higher Goals to Hired Hands, set the stage for the current rethinking of business education. Its 800 pages are not light reading, nor is this book for everyone. But it has already gained widespread readership among people interested in what constitutes genuine leadership, the theories underlying leadership, how effective leadership works in practice, and how it is evolving in today’s context.

It is the caliber of the authors of these essays, and their contrasting and complementary points of view, which makes this collection so valuable. Its deficiency, if there is one, is that there is no integrating thesis that pulls all of them together, nor is there presented a generalized theory of leadership, such as Lawrence has developed. These efforts must be undertaken in a future work with tomorrow’s scholars that build on these very valuable ideas.

Taken as a whole, these four books are setting the stage for the revolution that is underway in the understanding what constitutes effective leadership and how leaders are taught and developed. Placed in an historical context, the timing could not be better for this revolution to take place, nor can it happen fast enough.