Leadership books inevitably face a quandary — they need to tell a story but they also need to be believable as something that can be replicated, preferably without an excess of effort.
What often results, even among well-written, smart reads, are books that are short on data and long on anecdotes and checklists. What data there is often is situation-specific information that the author, by necessity, stretches to encompass a philosophy.
Mind you, many of those books are excellent. What I speak of more is the herd mindset that is applied to readers — possibly by executives who demand their teams read these books so employees will think just like them. That’s how you end up with executives thinking they were the first to think of “lean,” or eager to create “synergies” and “personal branding, instill offbeat productivity measures, “break down silos” or extol the wonders (or evils) of open offices. Etc., etc.
And the books with lots of data? Probably destined to be a textbook or a paper in a journal, Piketty notwithstanding. It’s a tough world for an author. Too few books take powerful lessons from leaders and data and place both into context, arming the reader with information to make his or her own conclusions. Too few books are able to stop at this: “Here are some things you ought to consider, but your situation and circumstances will require you to figure out what works best.”
So I was happy to see that “Pivot Points: Five Decisions Every Successful Leader Must Make,” by Julia Tang Peters (Wiley, May 2014), keeps that premise in mind. Sure, the theme is that there are five pivot points leaders face, starting with when they make the leap from managing to leading and ending with the “letting go” process. That may seem like the standard conceit of “The world is ever more complicated — except when you use my formula.”
But, as she notes, “[t]hese five pivot points do not necessarily occur linearly; they can occur in a zigzag fashion,” and as a career progresses, those pivot points can change based on time and perspective. What seemed critical or career-making in our 30s or 50s may not, looking back, be the same in retirement. Moreover, these moments are not always obvious; if someone says they haven’t encountered these pivot points, that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen — they may have not seen these moments or refused to act. As William James said, “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.”
What is also key in “Pivot Points” is defining what makes a pivotal moment. Success and failure do not magically occur, and rarely are they the product of a single decision, even though that would be much easier to explain and emulate. Success, and these pivot points Tang Peters writes of, are based on the following:
- “They hold themselves accountable.”
- “There was a moment of truth when making a solitary decision. Each confronted himself to answer the questions ‘Will I really? Can I? Should I’”
- “There was an impassioned inner voice. … In that solitary decision, they had to trust and rely on their own acumen and judgment.”
- “They expanded their belief in the power of one person and increasingly believed in the magic that many people working together could create.”
- “Work became the source of renewable energy.”
These traits do not automatically signal or require specific decisions. They are merely a guide, a reference point for budding leaders.
The five leaders whose careers she tracks — some through to retirement, while others remain active — are not meant to be taken as examples to copy. Rather, we can gain understanding about their circumstances and decisions, what worked and didn’t, and hopefully be fortunate enough to have leadership opportunities and act on that potential. As Tang Peters writes:
If there is a secret successful leaders have, it is this: Leading is about creating the job and the leader’s value to the mission. This is a very different approach from conventional thinking that success comes with doing what worked for others. Leaders want to know how others handled similar situations and their outcomes. However, leaders take that as a creative spark and adapt it to their own goals and methods.
So, I’ve talked about the storytelling and the leadership lessons. But what about the data? I’m no expert in statistics. But what I can report is the narrow focus: The online research panel was heavily screened — college graduates and with various specific employment statuses. The survey results do not claim to represent the findings of all Americans, but only of 16% of adults, or 37 million.
The five pivot points were each represented by four questions, including whether the respondent believed he or she had had such a experience and how the respondent viewed the success of such pivot points. If you get the book, you’ll see Tang Peters offers much greater detail on the survey, its methodology and findings, and offers a guide to determine where you are. Unlike many books, you’re given insight into the theory and the data, and therefore, whether you reject or accept the conclusions, you’ll be able to do so in an informed way.
And, if nothing else, you’ll get to read mini-biographies of people like Bud Frankel, founder and longtime head of Frankel & Co., Allscripts CEO Glen Tullman, and Dale Dawson, who worked in multiple industries before making the drastic shift to working in Africa through Bridge2Rwanda. Their unique and powerful stories are getting the telling they deserve, and we’re the beneficiaries.