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Friday, August 5, 2016

Top 5 unconventional business books

The number of books on principles of business and leadership published each year is intimidatingly high. Some of these books are nothing more than the literary equivalent of lipstick on a pig, but more and more, the research coming from prominent individuals and institutions is of high quality. With so many options for your personal course of ongoing education, the few books out of the money you choose for study says a great deal about your interests and your decision-making skills.

These are my top five books not traditionally considered in the business and leadership genres that have had significant impacts on my approach to life and business.

#1 - Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May — September 1787 (Catherine Drinker Bowen)

The ability to be genuine is not only a difficult quality to hone, but one that often gets lost in the shuffle of budgets, timelines, and board meetings.

Every once in a while, I will come across a line of text that stamps itself on my mind. One of those quotes is from Miracle at Philadelphia which puts forth an engaging narrative of the Constitutional Convention.

The author discusses the roles of James Madison and George Washington and comments on their serious dispositions:

“One rejoices that these men felt no embarrassment at being persistently, at times awkwardly serious, according to their natures.”
Self-improvement is such an important thing. Especially in the age of emotional intelligence awareness, so much growth is possible with a little honesty and effort.

But we must be careful not to change parts of ourselves merely because they are different from others. Sometimes our differences are not flaws or faults, but unique strengths worthy of just as much time and attention as our shortcomings.

When we are genuine, natural confidence naturally follows. Our ability to lead by example increases, and our efforts to lead by exhortation gain credence.

Madison and Washington were not short on faults or failures, but their commitment to being genuine even in difficult circumstances is worthy of appreciation and emulation.

#2 - The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation (Frans Johansson)

The Medici Effect may have a focus on innovation, but the potential applications are nearly endless when examining the benefits of looking outside of fields of expertise. A macro perspective is often filled with answers that might otherwise elude us, but at the very least it contributes to an expanded knowledge base for future questions.

The author looks at a colorful combination of people and ideas, remarking on the results from people who merged together ideas not thought to be related. He writes, “When they did, they generated ideas that changed them, their organizations, and, ultimately, a part of our world.”

Indeed they did.

But their achievements in no way restrict us from making similar headway in our relatively small endeavors.

What prevents us from using principles from the nonprofit sector to understand challenges of government bureaucracy, historical trends to understand what applies to modern market challenges, or even bullet-points from executive training to become a better ground-level HR specialist?

Specialization is a near necessity in today’s marketplace. But specialization without expanded knowledge is restrictive—both to ourselves and to those we can influence.

A combination of specialization in micro-level relevance and macro-level applications provides us with a unique ability to make a difference everywhere we go.

#3 - Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Joshua Wolf Shenk)

Abraham Lincoln is a recognized example of determination and dealing with failure. But his life holds more subject matter than his political efforts alone.

Lincoln suffered severely from depression—referred to at the time as “melancholy.” Interestingly, depression was seen far differently in political life than it is now. Rather than a stigma or a deal-breaker, depression was widely recognized as a painful price certain people paid for insight into an essential but challenging aspect of humanity.

Yet the benefit of deeper knowledge alone was never enough to comfort Lincoln.

Lincoln fought political battle after political battle, losing time after time after time. But he also fought a much harder internal battle day after day—even hour after hour. Like his political life, his personal life was not short of failures in relation to depression.

But he kept pushing on. When it wasn’t crippling, depression was fuel to do better the next time around.

We face similar opportunities in our personal and professional lives. Failings at work and outside of work do not have to define who we are. It is the response to our failures that determine our own greatness.

 #4 - Les Miserables (Victor Hugo)

Victor Hugo’s masterpiece could be on any number of book lists. One reason it appears on this one is because of its ability to provoke compassion and awareness.

In America, we often refer to the book and the musical in shortened form, “Les Mis.” But the plurality of the title is what makes it so meaningful in this context.

Here we have a tragic story with tragic characters. Some find redemption, others find love, still others waste away. What they all seem to have in common is a claim on being the most “miserable.”

As a teenager, I related most with the lovebirds and how awful it was to have unrequited love or be separated from someone I cared for. With age, other characters began to battle in my mind for the title of the most miserable. It did not lessen my compassion for characters I previously best understood, but it opened my eyes and my heart to the struggles of others.

The ability to sympathize is powerful. It is one thing to understand someone in our own situations just like I understood the young love angst of a Marius or Eponine or Cosette.  It is a wonderful feeling to help a client, employee, or boss struggling with something we know all too well.

But we can have so much more influence as we expand our compassion from those whose struggles we know from experience to those whose struggles we never want to experience — whether that is a personal struggle or a professional challenge.

#5 - Heroes & Villains: Inside the Minds of the Greatest Warriors in History
As it turns out, the greatest warriors in history share an essential characteristic with those considered great it almost any field.

The author of this book writes that “if asked to pin down one essential prerequisite for all successful warriors, I would reply that it is an extraordinary capacity for dealing with simultaneous and accumulated stress.”

Who has not been in a situation where what once seemed impossible morphs into a memory than seems enviable?

For example, it is one thing to be approaching a major deadline too fast. It is another thing to pass the deadline, and another still to pass the deadline and face the reality that the work still needs to be done but you forfeit all compensation.

But even that situation is enviable when your reputation is damaged and you cannot secure more work as a result.

Coming up quickly on a deadline pales by comparison to being unemployed and losing your home. But each stage from beginning to end feels oppressive in the moment. The person who can manage any one of these challenges deserves appreciation.

The person who can handle one on top of the other, however, is a very rare find. Becoming unflappable is a status that can only be attained through a great deal of experience. The ongoing result, while difficult to achieve, is one of great capacity and influence—in things small and large, personal and professional.

Each of these books contain principles that can be applied in the business world. We do not need to be James Madison to embrace genuineness when it is so much easier to conform. Global results are not a prerequisite for using macro-level principles to better our micro-level worlds. Depression or political ambition are not required to deal successfully with our failures. Personal experience does not have to set the boundaries of our compassion. And compounded challenges can be much more than mere descriptions for times in our lives that crush us.

Business principles are everywhere to be found - including in sources not so traditional.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

In memoriam of Senator Bob Bennett

Senator Bob Bennett succumbed today to a deadly fight with pancreatic cancer.

As someone who has administered and coordinated tens of experimental cancer drugs, I know the fear that comes with this particular diagnosis. Bennett's response to his diagnosis was merely -or incredibly - an extension of the kind of man he has been and sought to be for so long.

Amazingly, this man fought this disease with such bravery and with a positive attitude. His example fills me with awe. May God bless him and his family.

Years ago, I wrote an article that was scheduled to be published as an Op-Ed in a newspaper in Utah but it was bumped when a new topic took the stage. However, I felt so strongly about the issues in which Senator Bennett was involved that I published the article on my blog.

For those who are interested, the article can be accessed at this link.

Friday, April 17, 2015

When vision becomes a liability

My experiences writing a series of articles dealing with business concepts applicable to layman and executive alike is turning out to be far more of an enlightening experience than anticipated. In fact, I am considering compiling the entire series into a book or editing an anthology.

The necessity and benefits of vision
The most recent concept that I have found experience and scholarship worthy of sharing deals with the topic of vision. Most of us know that any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice. We also know that failed businesses often lack mature vision. It is clearly a quality and a skill that should be incorporated in our various pursuits.

Vision: Handle with care
Yet perhaps more than any other business concept I am addressing, immature vision is among the most dangerous I have encountered. When handled without appropriate wisdom and skill, the very virtue behind such extensive success can become a ball and chain the stalls progress - or worse.

An excessive focus on vision that fails to recognize and address the steps which exist between vision and realization can, among many other issues:
  • Eradicate the achievement of goals, 
  • Threaten the existence of establish organizations, 
  • Prevent the formation of new entities; and in some cases, 
  • Create moral or ethical quandaries that can ultimately destroy the integrity of both budding and established leaders.

This is a topic that needs to be addressed more than it is.

I look forward to not only publishing the newspaper-length article in the series, but also to addressing the issue in more detail in a forum that can accommodate a more exhaustive examination.
A correct understanding of a vision's nature
However, while this is a topic with extraordinary depth, I believe the central challenge most often faced by those wrestling with vision is misunderstanding its role.

A forthcoming book published by three senior partners at Boston Consulting Group, Your Strategy Needs A Strategy, breaks down the many complexities that exist at the nexus of vision and strategy. The authors quote renowned computer scientist, Alan Kay, who observed, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Yet it takes little effort to identify ventures that fail as a consequence of a belief which borders on the magical, namely that the strength, innovative nature, and even the mere existence of a vision is all it takes to bring about success.

Such dogma is dangerous. To be successful, there needs to be a correct understanding of visionary principles.

The heart of the matter
I propose that vision realized is a process and journey -- not an event or destination.

The more one understands these principles and acts upon them, the more likely goals will be met or exceeded.

Experiences to share?
If you have any experiences with either the failed or successful realization of vision in business and would like to be considered for inclusion, please contact me.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Pope Francis teaches in Naples

View from my apartment in Napoli
While serving as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my home for a relatively long time (I was 19) was in Naples, Italy. To this day, I can close my eyes and smell the city, feel the cobblestones on my feet, taste the food, remember the people. It is wonderful.

I can also vividly remember certain things that made Naples distasteful.

In a recent visit to Naples, Pope Francis taught the people and encouraged them to rid the city of the distasteful and fill it with the good.

This link connects you to an AP story summarizing the Pope's visit.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Leadership and excessive advocacy

A few days ago our nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day. The progress our nation has made - especially over the last several decades - has been extraordinary.

That is not to say that we have reached a state free of prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, and hatred toward those who are different in one way or another.

Whether those differences are manifest in race, ethnicity, culture, religion, or any other number of factors is to an extent not the key issue. More important than how any one group is treated is how and why various American populations interact with others as they do.

Several years ago, I was privileged to attend a lecture with a prestigious civil rights advocate. I was mesmerized as I listened to him speak concurrently with speed, passion, vocabulary, rhetoric, and insight. I had little doubt I could spend weeks studying a transcript of his lecture and only touch the surface. He inspired me. I wanted to be more like him in so many ways.

But the overall message disturbed me - or at least the way he presented his message.

For him, America would never be good enough at those things for which he lobbied and advocated. For him, progress should be ignored as a matter of practice - or minimized if left no other option.While I agreed with so much of what he said, I left disturbed.

To this day I wonder.

Obviously, the job of an advocate is to advocate. And as long as there is room for improvement, it is natural that improvement should be encouraged.

But can we do damage to our own causes by denying recognition of progress?

Advocacy is like an incessant primary election. Extremism is the name of the game and there typically does not come a time similar to a general election where candidates move toward middle ground to garner more votes. Or, in the case of advocates, more followers and adherents.

The man I listened to at this particular event was legitimately sapient. Yet ever since that encounter I have approached his advocacy with a degree of skepticism. The world he described existed in isolated areas and absolutely needed and needs to be corrected. But so much of the country was ready for the next step. And the ones after that.

For those who make it their calling and profession to influence others, it is my personal belief that recognizing shortfalls while also lauding achievements is likely to yield a more unified, synergistic, enthusiastic populace than what can be gained by embracing extremism.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Review: Words of Radiance, by Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson (Photo Source: Deseret News)
I realized I never posted the actual text of my review of Brandon Sanderson's book, Words of Radiance on the blog. The original text can be read here in the Deseret News. The text of the review published in March 2014 reads as follows:

"WORDS OF RADIANCE, The Stormlight Archive, Book 2," by Brandon Sanderson, Tor Books, $28.99, 1,068 pages (f)

The mysteries and discoveries Brandon Sanderson provides in "Words of Radiance" signal an adventure to come that's larger than many may have imagined.

The Utah author's novel “Words of Radiance” is the second book in a planned 10-volume fantasy series titled The Stormlight Archive.

Sanderson wrote the manuscript under the working title of “The Book of Endless Pages,” to refer to a book and a theme of endless learning set forth in his first book, according to a blog post featuring Sanderson on Yet after presenting the title to his editor, Sanderson says in the post, his editor said, “Uh, are you sure you want to name a very long, very thick fantasy book 'The Book of Endless Pages'?”

The book weighs in at more than a thousand pages, but the only drawback regarding its length is that the book doesn’t immediately transition into the third volume in the series.

The series focuses on four individuals and is set within a world that is constantly assailed by storms, that has magical swords that appear and disappear in 10 heartbeats and that has a connection with the past and future that seems to both blur and clear as the story unfolds.

Sanderson’s world-building is strong enough to engage readers and make them feel at home in a strange world. His character arcs and the complexity of his characters' gradual self-awareness and interactions with one another are also written masterfully.

Mysteries set forth in “The Way of Kings” unfold in “Words of Radiance,” yet new mysteries will be presented as well, and it's easy to see that the journey is only just beginning.

The book debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times's hardcover fiction best-seller list, and only readers with tremendous self-control will be able to set this book down without calling in sick to work or planning several all-nighters.

“Words of Radiance” contains the level of language, sex and violence that would be found in a contemporary PG-13 movie. Some swearing is implied through words and phrases native to the world in which the story takes place.

Sanderson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches a creative writing course at Brigham Young University each year and has a Hugo Award-winning weekly podcast online at Videos of classes are available for free at the website, and his website is at

Steve Ott and The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector

I stumbled across this reference today and am grateful to Steve Ott for acknowledging me. It was a challenge to pour over the manuscript with everything else going on at that time in my life, but it is a decision I could never regret.

Steve Ott is the most influential teacher I have had in my life and I hope all those who are mentored and taught by him recognize the truly remarkable and unique experience they are being provided. Steve's fingerprints are on the results I a privileged to help nonprofit organizations produce as a consultant.

He once came across me in the halls at the University of Utah as I was cramming for an exam in his class less than an hour later. He said the scene of me walking the halls with my face buried in a book would make a great marketing picture.

Well, I got my face in marketing pictures in due time. But if I was an ideal student, Steve was and remains the most ideal of teachers. He is Socratic, he is respectful, he is the epitome of professional, and he remains a student - one who is willing to learn from even the least of his students. While Steve has his own established theory that is studied in graduate courses around the world, it is my humble belief that Steve's lasting legacy will not be his theory or his writings, but the reality that his influence on students and their impact on the nonprofit sector will continue long past his lifetime. Regardless, he is one whose legacy has already been secured.

And a legacy is no small thing.

My recognition in the Acknowledgments of the Second Edition of his book, The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector, reads as follows:

We wish that we could acknowledge everyone who contributed ideas, insights, support, challenges, and constructive criticisms since the publication of the first edition, but we must limit our words of appreciation to those who played central roles in shaping our vision and refining our ideas into a cohesive second edition of this anthology. Among those whose intellectual contributions must absolutely be acknowledged... (include) Kurt Manwaring....

Link to Amazon:
The Nature of the Nonprofit Sector, edited by J. Steven Ott and Lisa A. Dicke