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24 July 2013

Book Review: The Secret of Leadership: Author: Prakash Iyer

Any 12 year old with a reading habit would have read most of the stories in this book. But it would take a lifetime and more to understand, identify with and internalize the lessons and insights that come out of each page of this excellent book.

Right there in the Page 1 is this quote 'Life is like a ten speed bicycle. Most of us have gears we never use'. Being an avid cyclist (I have a cycle!!), who seldom use the higher set of gears, I found this quote very insightful. Mr.Iyer follows up with the story of Edmund Hillary, who was the first person to conquer Mount Everest. Mr.Iyer points out that the most important thing that Hillary needed to achieve this feat was the presence of mountain itself !. Without that goal, Hillary would not have embarked on his attempt to conquer it. Likewise all of us need goals in our lives to provide us with direction.

And we are only in Page 3 !. 

'The Secret of Leadership' (TSOL) is the second book on Leadership and Personal success written by Mr.Iyer. Having read, enjoyed and reviewed his first book 'The Habit of Winning' (review here), I promptly procured a copy of this new book and from the word go, the book did not disappoint me at all. 

TSOL is neatly divided into four sections. The first section 'The leader within' looks at how a leader is made. The focus is on the behavioural traits of a leader. Some of the lessons involve not to give up, get up quickly from drawbacks, run your own race and not compare yourself with other people's success etc. This section is followed by the 'Leader Mindset'. Here the focus is on the thoughts and belief systems that make a leader. The leader do not cry over split milk, she is always positive and optimistic, charts her own path etc. There is an excellent story here of a frog that climbs the TV Tower.

In section three 'The leader's way' author looks at what ordinary people do (and can do) to achieve extraordinary things and realize their potential. This section has some great stories and insights. Two insights that I liked were 'If you are not enjoying the ride, get out of the bus' and 'Hold the door open'. When talking about the first author says that even if the bus is very comfortable, if we are getting good benefits in our job, if you are not happy with your current job, it is time to get out of the bus (job) and start looking for something that will kindle your passion.

The fourth and the final section is on 'Leading Teams'. Here the author talks about providing your team with a strong reason to do what you want them to do. If you want them to resolve issues quickly, you have to paint the picture of how resolving the issues will help them to achieve their personal goals. A leader has to answer the question 'What is in it for my team?'. In the story of tappers and listeners, the author says that many a time when the leader give an instruction, that is done with a set of assumptions that she has in her mind. However, the assumptions under which subordinate works may be different and hence there will be difference in the perceived quality of output. There are three more stories in this section, which I explain below. 

Through the use of about 60 stories, Mr.Iyer covers the entire spectrum of personal and professional growth and development. Some of the stories are very powerful and some less so. Each of us who read this book will have our own favorite stories. Personally I found three stories fascinating. 

The first one talks about a boy who was suffering from anger. His father asks him to hit a nail on the wooden ledge every time he gets angry. Initially the task of hitting nails is easy and the boy continued being angry. However later he found that he had to walk farther and farther to hit the nail. He found that it was easier to control his anger than it was to walk longer distances to hit the nail. When his temper was under control, when he did not have any need to hit nails for a few days, his father asked him to remove the nails one by one.  When the boy had removed the last nail, the father showed him the mark left on the ledge by the nails. Just as the nails leave a mark even after they are removed, anger leaves scars that are not removed even when you apologize profusely.

Powerful message !

Another story with strong message was the one about the naughty elephant. Every morning the mahout led the elephant through the local market on the way to its stable. On the way, the elephant used to create havoc by plucking and eating flowers and fruits in the shops by the side of the road. No amount of beating and punishing could stop this habit.

Finally the mahout came up with a brilliant idea. Just before the elephant entered the market, the mahout kept a small stick on its trunk. Now when going through the market, elephant would longingly look at all the flowers and fruits hanging around but couldn't do anything naughty since it had to drop the stick (and displease the mahout) to pluck the flowers.

Mr.Iyer compares the small stick in the elephant's trunk to the goals that we decide for ourselves in our lives. Without clear goals to focus and ground ourselves, our mind wanders like the naughty elephant in the market.

Another great story with a powerful message !

Mr.Iyer being cricket fan, his books and teachings are filled with the stories from the world of cricket. To illustrate the habit of getting the best out of our inexperienced and junior team members, Mr.Iyer talks about the example of VVS Laxman. While being recognized as a great batsman, many people do not know that most of the centuries that VVS made was in partnership with tail-enders. As an example, Mr.Iyer talks about the Mohali test of 2010.  Needing 217 runs to win the test, India were struggling at 127/8 when young Ishant Sarma joined VVS. Rather than protecting Ishant like others might have done, VVS let Ishant handle the Aussie attack on his own terms. In 15 out of the 22 overs that this duo faced, Laxman took a single of the first ball of an over leaving Ishant to navigate remaining 5 balls in each of those overs. 

And young Ishant responded with elan and aplomb. 

The message that comes out of this story is that as leaders we should show confidence in the ability of less experienced members of our team to deliver the results. 

(While writing this review, I was curious to know how I did review the first book by Mr.Iyer. The review of the book 'The Habit of Winning' was focused more on Mr.Iyer as a person, his career, his column in 'Career 360', his stint at Pepsico etc. In that review I had mentioned about the preponderance of examples related to Pepsico, Mr.Iyer's erstwhile employer.)

The reviewer of a book faces a delicate choice. On the one hand he has to convey the emotions that (s)he felt  while reading the book. The emotion could be excitement, involvement, insight (like I felt while reading this book), happiness, fun (while reading some others) and boredom and ennui (while reading countless others...) On the other (hand) (s)he also have to add value to the author by communicating some areas where the author could have worked a bit more..

So here goes

While it was enlightening to read of lot of examples from Pepsico in his first book, many examples from Pepsico and the elite world of IIMs will take the interest away for people who are less fortunate not to have trodden that golden path. They won't be able to identify with some of the characters in the stories. Suggestion is for Mr.Iyer to add more examples of people who have made it despite not having elite education. Stories of many Dalit entrepreneurs come to mind...

Secondly, I espied a confusion in the core message of this book. It oscillates between being a book on leadership and being a tome on personal success. As the 'Individual Contributor' career track in an IT organization shows, these two are different. You can be a personal success without being a leader (though reverse may not be true). The point I am making is that the tools and skills required for personal success are different from those required becoming a leader. This book is a bit hazy on this difference. 

Thirdly, one gets the impression that in some of the stories, Mr.Iyer has forced a message as an afterthought. There is a mismatch between the story and the message. To put it differently, some stories could have had better messaging . I am alluding specifically to the story of the Dead Sea. 

Since this sea is significantly below the mean sea level, water do not flow out of the sea. Due to this, the salt content increases significantly and this sea is inhospitable to growth of flora and fauna. The message in the book is that one should not just be a receiver, one should also be a liberal giver. I thought that a better message could have been that of 'Continuous learning and renewal', sort of  'Sharpening the Saw' as it were. 

(By the way, I had been to the Dead Sea. Due to its high saline content, the sea is supposed to have high medicinal properties, especially as a cure for skin infections. So one could look at the story of Dead Sea as negative effects of Stagnancy or as Significant expertise developed through a laser beam like focus in one's core area of interest. A cardiologist can strive to become a better cardiologist only by focusing on cardiology and not on Anaesthesiology, for example !!)

Finally, this book also require some tight editing. For example, the concept of 'Hold the door open' is alternately referred to as HDTO and HTDO. Elsewhere, the number 0.09 if mentioned as 0.9 thereby effectively negating the core message !

(I already sent a mail to Mr.Iyer pointing out the second mistake. He promptly informed me that this is being taken care in the reprint)

Last word: For a country of a billion people and a civilization spanning over 5000 years, we lack good books on ethical leadership and personal success. Books such as 'TSOL' attempt to fill that void by the use of simple stories and powerful insights. The icing on the cake is that these books try to teach these lessons through the art of Story Telling, an age old, proven method of teaching. 

Great Book. Do Read it . You will grow as a person.

PS: Did I tell you that the Forward for this book is written by Rahul Dravid? I must have forgotten.

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