Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Book Review - "Five Temptations of a CEO" (Patrick Lencioni)

Title: The Five Temptations of a CEO
Author: Patrick Lencioni
Published: San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998 (pp134).

The thing that impresses me about this book is the way a simple fable brings together the challenges of leadership in a complex culture. While the title tends to restrict readership to CEO, I feel that the book deserves a larger leadership audience, for leaders past and present, as well as aspiring leaders. In a nutshell, for one to be a better leader or manager, one will need to be aware of the five CEO temptations and to actively avoid them. In summary, the five temptations are:
  1. Choosing Status over Results;
  2. Choosing Popularity over Accountability;
  3. Choosing Certainty over Clarity;
  4. Choosing Harmony over Conflict;
  5. Choosing Invulnerability over Trust.
The book begins with a declaration that many leaders fail to identify the core reasons for failure.
"They'll tell you their jobs are riddled with complexities and subtleties that make success impossible to predict. If their organizations fail, they may point to a tired list of causes like strategic errors, marketing inadequacies, competitive threats, and technology failures. But these are only symptoms of their troubles." (xiii)
Lencioni argues that any project or organizational failure can be traced back to the a leader who succumbs to one or more of the five temptations. When it was published in 1998, the Five Temptations became an 'underground best-seller.' With a story plot, this simple model was made even more comprehensible, making it a delightful book to read. Those short on time will appreciate not only the clarity but the brevity as well. Using the fictional character Andrew O'Brien, a new CEO of Trinity Systems, each temptation was discussed. In the book, the biggest and the most difficult one is the first: 'Choosing status over results." This is very true in the lives of many people. In our culture, we tend to hype status and treat superstars as gods. When such an honour gets into the head of any leader, pride makes a grand entrance while humility gets evicted at the closest exit. One avoids the ego trap by focusing on the need to achieve results. In the second temptation, the leader must aim for long-term respect of their subordinates, instead of longing for short-term affections by their reports. The third point is that the leader must be clear in the goals to be attained, not simply waiting for the perfect moment or resources. It is better to be decisive with what one has than to keep waiting for something that one does not possess. Fourthly, any discord or disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, having dissenting views is a mark of an honest and open atmosphere. By airing differences openly, and not being afraid of speaking out, stronger relationships can be forged. Fifth, let others challenge the leader in the spirit of learning and openness.

The summary portion of the book brings the concepts together. This is helpful as it reminds us that any story needs to have its essential points restated.

My Comments
This little book is exceptionally effective in communicating difficult concepts. It has all the elements of a good communication. A story to narrate the relevance. A chapter to summarise the main points. A section to help the reader do a self-assessment. Many conventional non-fiction books start with a 3-phase approach. Firstly, they describe the theory. Secondly, they prescribe a solution. Finally they suggest an application. Lencioni's book reverses the flow, by starting with an application, followed by a prescription and a description of the theory behind the story. I like the creative approach.

I have two reservations about the book. Firstly, the lack of real life examples. Though this may affect the brevity of the book, I think real-life examples will make the individual temptations more realistic. Alas, permission to publish scandals and leadership flaws are not easily obtained. Secondly, the title needs to be changed in order to reach a wider audience. Not everyone of us are called CEOs. The ideas in the book affects anyone who is in a leadership position.

Good book. Highly recommended, but not for the faint-hearted.


Quotes from Simple Advice for CEOS
  1. .. make results the most important measure of personal success, or step down from the job. The future of the company you lead is too important for customers, employees, and stockholders to hold it hostage to your ego. (113)
  2. .. work for the long-term respect of your direct reports, not for their affection. Don't view them as a support group, but as key employees who must deliver on their commitments if the company is to produce predictable results. And remember, your people aren't going to like you anyway if they ultimately fail. (114)
  3. ..make clarity more important than accuracy. Remember that your people will learn more if you take decisive action than if you always wait for more information. And if the decisions you make in the spirit of creating clarity turn out to be wrong when more information becomes available, change plans and explain why. It is your job to risk being wrong. The only real cost to you of being wrong is loss of pride. The cost to your company of not taking the risk of being wrong is paralysis. (115-6)
  4. ..tolerate discord. Encourage your direct reports to air their ideological differences, and with passion. Tumultuous meetings are often signs of progress. Tame ones are often signs of leaving important issues off the table. Guard against personal attacks, but not to the point of stifling important interchanges of ideas. (117)
  5. ..actively encourage your people to challenge your ideas. Trust them with your reputation and your ego. As a CEO, this is the greatest level of trust that you can give. They will return it with respect and honesty, and with a desire to be vulnerable among their peers. (118)

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