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Review of The Taboos of Leadership, by Anthony Smith  (Hardcover, 2007)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Before I say what I like about this book, I want to point out three flaws. The first is the title/contents mismatch. The other two flaws are errors of fact.

Flaws

The title of this book doesn't match its contents. The book is actually about the taboos of CEOs, not about the taboos of leadership. Not all leaders are CEOs and not all CEOs are leaders. One taboo the author didn't mention was the dearth of real leadership among the senior executive ranks.

Two patently false claims made in this book are the product of the propaganda put out in an effort to put a positive spin on what is, when you look at it objectively, theft.

The author claims that "leaders" (CEOs) are entitled to the pay they receive. But the outlandish compensation packages given to American CEOs have no correlation to performance. It should also matter that CEOs in other countries do not haul in the booty in any way close to this. Rather than multimillion dollar salaries and tons of perks, the CEOs in other countries typically make a wage that is not a huge jump from the Vice President level.

The superstar salaries are not justified, despite the author's claims, and are a fairly recent problem. CEOs get these salaries because of incestuous boards, not because it's "hard to attract talent." What kind of talent does it take to order layoffs or do boneheaded things that drop the company's stock price by 95% in one year? People who perform such "services" get paid millions for their "talent." Think of Tom Rogers (destroyed Primedia) or Chainsaw Al (eviscerated Sunbeam), just for starters.

The method of determining CEO compensation is not what the author posits. The actual method is a wink and nod understanding of "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours" among people who serve on each other's boards. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "attracting and keeping talent." It should also be noted that the annual payment for attending one catered board meeting for a day is often twice what a skilled production worker makes in an entire year. Serve on 10 boards, and you really rake it in. No wonder your friends are eager to "serve" on your board and rubber stamp your breathtaking compensation package.

The second false claim is that "leaders" (CEOs) put in 18 hour days. According to the Sleep Institute, a person who is 20% sleep-deprived has the mental acuity of a person who is drunk. If a CEO works 18 hours a day and we assume 2 additional hours for transportation, meals, and personal hygiene (that isn't much for doing those things), that leaves four hours for sleep (outside of meetings). Yet, the Sleep Institute has found that nearly everyone needs 8 hours of sleep. So just how drunk is a CEO at this claimed level of 50% sleep deprivation? Should we pay such a mentally impaired person at all? Why not just bring in a wino off the street and save the expense of a huge salary?

Below this review, I explain one way the 18 hours get tallied up--it's food for thought.

Positive Aspects

Smith writes in a conversational manner that makes the book easy to read and understand. This is unusual in an arena dominated by word misuse (example, using "impacted" to mean "affected" when the actual meaning has more to do with needing an emergency enema), stupid expressions (example, "at the end of the day"), meaningless words (example, "empowerment"), and various methods of speaking without saying anything. Smith might say the reason for the typically poor communication efforts have more to do with stepping around certain taboos than with any deficiency in ability. And he could point to the high verbal scores on the typical CEO's SAT records to back that viewpoint.

I'm not going to list the taboos--that would be too much like telling the plot of a movie. But I will talk about how Smith presents the taboos. The book contains a list of ten topics executives just don't talk about, except within their own circles and often not even then. Except as noted earlier, Smith provides keen insight into what lies behind the silence.

The author does not suggest that the same people who award each other outlandish pay packages while trotting out unethical justifications for that practice might actually want to serve interests other than their own. They do serve their own interests, but that's not necessarily evil. Except as noted earlier, this isn't a zero sum game. Generally, what's good for the executive is good for the company--as with any other employee. There are limits.

Some taboos arise because there's a higher standard of behavior as you climb the corporate ladder. For example, it's just bad form for a senior executive to publicly gripe about his/her company (griping differs from admitting a mistake). No matter how dismal things look or how lousy that person feels, honest expression could undermine everything else that person does. Smith doesn't touch on this particular point directly, but it is one of the conclusions you reach while reading the book.

People who work "in the trenches" like to see their executives as "straight shooters" rather than political animals. Ironically, this is one reason for the jargon, clichés, and other obfuscation mentioned earlier. To rise to the top, an executive has to be a tough political player while not appearing to be one. This may seem wrong, but that's not the case. This particular skill set is vital to being an effective senior executive, for reasons that have very much to do with defending the business from predators. A business, like it or not, has to compete in a tough political environment. It needs senior executives who can properly handle the threats that can damage or destroy the enterprise. Yet, as Smith discusses, it's taboo to talk about playing politics.

Imagine yourself in the following situation. You're a VP in a mid-size corporation. The Chief of Operations slot is open, and you are highly qualified for the position. You get called into a meeting of the senior executives.

  • The first executive says, "You are too frank with people. You tell them what's happening instead of what they should hear."
  • The second executive says, "You aren't quite charismatic enough for this position."
  • The third executive says, "I want a personal friend of mine to have this job."
  • The fourth executive says, "You took a vacation last year, and I couldn't reach you for over five hours. I just don't think you have the level of personal commitment we are looking for."

Do these things sound outrageous? That's what Smith is talking about in this book. Nobody would dare say such things. But, these are exactly the kinds of things CEOs would say if the price for saying them weren't so steep. They aren't being cowards--they are simply observing taboos.

  • The first executive is saying you aren't politically astute enough. You need to calm the waters, not stir them up.
  • The second executive knows charisma is an unwritten part of every senior leader's job description. You have to be able to charm key customers, key legislators, and others who can help or hurt your company. And there's that little matter of getting the support of your reports, rather than forcing them to second-guess you out of a lack of confidence in you.
  • The third executive feels more comfortable with a person he knows well. This is one reason a new CEO tends to purge the ranks and hire people from his/her past, rather than adapt to the people who are already there.
  • The fourth executive is pushing the C-level culture of not having a life. There's an inordinately high value placed on face time and availability.

It might be nice to know that you aren't charismatic enough for that promotion, but only a very trusting mentor will ever tell you that. Some other "reason" for being passed over will be offered instead. Manufacturing reasons that allow everyone to save face is one of those political skills just mentioned. No company wants to a perfectly competent department manager to get mad and quit, just because that person doesn't have the charisma, political savvy, or other taboo trait for the next level up. If senior executives ignored the taboo status of this (or any of the ten taboos Smith discusses), the company would not be able to retain talent.

Smith offers a valuable perspective on several aspects of such things as work-life balance. For anyone groveling long hours under the delusion you will be sufficiently rewarded for sacrificing your youth while the CEO of your company rakes in 8 figures at the same time your company stock plummets, this book may be life-changing. You'll also learn what it takes for a person to rise to a job in which he makes more while sitting on the toilet than you do actually working. And you may decide you don't want to endure that just to play the C-suite lottery.

This book is an interesting read, if you'd like some insight into the worldview of the upper 1% of wage earners in America. Very few people rise to those positions without paying very heavy dues. That experience shapes how they look at life, and I think understanding that view as presented by Smith is enlightening.

This book is a worthwhile read if you are climbing anywhere on the corporate ladder. The insight Smith provides will help you re-evaluate your work-life balance, or lack thereof, as well as other aspects of your climb. Getting into the lofty C-level ranks is an all-consuming experience. Smith illustrates this in several different ways, thus doing a major service to any reader who has delusions of rising to the top on a mere 60 hour work week. CEOs may not work the 18 hour days they claim to work, but they generally neglect all else in their lives for their jobs. This fact enters heavily into much of the thinking behind this book.

Tallying up 18 hours

Here's one way to tally up 18 hours. Joe CEO gets up at 0230 to take a leak (and, as usual, leave the toilet seat up). While he's there, he grabs his Blackberry and sends out a few "I am slaving away while you sleep" e-mails to selected employees. These are e-mails he wrote and saved earlier, just for this purpose. It takes only a second to send them, which is why the Blackberry is in the bathroom next to his electric shaver.

After getting up much later than the engineers who are designing his company's products, he heads to the office. From his mansion in the most prime of prime locations, it's not a long trip. Glancing at his watch, he sees he'll arrive at 0730 and be able to claim having worked 5 hours already.

He immediately heads into a morning staff meeting, apologizing for being late but "I was on the phone with customers since shortly after two this morning." Since the Blackberry is a phone and one of those e-mails did go to a customer, he's not actually lying....

At around 0900, he goes to the gym to get in a game of handball with another CEO his company does business with. This is called "personally visiting customers." The other CEO tells his people he is "personally beating suppliers into concessions, mano a mano." (Alternatively, he may take off to head back to the mansion for a nap or just run a personal errand).

He gets back to the office in time to talk to a few folks before heading off to a "business lunch." If it's with employees or other execs, it involves spewing clichés he heard at a recent conference, talking about the latest business book, and putting an unjustifiably expensive meal on the company tab. If it's with key clientele, it involves talking about golf, complaining about taxes, and listening to the customer's problems before putting an unjustifiably expensive meal on the company tab.

Back at the office around 1400, he heads into the first of a series of useless meetings. Going into one rather lengthy PowerPoint show, he sets his Blackberry to "vibrate" and has it wake him up as the windbag at the front of the room starts to wrap things up. Meetings drag on and on and on until about 1730. Now we're at an alleged 15 hour day. So far, an hour of actual work put in.

Now it's time to make a "terror tour" to see who is still putting in face time. As he walks past each worker, there's a barely audible sigh of relief, and minutes later it looks like a lemming convention at the elevator. This purportedly gets productivity out of the senior execs. Next, it's off to dinner with a client or representatives from a large account. This elaborate affair stretches out until gosh, look--it's an 18 hour day!

Now, not every CEO behaves this way and those who do behave this way also have some long days full of hard work. But anyone claiming to be working 18 hour days and expecting to get sympathy for his bad judgment or rank dishonesty (has to be one or the other) will not get it from me.

 

 

 

About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

The reviews I do will, contrary to emerging trends, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or not substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably another 6,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree undergrad and an MBA. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read to begin with.

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