Federal Coach: Leadership books for volatile and uncertain times

Leaders – especially those in the federal government – are facing some extraordinary challenges these days. Our volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world, or VUCA as the military and intelligence communities call it, seems to be running at a fever pitch.

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Leaders – especially those in the federal government – are facing some extraordinary challenges these days. Our volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world, or VUCA as the military and intelligence communities call it, seems to be running at a fever pitch. Yet leaders are still expected to have the answers and provide stability.

There are a number of books I would recommend that are inspiring and offer a range of insights into dealing with the daunting personal and workplace challenges faced by federal leaders in these times.

The first book to check out is “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant. The co-authors use research, practical advice and individual stories, including Sandberg’s tragic loss of her husband, to help readers build strength for many life challenges. Far more than a memoir or collection of feel-good stories, this book goes deep into difficult topics like the death of loved ones to help the reader determine how to accept adversity, to transition from despair to determination, and to build the network of support needed to keep going whatever obstacle comes your way.

Staying with the theme of leading through tough times, a good choice is, “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” by Harvard historian Nancy Koehn. Using the seemingly disparate tales of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, President Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer and environmental crusader Rachel Carson, Koehn finds common threads in their stories – from childhood to adulthood – that led to greatness. In the process, she reinforces the reality that leaders are more often made than they are born. This book serves as a great reminder that everyone has the capacity for leadership in the face of adversity if they choose to accept the challenge.

Once area of adversity that leaders in every industry must confront is sexual discrimination, harassment and assault in the workplace. For leaders looking to understand this situation better, you might want to check out Ellen Pao’s book, “Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change.” Pao’s experiences, mirroring the recent news stories emanating from Hollywood and Washington, describe a toxic Silicon Valley workplace culture filled with discrimination and retaliation against women and other underrepresented groups. This book offers a tough, but personal account of a woman struggling to be recognized and hoping that her story may empower others. Whether you’re someone looking to be heard or someone looking to understand, this may offer a starting point for doing more to address a set of issues that have been overlooked for too long.

On a more positive note, a leader proactively seeking to turn around an organization and create a more diverse and inclusive workplace is Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. He wrote a book about his own career path, leadership development and plans for Microsoft in, “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone.” Nadella’s account of discovering the importance of emotional intelligence – or the importance of understanding, connecting with and leading people – is particularly inspiring and helpful given that the topic is often considered “soft” among leaders, particularly in technology.

Other books with terrific advice include “Principles” by Ray Dalio and “Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice From the Best in the World” by Tim Ferriss. For those unfamiliar with Dalio, he is a successful investor and entrepreneur who has taken a somewhat unconventional approach to leading what is considered to be one the world’s most successful investment funds. Several years ago, he wrote a short article by the same title that went viral and was downloaded more than three million times. He expanded that article to produce what many consider to be the best business book of 2017 because it so directly addresses issues of leadership humility, introspection and ultimately transparency about strengths and weaknesses. Many folks are familiar with Ferriss through his popular podcast, “The Tim Ferriss Show.” While I’m a fan of his previous work, his latest book is among his best because of the range of inspiring ideas for becoming better, braver leaders and people. And because Ferriss talks with leaders from across sectors, the advice may be all the more eye-opening to federal leaders who may be feeling a bit isolated.

One way virtually every leader can improve comes in how they deliver feedback and develop their employees. Perhaps the best insights on this topic comes via Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor: Be A Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity.” As a former technology executive at companies like Google, and later as a leadership coach to companies like Twitter, Scott recognized that she and other leaders struggled to correctly evaluate their employees, create a culture of feedback throughout their organizations, and ultimately achieve their performance goals. As a result, Scott developed an easily understood model and methods she shares in her book that any leader would be wise to pick up.

Finally, you should also consider the latest book from brothers Chip and Dan Heath – “The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact” – to remind yourself that, whatever the ups and downs life throws your way, it’s how you react and whether you finish well that matters most. At the most general level, a leader may see this book as defining the critical success factors for delivering an exceptional customer experience. In reality, it’s much more about how we can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary in the workplace and in our lives. In their typical style, the book is well-researched and fun to read.

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