Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: A summer reading list that will help you professionally

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

With summer in full swing, it’s time for some leisurely reading. For many, this means hitting the beach and getting immersed in the world of fiction. For others, it’s an opportunity to step back, reflect on work and gain some insights on becoming a more effective leader.

Whether you prefer biographies, history or management books, a number of helpful and entertaining volumes have been published during the past six months that are worth adding to your reading list.

I kicked off the summer by reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough and The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789, by Joseph J. Ellis. While these became fast favorites of history lovers, I recommend them for anyone in a leadership position.

McCullough uses the Wright family's letters to unearth the brothers' studious approach to flight, one that mirrors the process for technology innovators of today. We learn about their collaboration, as well as their outreach to others in the early aeronautics community.

Ellis humanizes the monumental personalities of early American leaders like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, who after securing victory during the Revolutionary War employed great political and leadership skills to form the federal government and the foundation for our democracy.

On a different note, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin, is a book that asks, “How do we change?” Rubin argues that habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and that we repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence.

“If we change our habits, we change our lives,” Rubin writes. I’ve tried adopting some of the advice Rubin offers: committing to more leisure time, setting more effective deadlines and focusing on professional development. I have found her approach more practical than I first imagined. If you want to get some quick insights into her thinking, check out Lillian Cunningham’s On Leadership interview with her from earlier this year.

If you are exhausted by miscommunication, you might want to read No One Understands You and What to Do About It, by Heidi Grant Halvorson. Leaders often share stories about their failure to connect with employees — a problem we see repeatedly in employee surveys. Halvorson users her social psychology background to discuss ways to improve that communication.

To spur reflection on how to lead a more principled life and demonstrate your integrity, you might consider picking up David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character. This book examines the lives of notable leaders — including military leaders like Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, as well as those who led movements like Dorothy Day and Frances Perkins — to uncover the different ways we can live with a greater degree of character.

One of my personal favorites is by Marshall Goldsmith, a well-known executive coach, and his co-author Mark Reiter. The book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts—Becoming the Person You Want to Be, examines the people, circumstances and other factors that derail us from being successful leaders, good colleagues and family members. He discusses his coaching techniques that have helped some of the most famous business leaders in the world to pursue more meaningful, lasting relationships.

For inspiration, you can turn to the biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance. When I ask federal leaders for examples of those they consider to be innovators, Musk’s name is mentioned frequently. This book recounts his life story, and provides insights into an entrepreneur who has sparked new levels of innovation.

For a more scientific treatment, you might check out The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain by John Kounios and Mark Beeman. The topic of cognitive neuroscience is gaining popularity, and their discoveries about how the brain has those “aha” moments can lead to some practical strategies for increasing creativity.

Finally, I'd recommend two books about the evolving workplace.

Work Rules! Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead by Laszlo Bock goes beyond the salaries, stock options and free lunches to share how Google, through balancing creativity and structure, consistently rank as one of the best places to work. Bock should know, he’s the company’s senior vice president of "people operations."

Last, and most controversially, I encourage you to check out Holocracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, by Brian J. Robertson. You may have heard the term earlier this year when Zappos, the shoe company, quite publicly eliminated its hierarchy in favor of a more distributed approach to decision-making. In short, holocracy is a management system intended to turn everyone into a leader by redistributing authority and decision-making across the organization. This approach is supposed to lead to more agile teams. While I am skeptical, it’s incumbent for leaders to remain on the cutting edge and explore new ways of working.

What new books would you recommend? Share your favorites by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Jul 14, 2015 at 6:31 AM

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