Book Review: A Passion for Leadership

Quote of the Day

The same boiling water than softens the potato hardens the egg.

— African Proverb

Figure 1: Cover of Gate's A Passion for Leadership.

Figure 1: Cover of Gate's A
Passion for Leadership

I just finished reading Bob Gate's A Passion for Leadership, and I am a bit torn. I regularly read books on management and most of them do not contribute anything to improving management– that is not true for A Passion for Leadership. The book is a well-written memoir in which Gates shows how he applied standard management lessons in difficult circumstances. These standard management lessons are worth repeating. My feelings about the book are torn because there is nothing new here. I understand that one could argue that the principles of good management are timeless, but I tend to like authors who give me a new way to look at things.

Gate's is an old-school manager of the type that I sincerely miss. I have only had a couple of managers of his ilk during my career. These managers inspired loyalty because of the way they balanced the needs of the organization with the needs of their people. Gates did emphasize more than most the need for a vision on where the organization needed to go and the need for building some consensus on how to get there.

Overall, his prescription for management success is timeless:

  • respect your people
  • respect your organization
  • understand how change you are driving will affect your organization and help those you lead to handle the change.
Figure 2: Scott Adams Book.

Figure 2: Scott Adams Book (Source).

Some of Gates' observations were all too familiar. For example, Gates recalled situations where senior government officials tried to blame low-level staff for major system failures (e.g. the debacle at the Walter Reed Medical Center). All too often I have seen upper management claim to be accountable by punishing low-level staff members for major systemic failures for which those staff members had little or no involvement. A supervisor in my group had an expression for this behavior – "Bring me the head of Willie the Mail Boy" – a reference to Scott Adams' Dilbert (Figure 2).

I recall a senior software manager who actually described himself as "The Designated Scapegoat" during the kickoff meeting for a very challenging program before we even had started. Of course, the senior VP in charge of our division immediately leaped to the podium and said that the software manager was joking. However, nine months later the software manager was fired for his failure to execute on a "death march" project – that project was doomed the day it started.

Overall, Gates has put together a good memoir with some useful management lessons. Nothing earth-shattering, but filled with good reminders on the importance of treating both people and organizations with respect.

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