On becoming a leader, by Walter Bennis

On becoming a leader, by Walter Bennis

This book is a leadership classic. At least that’s what HBR told me, so I wanted to read it to see if I agreed. I stumbled across this book reading a list of 11 books every young young leader should read. This wasn’t the first book from that list I read, but so far, it’s the best. It’s full of great stories, examples and concepts that have given me a great roadmap for developing my leadership skills.

I’ve got a favourite quote from the book that describes the type of relationship I’d like to have with my company. “I am fully engaged in this company. I pay attention and I know what goes on throughout it. There is a name for that kind of responsive, responsible behavior. It’s called leadership.”

Bennis organizes his book into stories, that break out into some key ideas. I really liked this approach, as it let me bring valuable ideas with me such as his four lessons of self-knowledge:

  • One: You are your own best teacher.

  • Two: Accept responsibility. Blame no one.

  • Three: You can learn anything you want to learn.

  • Four: True understanding comes from reflecting on your experience.

There’s also a really great section that calls out the adaptation warp we all go through to deal with childhood and growing up. We learn ways of interacting or behaviours that come from life. We got lost as a kid, so we’re risk-averse as an adult. You have to understand those parts of your experience, and be aware so you can listen and respond to a group of people and communicate well. The description of innovative learning and the concrete things you can do to improve yourself are worth the read alone.

The book walks through several topics, from self-knowledge, to innovative learning, to how to craft a vision and how to be comfortable and thrive in the midst of change. The topics are relevant for any leader, and I feel like after reading through this book and taking notes I’ve got a resource I can dip into long into the future with lots of areas to improve and learn.

The stories in the book were well matched to the concepts they were building, and each concept was framed well. There was an idea presented, a story to make it human, and then a lesson clearly laid out in a statement or a set of points. The ideas were very accessible and clear, but still left a lot of room to bring it into your personal experience.

If you’re someone in leadership, and you don’t have this book on your shelf, I’d recommend putting it next on your reading list.

Simple Rules by Donald Sull

I just finished reading “Simple Rules” by Donald Sull. After reading the introduction, I had to continue. The book begins by describing how military surgeons in wartime situations make decisions on who to treat first, and who not to treat. It’s brutal; the decisions have immediate life and death consequences so they can’t second guess decisions. Right from that moment in the first chapter I realized if this technique was good enough for military surgeons and helped them – it was something I needed to learn.
Donald Sull starts his book with a story that gets you hooked, and continues telling stories to drive home points throughout the book. Every concept, idea and technique he puts forward is accompanied by a story or anecdote from his seemingly endless supply. The ideas are woven into his stories, and each one illustrates a point well. While I enjoyed this technique as a reader, one critique I have is that I found it difficult to pull out the core ideas as each concept was woven into a story at a different point. I’m someone who makes lists and takes notes, and it was hard to pull out good notes without breaking up the narrative.

So what are simple rules?

Here’s an example “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – which distills the nutritional insights of Michael Pollan into a handful of words.

“Simple words consist of a handful of guidelines applied to a specific activity or decision, such as deciding what to eat.” – Donald Sull, pg 25

The concept is simple but takes a while to figure out how to apply to your specific situation. The book gives great examples, and makes it easy to feel like you can fit the technique to your situation. The thing I liked most is the idea of memorability and usability of the rules.

Where I work we spend a lot of time on User Experience for on-screen interfaces, and spend a lot of time thinking about how users add and edit content. Simple Rules as a technique for decisions feels like you’re considering the user experience of decision making and improving the experience through good tools and techniques. I really like being thoughtful about how we make decisions and giving my team clear guidelines about how to make good decisions quickly.

It’s worth a read to identify how you can simplify your decision making process either at work, to empower a team, or personally.

Check out the book on Amazon

wim wenders on storytelling

On my bike ride into work today I listened to a podcast from the Economist interviewing Wim Wenders about storytelling. When I was younger I saw Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders and was hooked on his films. This interview brought forward what I like most about Wenders, his laconic style of speaking and reflection on his work that gives you incredible insight into his thinking in a few short sentences.

I saw the film PINA  when it first came out in theaters and from my past experience with the black and white films of Wenders was surprised to learn this was a 3D film – mostly in colour. It was a great film, and the thing I enjoyed most was the mix of storytelling and technology. Wenders had appreciated Pina and her work for 20 years, and had always wanted to make a movie about her work – to tell her story. However he didn’t think film could capture the breadth and motion of her work. When 3D filming became practical – that’s when he decided he could tell her story, and made a movie in this medium. I knew Wenders as a film maker who used black and white film as his medium when I was younger, and was curious that he was embracing this new technology. I was greatly inspired by the film and even more inspired by Wenders’ attitude towards technology. 

The Economist interview brings out Wender’s thinking about technology as a tool that we should use to do more and tell better stories. It lines up with my own philosophy of what technology is for. It’s a vehicle for better stories and information, and should not be an end in itself.

In the Economist interview – Wenders was identifying that people now make movies on iPhones. And he really likes that – the technology allows us to tell stories that we could not before, either due to the size, cost or complexity of a film camera, relative to the simplicity and mobility of a phone.

I’ve always liked his work, and enjoyed his thinking, and this interview is a great example of both things coming together. This interview is worth a listen if you appreciate good storytelling, and Wenders reflection on the current plight of people fleeing Syria and settling in Germany in the last 90 seconds is fascinating.

Wim Wenders – Storytelling – The Economist:

Civil travel

I was in London early April for a vacation, and really enjoyed the transit from the airport. The Heathrow Express takes you from the airport to Paddington Station – in 15 min, every 15 min. 

It made our trip really easy, straightforward, and enjoyable. 

Thoroughly enjoyed the experience and love a modern city where you can travel well. 

Public transit in a new city makes a big improvement to the quality and experience of a trip. 

not the gates of London

I spent a week in London in April. 

One of the places I passed each morning on my walk to get a proper coffee was this gate.


This is the gate to a market that is no longer in operation.  It’s about 3 blocks long, and currently it was not in use.  I really enjoyed the intricate paint on the wrought iron, and thought it was a great use of colour.  One of the things I loved about the city was the care they took with space.  

London is such dense place, with so much history, every space has to be carefully considered – so to find well tended spaces that were not in current use was always interesting to me.

Smart urban engineering

There’s a bridge in my old neighbourhood (in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) that used to get graphiti all over it.


I’m not sure who’s behind it, but there’s a great mural on both sides of the area that used to get tagged. The problem with the tagging was that it was all over the concrete – that was hard to clean, and hard to contain.  The new setup has boards placed where they can get art on them, without destroying the brick behind.


More than a smart piece of physical engineering, I love that this setup involves social engineering as well.  The work on these boards is very good, so anyone who respects the work won’t write over it.


Smart setup, smart thinking, great art.


I like it.


the hard thing about hard things by ben horowitz

there is a lot of entrepreneurial empathy in this book. if you’re trying to run a company or start one – this book provides an incredible roadmap of some of the challenges you might go through.

a few of the things i really enjoyed in the book is a simple concept: as leader of an organization your responsibility is to design communication patterns. other than setting the vision and direction of the company – that may be the single most useful thing you do.

it also has some really useful, insightful and challenging questions on how to hire executive staff. it’s a challenging topic, and while there are good books out there on this topic – this resource is great insight for the technology community. there is a section of interview questions at the back that i will use in my next hire of a manager. one of the core concepts is ‘hire for strength, not lack of weakness.’ read the book for a full explanation.

i also really enjoyed the Karl Marx nod to the struggle. the quote that came shining through is “Life is Struggle” and if you balk or bend when the difficult things smash into you – you’ll fail. if you can take the difficult things, wrap your arms around them and somehow wrestle yourself behind or on top of them – you’ll find a way. finding a way is one of the themes in response to struggle that i enjoyed. anyone can make excuses for why things are not going well, but it takes a visionary leader to identify the path forward when all options seem like they take you from bad to worse. identifying a path forward and convincing your team that it’s the right way to go, and then ensuring you get there is the real hallmark of a great leader of companies.

it’s a difficult thing. in fact, it’s quite hard. but the subject of the book is not about fluffy bunnies and slobber-tongued puppies.

overall a great read and a resource i plan to come back to regularly for small tidbits and larger sections for motivation and discernment.



i finished reading “maverick” by ricardo semmler. it’s a pretty fantastic read and opened my eyes to new possibilities about how work can get done. my current office environment is a good example of modern office culture. we have open office spaces, each week a group of my team gets together and makes decisions about how the company should run, and we have free coffee, organic fruit deliveries every week, office snacks, etc. i was impressed to see a vision of corporate culture that didn’t feel corporate in this book, but focused on how to get work done. the vision of the author was getting out of the way of the people doing good work. something i’d like to do more.

at the start of the book, you have to get your head around the time it was written in, and take some of the comments with a grain of salt “You might not need a secretary!” (who has a secretary anymore) but a lot of the core principles, of finding ways to educate the people on the ground, making the decisions every day – give them the training and information to make good decisions and you’ll provide incredible value and meaning to the team you work with.

a lot of the advice and examples are targeted towards large factories, and don’t apply to a small web shop, but overall there are some great ways to rethink what you do. some specific examples are the way decisions are made. rather than pushing all the information up the organizational structure through reports, decision making practices are pushed down the organizational structure, so people on the front lines – doing the real work – can make the decisions. i love this idea, and want to find out how to bring this into our company more.

if you work at a company, or run one – this is a great read.

Maverick on wikipedia

thanks to Carl Smith for the recommend at owner camp.