Category Archives: books

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.

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.

maverick

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.

growth of the soil

growth of the soil

i recently read knut hamsun’s “growth of the soil.” i tip my hat to charles bukowski for the recommendation.

this book begins with painfully beautiful plain language. the words are pure and straightforward, like earth from the garden in your hands. it’s hard to imagine the simple life depicted in the first few pages filling the many pages of the book. if the first 2 pages were a short story you would know all you need to of the main character.

i was trying to think up appropriate praise, but h.g wells does it better than i could:
herbert george wells quote

what the?

amazon.ca is a big company, and i’m sure they have untold resources dedicated to figure out where customers are getting lost, and how to help them find their way to purchasing books.

however, i mis-typed a URL earlier, and got this:

i am lost at amazon.ca

apparently, when you’re lost, a hand-drawn cat will help you feel better.

kailey-kitty

feel better!

book of longing – leonard cohen

Leonard Cohen - Book of Longing

i have always loved the writings of leonard cohen. he brings the body together with the spirit in a way that is unexpected yet familiar at the same time.

his writing has a feeling of human and heartfelt directness. when i read his books i feel he knows just a little too much about me, and is describing just a little too much of himself at the same time.

his previous works have been full of sex and passionate energy. this book is full of vigour, but the subject matter of the opening poems is more often the conquest of his bowels than his bedroom.

poetry is a graphical language. the presence or absence of words on a page is as important as the words themselves. the book of longing has sketches throughout, sitting underneath, beside, ontop, or above poems. the book feels like a notebook, or unfinished work. ‘unwashed words from the street’ to paraphrase neruda. personally the drawing interferes with the poetry more than it compliments.

there is an incredible breadth of time represented in the book of longing. poems appear from as far back as the seventies and eighties, right up to modern writing.

the book feels more like a curated work rather than an authorial voice. theme and style are well represented, but there is no passionate narrative running through the whole work.

i always love loenard cohen’s writing, but this book feels as though it was hurried to press for a paycheque rather than crafted out of love and longing.

the hands.

the drawings are an interesting idea, and while they distract and play with the text they don’t disrupt my reading. when a poem carries on to another page there is a small monty python-esque hand to indicate the continuing text. for most people the lack of a title on the next page would be enough to indicate a poem is continuing. i hate these hands.

i enjoyed the book and you might too

riding with rilke

by: ted bishop
Riding With Rilke - Ted Bishop

as the subtitle suggests this book deals with riding and books, in an equal measure. i heard an interview with ted bishop on cbc, which brought me to a bookstore for further insight.

the moment i opened to the first page i knew i was leaving with a copy. the first thing my eyes set on was the table of contents – first chapter: why a duc?

i headed straight for the checkout, and as i set the book on the counter the merchant explained for several minutes how mr. bishop had taught his literature class at the university of alberta, and had introduced him to many of his now favourite books.

i started to get a bit of an author-crush as i left the store.

the book is divided in three. the first section deals with riding a ducati motorcycle to texas. the reasons for the method of travel and the reasons for the destination are explored creatively and thoroughly. the third section brings the author and the book home.

bishop quickly triggered my boyhood love of motorcycles and drew me into his adventure. i’m sure a contributing factor to my headfirst dive into his experience is that we share the same city of residence, so his perceptions and bias were easy lenses to look through. nevertheless, by the time ted was on the road, i was glad i was along for the journey.

after the book travels to texas the reason for the destination comes to the forefront and the style and substance of the book shifts to a more scholarly, opinion-driven style. it is no less interesting, but is a marked shift in pace and tone.

the middle section wanders through a few different styles, and near the end of the writing adventure it begins to feel as though the story is about to morph into a spy novel.

the third section eases into the familiar travel style of the first section, and finishes off the book and the trip with a climax that almost feels fictitious.

you should pick up a copy and read it yourself. an entertaining read from a strong canadian author.

sailor’s word book

Sailor's Word Book

you’d think a sailor’s dictionary would be full of naughty words. but not this one. i love discovering the culture and history of words: where they came from, where they’re going and how they were used on the decks of ships in times past.

here are some of my favourites:

tempest

a word not much used by seamen. it is, however synonymous with storms, gales, &c.

ascii

the inhabitants of the torrid zone, who twice a year, being under a vertical sun, have no shadow.

artist

a name formerly applied to those mariners who were expert navigators.

navigation

the art of conducting vessels on the sea, not only by the peculiar knowledge of seamanship in all its intricate details, but also by such a knowledge of the higher branches of nautical astronomy as enables the commander to hit his port, after a long succession of bad weather, and an absence of three or four months from all land. any man without science may navigate the entire canals of great britain, but may be unable to pass from plymouth to guernsey.

Sample page 1

Sample page 2

if you’d like a copy for yourself – click here

for whom the bell tolls

by ernest hemingway

for whom the bell tolls

for whom the bell tolls begins and ends in a forest in the middle of the spanish civil war during the year 1937. robert jordan is a dynamiter whose mission brings him into the hill country where he must win the favour of the antifascist guerrilla forces so they will aid him in blowing up a bridge.

This is the best book Ernest Hemingway has written, the fullest, the deepest, the truest. It will, I think, be one of the major novels in American literature.

The New York Times Book Review, J. Donald Adams