3 2019

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Harvard Business Review Leader's Handbook.

Wildfire readers, have you checked-out the Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook? Recently, I’ve begun giving this excellent reference to developing leaders who I want to see succeed.

What I like about this essential reference is that authors Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville gather proven leadership ideas that have appeared in the pages of the Harvard Business Review over several decades and use interviews they conducted with more than 40 senior leaders, as well as their own experiences as consultants and advisors, to strengthen and reinforce the original thinking that appeared in the HBR. In the end, Ashkenas and Manville present the reader with six core leadership practices that have stood the test of time: building a unifying vision, developing a strategy, getting great people on board, focusing on results, innovating for the future, and leading yourself. I am, admittedly, an HBR junkie; so I’m biased, but I place great stock in the Harvard Business Review’s evidence-based and really well-written content. I frequently start my morning reading a short HBR article as I eat my breakfast. Most often, I find my articles by following @HarvardBiz on Twitter. A protégé and I found that reading these short articles together provided a good basis for worthwhile mentoring conversations.

Wildfire readers, who have read this column for any time, know that I have an uneasy relationship with the pervasive leadership industry and popular leadership press. You know, the people who produce thousands of training workshops and are responsible for the hundreds of books that appear on bookstore shelves each year, adding to the many thousands already available — all purporting to offer the latest, greatest leadership thinking.

Don’t get me wrong, I love learning about new thinking in leadership but, when it comes to leadership practice, particularly for emerging leaders developing their leadership foundation, there is a lot to be said for sticking to tried and true, evidence based frameworks and practices. The HBR Leader’s Handbook puts a nice collection of that tried and true approach in one handy reference.

I really like where some of the emerging thinking in leadership is going, including the growing awareness of, and focus on, emotional and social intelligence, the acknowledgement that neuroscience has much to offer the study of leadership, and emphasis on women and leadership. However, we students of leadership can allow ourselves to be carpet-bombed with ideas purveyed in any number of books by CEOs or Navy SEALs turned author and people who crank out a leadership book or two a year like they were romance novels. What I always want to know: Is this more than your personal opinion, has anyone tried this besides you, and does it work outside the context of your band of brothers?

It seems people are always searching for a new leadership framework, the game-changer. However, for emerging leaders, those still building their leadership foundation, and for those of us for whom being a student of leadership is a part-time job, I encourage the proven and enduring fundamentals of leadership that have survived the tests of time and experience. I know we recently modified our approach to L-480, stripping out a lot of fluff and focusing on giving our participants tools to better know and lead themselves — so that they in turn can mobilize the efforts of others around a common purpose. In doing so, while incorporating some cutting-edge stuff, we focused on time honored, evidence-based and proven leadership frameworks and approaches. I am glad we did, and I was proud of our cadre for providing our people not with leadership infotainment, but with practical tools that we, as experienced leaders, know work.

Similarly what I like about the HBR Leader’s Handbook and why I’ve started giving it as a gift both to aspiring leaders and to experienced leaders trying to grow, is that this text provides a single source of advice grounded in both evidence-based research and experience. I recently read an article in which Ashkenas and Manville describes their work as reviewing decades of articles from the Harvard Business Review to “understand the recurring messages from academics and practitioners about what leaders should do.” When they stacked that literature review up against their own experience as leadership advisors and consultants, they concluded that “the best leaders with the most outsize impact” nearly always employ the same six classic and fundamental practices.

Such successful leaders …

  1. Unite people around an aspirational vision
  2. Build a strategy for achieving the vision by making choices about what to do and what not to do
  3. Attract and develop the best possible talent to implement the strategy
  4. Relentlessly focus on results in the context of the strategy
  5. Create ongoing innovation that will reinvent the vision and strategy
  6. Lead themselves; knowing and growing oneself so that the leader can most effectively lead others and carry out the practices above.

We all know that leadership is both situational and contextual and that both the situation and the context matter. So, depending on the circumstances, the would-be leader may put more emphasis on one area than another, prioritize one practice over another, or sequence them differently than described above. But according to Ashkenas and Manville, regardless of context or situation, effective leadership always involves the employment of these same practices, and I cannot argue otherwise.

Having been a student of leadership for much of my life and a very formal student of leadership for 10 years, the more I have realized that, in the trenches of real organizations, leaders prove effective when they avoid chasing the latest pop theory or the heroic leader du jour, and organize their personal leadership philosophy around a core of proven leadership practices.

I, of course, strongly encourage all leaders to stay informed on the state-of-the-art; innovate continuously as they gain new knowledge; and treat their leadership philosophy as a work of continuous improvement. As I’ve written in these pages many times before, with new and turbulent organizational challenges comes the need for adaptive, enabling leadership. And that means adaptive, not only in real time, but willing to adapt our leadership approach in order to remain effective in a rapidly changing society and working environments. However, no one’s going to go wrong innovating and adapting around the core leadership practices suggested by Ashkenas’s and Manville’s research.

I encourage Wildfire readers interested in leadership to check-out the HBR Leader’s Handbook, which can serve as an excellent leadership primer and foundation made up of six core leadership practices that have stood the test of time.


The Harvard Business Review Leader’s Handbook: Make an Impact, Inspire Your Organization, and Get to the Next Level.

Available at https://hbr.org/product/the-harvard-business-review-leader-s-handbook-make-an-impact-inspire-your-organization-and-get-to-the-next-level/10158H-HBK-ENG.


Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.