Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review (#4 of 2012) Axiom by Bill Hybels

Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs is a poorly named, but otherwise good book. An axiom is "a proposition that commends itself to general acceptance," in math/logic it's a premise accepted as true without controversy and without being deduced from logic-- it's a starting point that you build other deductions from.

Hybels is using the word basically to mean "recorded observations" or "short phrases that sum up a larger idea." It took me a few chapters to get past this, but once I did I really enjoyed Hybel's stories of life in his business-- which happens to be a church.

Hybels is founding and Senior Pastor of Willowcreek Community Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in the U.S. It strikes me that Willowcreek grew so big in part because they were well-led and well-organized to handle growth. If you're organized and excellent at what you do, then people will find you attractive. Hybels is using basic business management techniques (sometimes unknowingly) to build the infrastructure to sustain growth. Growth isn't a problem if you've got the right vision, policies, and procedures in place. Where people know their roles and can be properly assessed as to whether they're performing those roles or not. Where everyone can cite the organization's vision and purpose and everyone knows their role and can train others to do it as well. This is the backbone of Willowcreek's philosophy.

Hybels gives stories of various growth pains and how they overcame them. He gives his philosophies about proper communication, how to run meetings, etc. If you're in any business with the understanding that what you do glorifies God then you can glean from this book. I actually jotted down some notes on my iPod while I was listening.

A few comments that stood out to me:
Before you embark on a new project or producing a new product you have to ask yourself: Is it Kingdom-advancing? Can it be launched well? Will it be sustainable?  If you can't answer "Yes" to all three things, then don't do it. 

"All great leaders read," everything and anything they can get their hands on. Hybels has little patience for people in leadership positions who don't voraciously read books written by other leaders. He does it, and expects his leaders to.

"Excellence is God-honoring and inspires people." Hybels uses Romans 12:8 to support the idea that leaders are to lead with diligence, demanding more quality control of themselves than ISO or any external auditing body could ever demand. If you can't be excellent at something, should you be doing it? This reminds me of Seth Godin's "Dip."

"Admit your mistakes and your stock goes up." Good leaders admit their errors and what they've learned from them. I jive with Hybels here, if you've made a mistake in a business then investors don't necessarily want your head on a platter, they want to know that you've now learned from those mistakes and won't make them again. The best leaders aren't perfect, they're ones that learn from mistakes and are therefore more valuable than ones who haven't yet had opportunity to make those mistakes.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you get past his misunderstanding of what an "axiom" is, then you'll like it.

Book Review (#3 of 2012) Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller

Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road was written after Blue Like Jazz (my review) but the events in the book took place mostly before Blue Like Jazz. Whoever thought it was a good idea to make a movie from Blue Like Jazz must be the same person who thought it be a good idea to have Don read his own audio books. He has a monotone way of reading that puts you to sleep, but it's generally my preference to hear the author tell his own story.

Don and his friend Paul take a beaten up Volkswagen van from Houston to Oregon and encounter the kind of people you'd expect along the way: Strangers who help them fix their car, people who work in roadside cafes, old friends, etc. They hike and camp and talk about love and life. Nothing really insightful. Occasionally, Don will have an epiphany about God and write a few paragraphs about it. This book is basically his journal of that road trip, and I suppose his publishers would think people would find it interesting because his Blue Like Jazz journaling sold so well.

I listened to this book primarily on subway rides in Ankara. The first few chapters annoyed me because it was so self-centric of a couple of middle class, white Southerners to think the world revolves around them and their road trip idea. Eventually, I warmed to the book as their encounters led them places and they resolved interpersonal conflicts and such. At the end of the book when they're sleeping in a tent in the woods and working summer jobs at a nearby pool, Don as a janitor, I'm struck by how easy it is in Oregon to live like that. Don doesn't talk much about his janitorial duties, but I suppose taking on such dirty work gave me a respect for him I wouldn't have otherwise.

But much of this book is like a boring reality TV show where you're sort of a voyeur into these guys pretty tame lives. The fact that people look to this book for spiritual insight really disturbs me, there's really not much there. They don't seem to spend much of their time looking at Scripture much, so much of what passes as spiritual insights (only about 10% of the book) are Don's own opinions on how God runs His universe. That Don would be some sort of hero to some people for writing about the ordinary tells me that American 20 somethings must really be bored or worse. Maybe I should write a book, see how it sells.

I give the book 2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review (#2 of 2012) Daniel Boone: The Life of an American Legend and Pioneer by John Mack Faragher

Daniel Boone: The Life of an American Legend and Pioneer by John Mack Faragher. I started this audio book when we were in the U.S. traveling up and down I-75 through Kentucky. It's fun to hear an historic place mentioned in a book and look up and see that the same place is at the next interstate exit.  This book taught me a lot about the history of Kentucky, and frontier life in general. As my own family's migration to Kentucky in the 1800s was somewhat tied to the trailblazing work of people like Boone and Col. Richard Henderson, I found the historical picture painted in this book to be pretty fascinating. A historian by the name of Tapp is quoted in one of the last chapters to boot. 

Boone is perhaps a legend only because he lived long enough to become one. But his life was so full of strange-but-true happenings it reads almost like a comic book. Taken captive by natives, later adopted as a blood brother, later killing those same blood brothers, and losing his fortune along with most other pioneer settlers along the way, just to mention a few chapters. He was a survivor who would lie, change sides, appear to change sides, and do whatever it took to survive the next day. But he certainly wasn't a coward.

One aspect of frontier life that was pretty fascinating was the foolhardy choices that were made out of pride in order not to appear cowardly. This got a lot of Kentuckians unnecessarily killed. Another was the fact that the land-grab was so quick and intense, that overlapping boundaries and disputes over surveys wound up in courts for over a century. A lot of people lost money this way. At the end of his life, Boone and other pioneers lamented that lawyers now carved up everything that had been theirs.

While there is some dispute, the historical facts seem fairly clear that when Boone left Kentucky for modern-day Missouri he never looked back. He hated the politics in Kentucky that had spurned him and probably would have never given permission for his bones to be re-interred in Kentucky, much less in Frankfort.

My only real Boone memory growing up was a family trip to Boonesborough where we watched a dramatized reenactment of a battle between Boone's company and a band of Shawnee led by Chief Blackfish. I was pretty scared of Blackfish when I was 5. What I don't remember learning then was that Blackfish was essentially Boone's adopted brother at one point in his captivity. Natives believed that by adopting a captive, their body would be inhabited by the soul of a deceased relative. Boone had apparently grown close to his Shawnee family in captivity, but how close remains in dispute as he led an escape and later had to kill some of them in battle.

I finished this book on my long subway rides in Ankara, which paints quite the contrast from frontier America. I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you want to know everything there is to know about Daniel Boone, buy this book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Excellence

I'm due to write some book reviews for this blog. I just finished one by Bill Hybels book some memorable quotes, including one about excellence that fits well into my worldview of the last month.
"Excellence is God-honoring and people-inspiring."  He uses Romans 12:8 to support his view that leaders should lead with "diligence," and demand more quality control of themselves personally and their organization than what anyone externally would ask for.

Reading this quote came on the heels of my speaking with the chief investment officer of a decent-sized equity fund looking to invest in international growth companies of a social nature. The first condition for investment was "excellence." When you hear the word "excellent" to describe an organization, what comes to mind?  Above-board accounting practices?  Well above-average growth and return on investment?  Characteristics of the "Great" companies of Jim Collins' Good to Great (my review)? 

To me, one non-negotiable of an "excellent" organization is a steadfast commitment to continuous improvement. Hybels also hits on this in the book. You can't improve things if you don't know what needs to be improved. You can't tell that unless you have concrete measures of performance that everyone knows. You must also have a grasp of the data. You need input from all aspects of the organization, meaning a system for people to report issues and ideas to management, and mechanisms for which management can act on the input. Rinse and repeat.

In your personal life, or in your department, business, etc. are you continuously improving? Are you striving for excellence or looking to reach a plateau that will be "just enough."  The difference between the two is "excellence."