Do you have what it takes to be a leader? Probably not. But that’s all right. In her mid-twenties, Julie Zhuo answered the call for leadership when she became a manager at Facebook. In her book, she compiled her mistakes, lessons, and strategies to lead people and create better organizations – so you can learn to become a leader.
What do you do when everyone looks to you for guidance and leadership? Some thrive in the spotlight. Others crumble and fail. Julie Zhuo went from being the first intern “at this website called Facebook” to becoming a Vice President of Product Design in her 13.5 years at the social network. Her career is not a career of an outlier but a results-driven, hard-working individual. Managing people is no different. Managers are made, not born.
The Making of a Manageris a field guide for growth. First, I read it cover-to-cover. Then I realized how powerful each chapter is by itself and started keeping it near my desk to calibrate my thinking against experiences at work. Zhuo describes her growth through a forward-leaning approach to people management. Most notably, her approach seeks to stress test her own leadership protocol to fail – only to allow her a chance to improve it. It’s hard work. Dedication. And (my personal favorite) thoughtful questions directed at peers, partners, reports, but perhaps most importantly herself. After all, leadership starts with managing yourself.
Any entrepreneur will benefit from her early experience at a company that would grow to redefine how people connect with one another. Any employee in a large organization will relate to her tactful yet challenging questions during individual and group meetings. Zhuo’s relatable and empathetic writing style reels in any reader contemplating a career in people management. That being said, the market for business books is quite saturated with leadership or self-improvement books and to some, her experience might be too far from reality given her unique circumstances coming up at Facebook. To this day, I truly enjoy reading her posts or notes and the general public can do so too on her blog The Looking Glass, or on her website at https://www.juliezhuo.com/
Richard Stengel’s memoir illustrates the complexity of modern government.
Richard Stengel served as the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs alongside the 68th Secretary of State John Kerry. In his memoir “Information Wars – How We Lost The Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It” he recounts his time working for the Obama administration. Arguably, the Obama administration was a forward-leaning government calibrated to modern technology with a pulse on current affairs. Stengel really captures the struggles that even a modern government must overcome. From protocol and etiquette at meetings to the clearance protocol of social media use and other technology. When recounting his efforts to drive the democratic narrative online, combatting bad actors in the process, Stengel observed:
“One of the things I’d noticed in government is that people who had never been in media, who had never written a story or produced one, […] who didn’t understand audiences or what they liked, seemed to think it was easy to create content. People had the illusion that because they consumed something, they understood how it worked.”
This fallacy applies to many more segments of society, not just government. It illustrates how technology is misunderstood by the public who tend to forget that policy decisions and strategy at scale, impacting thousands if not millions of people, are incredibly tough to fine-tune and nuanced at all levels. Stengel offers an example of counter-messaging the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram social media by leveraging the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC). Boko Haram had kidnapped some 276 girls from a secondary school in Nigeria. The idea was simple: show support for the kidnapped girls in an online campaign. Stengel approved the content for the campaign. Ten days later, he found out the content was objected by the Africa bureau. After updating the content with feedback from the Africa bureau, the content was approved but not through the clearance process because the Bureau of Intelligence and Research had objected on those changes. Ten days of silence on social media is tantamount to a lifetime of non-existence. Stengel went on learning that things he’d expect to take hours would take days; things he’d expect to take days would take weeks; things that he’d expect to take weeks would take months. Many more governmental departments default to “No” than to a “Yes”. It really made me think about new ways to improve government. But it is also an urgent reminder that government needs disruption.
Another interesting lesson from this book is the balance between diplomacy, career development and leadership. His interactions with the Secretary of State John Kerry testify to Stengel’s business acumen despite working for the government. About Kerry Stengel notes:
“He’s permanently leaning forward. That was his attitude about the world as well. To plunge in, to move forward, to engage. There’s no knot he doesn’t think he can untie, no breach that he can’t heal. For him, the cost of doing nothing was always higher than that of trying something.”
It’s almost bittersweet to read these lines of optimism considering the slow pace the State Department moved during these heydays of ISIS, Al-Qaeda or Boko Haram all the way leading up to the Russian influence operation to undermine the 2016 US Presidential elections. Then again, Stengel really captured the predicament of the government at the time when he writes:
“What few of us understood at that point was that our opponents– Russia as well as ISIS –wanted us to get into a back-and-forth with them. It validated what they were doing, brought us down to their level, and besides, we weren’t as good at it as they were. They won when they got us to respond in kind.”
Engagement and impressions are everything online. Capturing our attention is the success metric for effective influence operations. This can be an overt diplomatic endeavor, like the Iran Nuclear deal, that sought to bring the United States and Iran a step closer together, or it can be a clandestine operation, like ‘Glowing Symphony’, that sought to deplatform ISIS and eradicate their narrative online.
Information Wars should have been titled with a more accurate title. Other than that I found Stengel’s memoir quite illuminating when it comes to government processes and how the State Department aligns itself with the current administration. As a journalist-by-trade and former managing editor of Time Magazine, Stengel’s writing style is simple and narrating. The density could have been better. It sometimes feels like a magazine. Across 7 parts and numerous chapters a lot of personal anecdotes and experience dilute the lessons of this book. Without that, this 314 page memoir could have been a concise non-fiction on influence operations and a concise memoir about his life.
Everything you ever wanted to know about gathering strangers, colleagues, friends, or family under a variety of circumstances so they will connect and cherish the event.
Priya Parker is an expert in conflict resolution. Throughout her career, her work often required facilitating high-stakes meetings between different political leaders around the world. This helped her to collect first-hand experience about how we connect with one another and what makes a gathering meaningful. In essence that is what The Art Of Gathering – How We Meet And Why It Matters is all about. It’s a root cause analysis that identifies the levers to make an event become a lasting memory. Her premise is centered around the fallacy of the “chill host”. A chill host is overly concerned about the logistics of an event instead of caring about the people and their experiences. It’s the type of “hands-off” host who sits back on the night of the gathering. Parker argues the event starts at the moment of the first conception and it ends (sometimes) long after people have left the premises. A host needs to identify beforehand the “why” they’re really gathering. What meaning is to be conveyed by bringing a certain group of people together? Who to invite? Who to cut? And where would be the optimal environment to accommodate individuals’ preferences? A host needs to be disciplined, proactive and leveraging pop-up rules.
An illustration of the former is about her first experience with the female period. When she was eleven years old, she got her first period – at a friend’s house. Insecure about it, she didn’t tell anybody, but went back home and told her mom eventually. Eleven is an age where beliefs and judgments correlate with people’s reactions. Her mom’s reaction to learning about her daughter’s first period was one of celebration. She danced, hooted, and hollered with joy. Inadvertently or intentionally, her mom taught her daughter that being a woman, the unique features that make a woman female, was something to be celebrated, cherished, and embraced. Her mom even threw her a period party. How about that!
Whereas an example for the latter is what Parker coined “The Château Principle”. Thereunder the host needs to realize that the choice of venue is among the most powerful levers over the guests’ behavior. Her example revolves around the infamous failure of merger negotiations between the French cellphone provider Alcatel and the American telecommunications equipment provider Lucent. (Read this analysis for more details) Initially, both parties prepared the merger diligently in good faith and geared up to create a “marriage of equals”. To finalize the deal, both parties were supposed to meet in a nondescript airport hotel in New Jersey. However, when an Alcatel executive fell ill, they requested the meeting to be held in France in the Château Des Mesnuls, a renaissance style castle. While it’s speculation to find out the real reasons for the failure of the merger, a few Lucent executives recounting the negotiations observed how the château brought out the Frenchness of the French. Alcatel employees became comfortable asserting their dominance on home turf which reflected a certain arrogance and hubris that tipped the negotiations to fall apart. Location, location, location is real-estate wisdom that also applies to gatherings.
Parker wrote The Art Of Gathering across 281 pages segmented into 8 chapters. It is a quick and easy read yet I found some paragraphs could have been edited more succinctly. Her voice can come across as overbearing or patronizing, but I view this as part of re-learning a part of my life that I neglected for far too long. Notably understanding gatherings as social contracts with certain responsibilities is incredibly helpful. In addition to offering practical tips on how to discover, structure, and select event details I was surprised by how easy it seems to translate her findings to cyberspace, e.g metaverse gatherings in virtual reality or group events and chats on Facebook. Anyone quite interested in the subject of crowd psychology will be able to fill in knowledge gaps and view certain aspects of their social gatherings through a new, fresh lens.
Book recommendations ebb and flow. Some find me by chance. Others are the product of premeditated research. The Art Of Gathering was recommended to me by my dear friend Nichole. The story of how we met goes beyond the scope of this blog, but I will document this: it was under the most random, endearing, and meaningful circumstances crammed into one weekend somewhere around Seattle. Flying boxed wine bags, neon lights, and deep, mind-absorbing conversations included.
In case you are not into reading an entire book on the single topic of bringing people together then I would recommend watching this video. Parker says “how we gather is how we live”. How do you live your life?
Vikram Seth’s novel in verse will make you remember that your worries are all about things that merely sustain life, but love, passion, and the beauty of nature are what we live for.
The Golden Gatefound me as I was browsing boxes filled with old books on a flea market somewhere in the Inner Sunset. I picked it up out of curiosity. I bought it because I wanted to read more poetry. I found it refreshing to read poetry that is something different yet familiar. Familiar in the sense that it speaks about my city – the place where I live, love, and linger (sometimes at the expense of my plentiful responsibilities). Here are some notable verses that let my mind wander:
“Subdued and silent, he surveys it– The loveliest city in the world. No veiling words suffice to praise it, But if you saw it as, light-pearled, Fog-fingered, pinnacled, I see it Across the black tide, you’d agree it Outvied the magic of our own. Even tonight, as Ed, alone, Makes out Marina, plaza, tower, Fort Point, Presidio–he feels A benediction as it steals Over his heart with its still power. He thinks, “I’ll phone Phil. No, instead, Better to write him, as he said” ”
“From the tall overlook, the indented Shoreline extends in cliffs and bays And promontories through the scented Wind-sheared sage northwest to Point Reyes. Northward, Mount Tamalpais lowers; Southward, through leather fearns, wildflowers –Tangling and twining through the lush Confusion of coyote brush And winter weeds–the blue Pacific, Unwrinkled as a pond, defines With wharves and cypresses and pines Three edges of the hieroglyphic Of San Francisco, still and square And sun-bleached in the ocean air.”
“Some claim the coast of California Is seasonless, that there’s no snow To flavor winter. Others, born here Or fleeing here–glad to forgo The option of frostbitten fingers And housebound months as hoarfrost lingers Upon the firs, less picturesque Than deadening, while from their desk They’d stare past dark eaves fringed with icicles Well into March, and scarcely dare To breathe the east or midwest air– Now yield, with tank tops, frisbees, bicycles, Dogs, cats, and kids and tans and smiles To spring’s precocious warmth and wiles.”
Reading The Golden Gate was a struggle, but after a few pages, the eloquent rhymes create a harmony with the storyline that is indescribable but captivating. Read it cover to cover or take a slow and deliberate approach to each verse. The Golden Gate will deliver. Eureka!
Ballistic books is a series to present literature of interest. Each edition is dedicated to a specific topic. I found it challenging to discover and distinguish good from great literature. With this series, I aim to mitigate that challenge.
Swimming is the harmony of floating in motion. Much like running, it is a form of moving meditation. As a kid, I used to spend most of my days in, around, or near rivers, lakes, and the ocean. From building rafts with friends that would make Huckleberry Finn proud to jumping into the water with immaculate cannonballs from trees along the shoreline or simply swimming against relentless swell in hopes of catching the perfect wave. Water is freedom. Moving in water is the closest to feeling free we humans can experience. Recently, a wonderful soul gave me Why We Swim with a warm recommendation. I look forward to learning more from Tsui about our relationship with water. Understanding the psychology and philosophy behind overcoming our natural fear of water seems to me a worthwhile endeavor. Swell caught my attention because it tells the history of swimming with a focus on equality. Swimming used to be reserved for men only. Landreth tells the story of how fearless women challenged the status quo and fought for equal access to swimming. These women paved the path for many incredible female athletes. One of these incredible female athletes is Penny Lee Dean. Her autobiography Just Try One More chronicles the highlights of her life and her many adversities, but perhaps more intriguing she tells the reader that you can do it too. Lastly, a guide about books on swimming can’t live without the greatest swimmer of all time: Michael Phelps. His 2009 book No Limits takes the reader through the trials and tribulations of an olympian. It’s a blend between autobiography and revisiting his most spectacular successes at the Olympic Games.
Michael Phelps is an American former competitive swimmer. He is the most successful and most decorated Olympian of all time. His foundation focuses on growing the sport of swimming and advocating for mental healthcare. You can find Michael Phelps on Twitter @MichaelPhelps
Nobody goes through life and is successful all on their own. In his memoir “Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations” retired Admiral William H. McRaven chronicles some of his experiences, achievements, and challenges that would not have been possible without the help of others.
I never know what to expect from memoirs, autobiographies, or personal accounts. “Make Your Bed”, however, made me feel excited to learn more about the life of Admiral William H. McRaven. He first went viral following his commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin reaching a broad audience at home and abroad. His remarkable career within special operations could be described with an endless list of Hollywood movies that includes the capture of Saddam Hussein, the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips, and the infamous Operation Neptune Spear – the mission to bring to justice the leader of Al-Qaeda – Osama bin Laden. Sea Stories is the rendezvous of his personal account and professional experience. Across eighteen chapters, McRaven tells his story of becoming a special operator. Born into a military family, McRaven gradually evolved his character from a rambunctious average child to a skilled and trusted leader. The early chapters eloquently describe the struggle to follow the footsteps of his family and the generation that ended European tyranny. Finding his profession through an evolution of athletic endeavors combined with the grace and support of good people helping the young McRaven along the way was heart-warming to read but also inspiring when McRaven reflected
“knowing I could set a goal, work hard, suffer through pain and adversity, and achieve something worthwhile made me realize that I could accomplish anything I put my mind to”
McRaven’s writing style is entertaining yet sometimes a little bland. Each chapter has its own charisma and appeal, which make this book a great read for a commute or as an alongside read to another book.
Critics called out that other communities within special operations have taken a different approach to public relations, one defined by discretion and the principle of the quiet professional. McRaven’s memoir continues to amplify the already romanticized image of the Navy SEALs without critically examining the current issues within the Navy SEAL community ranging from alleged war crimes to mental health to discipline problems. When in reality, the Navy SEAL community is drifting away from its core values prompting retired and active duty Navy SEALs to speak up against the exploitation for personal gain by so many former special operators. McRaven failed the reader in that regard, but perhaps more tragically failed his fellow SEALs. Sea Stories is nothing more than repeating special operation missions already known to the public. In some cases these stories were immortalized by heroic portrayals of Hollywood actors. But it’s also nothing less than a personal account of serving 37 years, almost four decades, in one of the toughest professional organizations within any military industrial complex in the world. I found pleasure reading some of the stories while its sometimes repetitive nature often undermined a true takeaway for the reader.
Michiko Kakutani offers an eloquent compilation that explains the decay of veracity in the United States. But perhaps more importantly, it skillfully weaves together almost a century of painful lessons from history, literature, and politics.
The Death of Truth was highly scrutinized by media publishers, book critiques, and the greater literature community at the time of its publication. Google the reviews. As the title suggests The Death of Truth – Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani advocates for the truth to be added to the list of casualties of the former Trump administration. Reading this book at the end of 2021, almost exactly one year since Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States, and almost 3 ½ years after its initial release, I can’t help but view this book as a compilation of essays that are really bite-sized opinion pieces. This makes for an immersive, moving reading experience, but also renders the message of The Death of Truth to be the mere same polemic it appeared to seek to quash. Admittedly, a provocative diagnosis of our current political landscape is hardly done in the total absence of partisanship.
Kakutani brilliantly threads her analysis by starting with a historical review of culture wars and past regimes’ handling of truth. She gradually escalates her storyline to the twenty-first century with humanity’s dependency on social media, algorithmic subversion of political decision making, and foreign actors exploiting the American focus on self-pursuit at the expense of civil responsibilities. In her epilogue, Kakutani warns of the continued erosion of democratic institutions. We, the people, must protect the democratic institutions that uphold the roof of democracy. At the same time, there won’t be any easy remedies or shortcuts that will fix our polarized, cultural division. Times like these require deft civil disobedience of the many that are publicly rejecting the idea of cynicism and resignation pursued by the totalitarian few.
People who are likely to read this book are unlikely to learn something new, but I believe it’s still worth it for the extensive reading resources provided by Kakutani. Her remarkably colorful writing style and sobering outlook on the future state of veracity in the United States won’t disappoint either. NPR’s Michael Schaub nailed it when he wrote: “The Death of Truth is a slim volume that’s equally intriguing and frustrating, an uneven effort from a writer who is, nonetheless, always interesting to read.”
Jocko Willink’s field manual translates leadership theory into a practical guide for your everyday leadership.
Leading people to achieve sometimes abstract business objectives is arguably among the most intricate human endeavors. Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink is a step-by-step guide on leadership strategies and how to become effective in leading other people.
The book is structured in two parts spanning seven sections. Each section covers a specific area and appears to answer a specific question. For example, in part two section two, subsection e. titled “Decentralized Command or Lazy Designation?” Willink explores different styles of leadership to illustrate that a decentralized command can have the collateral appearance that a leader is constantly avoiding work or taking responsibility. A solution to this problem is a blend between observation and readiness to perform. This means, a leader should be aware of attitudes or misperceptions before they bloom into problems. Any inkling of that should be mitigated by taking over a task or taking charge of the most challenging project. This requires a leader to maintain a certain level of involvement and skill training. At this point, it becomes clear that Willinks advice finds its boundaries in the complex, corporate world where an upper-level manager is unlikely to maintain involvement in the ground operations of his reports. If one or more reports turn out to intentionally undermine the decentralized command to get rid of work, then, according to Willink, a leader should seek means to replace those reports, which is also not feasible and oftentimes can expose the company to legal risk. Nevertheless, the subsection provides important clarity on appearances and perceptions for both leaders and reports. Moreover, the mere awareness of an attitude within the team or certain individuals can help preempt certain leadership decisions in favor of a more collaborative solution.
Another interesting subsection covers “Everone Is The Same, Everyone Is Different”. Therein Willink explores the concept of scaled leadership in moderation. In most organizations, large or small, there will be a high degree of individuality, but also a clear, common denominator across the employee pool. It is the responsibility of the leader to create basic leadership tools applicable across the entire spectrum of employees whenever a business’ need requires a specific team to perform. At the same time, the leader must retain an observant mindset to effectively modulate these leadership tools depending on the situation and the individual members of the team. In his example, Willink suggests understanding the drivers of the situation first before taking diplomatic steps that might result in increasing or decreasing a reports’ responsibilities. While it may be common sense in theory, these concepts rarely translate well into the real corporate world without a modicum of friction or confusion among reports. Tact, diplomacy, and subtlety, therefore, make or break an effective communication which is the foundation to successfully drive a critical business need to completion.
In his conclusion titled “It’s All On You But Not About You” Willink reiterates the importance of keeping your ego in check and making it about helping others to succeed. All responsibility stops with the leader of an organization or team. But it’s not about the responsibility or about the leader. Leadership is about making informed, inclusive decisions to effectively drive company objectives together as a team to succeed as a team. It’s about forming effective relationships of trust across all levels of the organization. This requires discipline over ego and emotions. Failing to enable others to perform at the highest level possible will inevitably invite corrosive attitudes into an otherwise well-performing team. Understanding that a leader only succeeds when the team succeeds is true leadership. It really summarizes the theme of this book: be humble and if you take care of the work, the work will take care of you.
Jocko Willink spent his formative years in the military. His leadership as a commanding officer of SEAL Team 3 aka “Task Unit Bruiser” led to the most military decorations of a Special Operations unit during the Iraq War. With all that in mind, his writing style is militaristic, relies on military terminology, and often draws premise from complex, military regulations. Altogether this really undermines creative extrapolation into everyday leadership. If you aren’t familiar with his previous publications this book can appear too detached from everyday business issues for the non-military, mid-level manager of a brick-and-mortar business. Overall Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual is a good book. While it rides and repeats common sense concepts it creates value as an everyday guide for early and experienced leaders alike. It does compete with other business and management books on leadership in a rather saturated market. This makes me believe the audience for this book would be found in the military, government or other large-scale corporations. I’m having a hard time seeing this book attracting an audience in more progressive sectors.
Andorsky takes the reader on a story-driven adventure into behavioral science. Decoding the Why lives in a constant tension between the evolution of product design and human behavior. It describes psychological concepts and how they influence product designs. It provides practical guidance on how to meet the consumer’s cognitive state before intent is formed and how to use behavioral science to nudge the consumer towards action. For example in the part about ‘Meeting Our Future Selves’ Andorsky reviews Matthew McConaughey’s iconic Oscar acceptance speech after winning the Oscar for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
“When I was 15 years old I had a very important person in my life come to me and say, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I gotta think about that, give me a couple of weeks.’
This Person comes back two weeks later and says, ‘Who’s your hero?’ I replied, ‘You know what, I thought about it and it’s me in ten years.’
So I turn twenty-five. Ten years later, that same person comes to me and says, ‘So are you a hero?’ I replied, ‘No, no, no, not even close.’ ‘Why?’ she said. ‘Cause my hero is me at thirty-five,’ I said.
See, every day, every week, every month, every year of my life, my hero is always ten years away. I’m never going to meet my hero, I am never going to obtain that, and that’s totally fine because it gives me somebody to keep on chasing.”
If humans were rational we’d all pursue the rational thing to maximize our time and energy. However, we are not rational. All too often we give in to the instant gratification that lies in the moment by putting off the thing that helps us tomorrow. This concept is also known as Hyperbolic Discounting. Andorsky walks the reader through the obstacles that keep us from meeting our future selves by reviewing methods such as reward systems, gamification models, commitment devices, and goal setting, all of which, are used to inform product design.
If I ever write a book, I will likely attempt to create a similar structure and flow. Andorsky did an excellent job by breaking down the content into easily digestible parts. Each part tells a captivating story concluding in an engaging question for the reader. While the subject matter could have easily been told with jargon and psychology terminology, the author consistently uses clear and non-academic language to explain a variety of behavioral and psychological concepts and theories. Altogether this makes for an accessible page-turner offering a wide range of practical applications.
Taking a birds-eye view on Decoding the Why, I feel, I could come to two conclusions that could not be further apart: (1) Andorsky answers the eternal question of what makes us do what we do and how product designers can learn from these behavioral patterns to build better products or (2) Andorsky provides ammunition to weaponize psychology in order to calibrate intrusive technology that can be used to manipulate and exploit human behavior. Whatever your position is on the question of using behavioral science to influence user behavior, this book is a gateway to explore psychological concepts, and it is an important read for changemakers. It can be used for good, or, it can be used to inform better public policy. I’d rank Decoding the Why as a must-read for product designers, product managers, and anyone working to improve user experiences in technology.
Maybe it is time to dial back our enthusiasm for classic novels with a checkered past and banal storylines.
Sometimes all it takes is a little controversy. J.D. Salinger inadvertently created controversy around his first published novel “The Catcher In The Rye” by crafting a contrast between individual experience and societal change. His main character’s use of inappropriate and foul language led to several removals from school curriculums while, at the same time, being subscribed to the school curriculums of many others for its brilliant depiction of childhood emotions and the struggle of adolescents. In essence, the Catcher in the Rye is about protecting the innocence of young life. It can be seen as a critique of society or merely as an autobiographical account (Salinger recanted his early statements that his main character Holden Caulfield was tailored after his own childhood). Frankly, I wasn’t moved when I was forced to read this book as a teenager and I’m not moved by it twenty years later. Maybe another few decades will make me view it differently, but for now, I question the Catcher in the Rye’s status as a classic. It is incoherent writing. It fails to establish gravitas or emotional trust in the main character’s thoughts and actions. It seems to me to be a book that was published a lifetime ago when the baby boomers were changing social structure forever, and not for the better. Salinger is a product of this generation. Some of his experience translates into younger generations, but I couldn’t relate. I really wanted to find myself in this book, however, I am glad that I didn’t.