More Books and Lessons to Lead By

More from my bookshelf – October 2020

Looking Ahead:

A shorter list this month that touches on marketing, history, and equity, along with values and virtues.  Hopeful ideas to lead by.  I’ll spare you the political exposés and thrillers.

And a bonus section, Lessons to Lead By, from Robert Iger’s book, Ride of a Lifetime.

Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

by Donald Miller  | Oct 10, 2017

Make customers heroes.  Listen to their problems.  Show how you can guide them to success.  This is the formula for every great book, movie, or marketing campaign.  An easy read with lots of practical advice for leadership and communication.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson  | Feb 25, 2020

Based on many family journals, this history reads like a fast-paced novel.  Churchill has debts to pay, a coming-of-age daughter, and a wayward son; and may be voted out of office.  But he carries on, wooing the U.S., defying Hitler, and imparting courage to the British as 1000s die in nightly bombing raids.  Gives hope and encouragement for our times.  If Churchill and the UK can survive unimaginable hard times, we can carry on through COVID for a while longer.

The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die

by Keith Payne  | May 1, 2018

The U.S. has wider inequality gaps than most other peer nations.  Inequality – even perceived inequality – creates stress and causes us to act in ways not in our best interests.  Inequality hurts us all, not just the lower end of the scale.  Explains, in charts and stories, how inequality and built-in institutional biases prevent upward mobility.

His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope

by Jon Meacham and John Lewis  | Aug 25, 2020

The compelling inside story of the history of the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of John Lewis.  Tells how John Lewis was there at the beginning, quiet, unassuming, dedicated to non-violence despite repeat beatings and dozens of arrests.  A good companion to John Lewis’ memoir, Across that Bridge.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Signet Classics)

by Burton Raffel, Brenda Webster, et al. | Feb 3, 2009

This was on my granddaughter’s assigned reading list for British Literature.  I too read this super short Arthurian tale.  Sir Gawain defends Arthur, accepts an impossible quest, and displays the highest levels of courage and chivalry.  A perfect example of the genre and our seemingly forgotten admiration for integrity and honoring our commitments.

Fear Not Tomorrow, God Is Already There Devotional: 100 Certain Truths for Uncertain Times

Billy Graham’s daughter offers 100 Certain Truths for Uncertain Times.  I always keep one read going – spiritual or secular – that points the way forward with optimism and hope.  This book does that well.

BONUS: Lessons to Lead By, from Robert Iger in Ride of a Lifetime

Slightly edited quotes taken from the Appendix to The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger, Jim Frangione, et al.

Now more than ever: innovate or die.

There can be no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new.  I talk a lot about “the relentless pursuit of perfection.”  In practice, this can mean a lot of things, and it’s hard to define.  It’s a mindset, more than a specific set of rules.  It’s not about perfectionism at all costs.  It’s about creating an environment in which people refuse to accept mediocrity.

Take responsibility when you screw up.

In work, in life, you’ll be more respected and trusted by the people around you if you own your mistakes.

Be decent to people.

Treat everyone with fairness and empathy.  This doesn’t mean you lower your expectations.

Excellence and fairness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. 

True integrity

Knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong is a kind of secret leadership weapon.  A company’s reputation is the sum total of the actions of its people and the quality of its products.  You have to demand integrity from your people and your products at all times.

Value ability more than experience.

Ask the questions you need to ask.

Admit without apology what you don’t understand.

Managing creativity is an art, not a science.

Don’t start negatively, and don’t start small.

Don’t invest in small projects that sap energy and resources and do not give much back.

Permission to fail.

I became comfortable with failure — not with lack of effort, but with the fact that if you want innovation, you need to grant permission to fail.

Take risks.

Don’t be in the business of playing it safe.  Be in the business of creating possibilities for greatness.  Long shots aren’t usually as long as they seem.  With enough thoughtfulness and commitment, the boldest ideas can be executed.

Have patience.

Don’t let ambition get ahead of opportunity.  Do the job you have well; be patient; look for opportunities to pitch in and expand and grow.

Resolve conflict.

When the people at the top of a company have a dysfunctional relationship, there’s no way the rest of the company can be functional.


As a leader, if you don’t do the work, the people around you are going to know.

Grow others.

At its essence, good leadership isn’t about being indispensable; it’s about helping others be prepared to step into your shoes.


Too often, we lead from a place of fear rather than courage.


You can’t communicate pessimism to the people around you.  It’s ruinous to morale.  No one wants to follow a pessimist.  Pessimism leads to paranoia, which leads to defensiveness, which leads to risk aversion.  Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you.


You have to convey your priorities clearly and repeatedly.  If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, then the people around you don’t know what their own should be.  Time, energy, and capital get wasted.  You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life.  This kind of messaging is fairly simple: This is where we want to be.  This is how we’re going to get there.  It should be about the future, not the past.


Treating others with respect is an undervalued currency.  When it comes to negotiating, a little respect goes a long way, and the absence of it can be very costly.


You have to do the homework.  You have to be prepared.  If something doesn’t feel right to you, it won’t be right for you.  Most deals are personal.  In any negotiation, be clear about where you stand from the beginning.


As a leader, you are the embodiment of that company.  Your values — your sense of integrity and decency and honesty, the way you comport yourself in the world — are a stand-in for the values of the company.


I try to be as direct about the problem as possible, explaining what wasn’t working and why I didn’t think it was going to change.  If you respect the person, then you owe them a clear explanation for the decision you’re making.  There’s no way for the conversation not to be painful, but at least it can be honest.  Align yourself with people who are good in addition to being good at what they do.  Genuine decency — an instinct for fairness and openness and mutual respect — is a rarer commodity in business than it should be.

Be the best.

If you’re in the business of making something, be in the business of making something great.  The decision to disrupt a business model that is working for you requires no small amount of courage.  It means intentionally taking on short-term losses in the hope that a long-term risk will pay off.


It’s not good to have power for too long.  People withhold their opinions until they hear what you have to say.  People are afraid to bring ideas to you, afraid to dissent, afraid to engage.  You have to approach your work and life with a sense of genuine humility.  Hold on to your awareness of yourself, even as the world tells you how important and powerful you are.  The moment you start to believe it all too much, the moment you look at yourself in the mirror and see a title emblazoned on your forehead, you’ve lost your way.

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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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