Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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History lessons

Q: We all need advice as we seek success in our careers and lives. What are your five favorite business books, and why? What advice wasn't so helpful?


John Adams created a nation. Jon Krakauer lived through madness. Cedric Jennings beat the odds. My favorite "business" books are not business books at all, but books that have taught me quite a lot about being a successful business leader.

"John Adams" by David McCullough is one of my favorites. McCullough's delightful prose and careful research paint a portrait of a real human being, not some Gilbert Stuart painting.

Adams was stubborn, proud, vain and often wrong -- like most leaders -- but he understood duty, loyalty and the good form of patriotism that leads people to choose public service to be part of community building. Adams built more than a community, he was one of the essential builders of the foundation for this country.

McCullough's tale of Adams' exploits and foibles makes him a highly accessible role model for contemporary leaders at work as well as in the public sector. And there's always the utterly cool Abigail Adams to make sense of John's occasional muddles, mistakes and sour moods.

By the way, I love historic biography and adventure, so Theodore Roosevelt also looms large in my reading, from McCullough's "Mornings on Horseback" to Candice Millard's "River of Doubt" which illustrated that even the smartest, most experienced leaders can make puzzling choices.

But for puzzling, fatal choices that provide a cautionary tale of risk management gone awry, few books can match Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" that told the story of the day in 1996 when eight climbers died on Mt. Everest, including two renowned and experienced guides.

Every business leader should read Krakauer's story of the grief that ensues when corners are cut, safety precautions are ignored, plans are scrapped for expedience. The profit motive, pushed by wealthy individual clients who paid their expedition leaders huge sums of money to get them onto Everest's summit, blinded even the most experienced leaders to the dangers of a gathering storm that day.

Krakauer's tale left me wondering about all of the times in the normal course of business when we fail to take measures to ensure safety, to evaluate the dangers inherent in plunging ahead even though we know we are improperly equipped. Hubris, pressure, caving in to client demands, ignoring the basics -- the catastrophe on Everest is an entire management seminar.

A very different kind of seminar, more hopeful and with a happier ending, emerges in Ron Suskind's "A Hope in the Unseen," the story of Cedric Jennings, a graduate of Ballou High School in one of the grimmest neighborhoods in D.C., who finds himself at Brown University.

This book is an encyclopedia of persistence, doubt, courage and ultimate triumph against the odds. I gave it to my entire faculty to read at Trinity because we work with many students from the D.C. Public Schools. Success for at-risk students starts with belief -- the student's belief in himself, the teacher's belief in the student.

I recently met Cedric Jennings, who now works in the mayor's office. Polished, polite and self-possessed, he is a success story that should inspire other students to keep persisting.

Oh, and I do read business books once in a while in spite of my general dislike for the genre. "Execution" by Larry Bossidy is one I gave to my entire senior staff --- no, it's not about the death penalty, but rather, the imperative of exellence in fulfilling the tasks necessary to achieve business success.

Managers have to pay attention to the details. The culture of delegation, in which paying attention is derisively dismissed as "micromanagement," often leads to business failure.

One more: I also gave my staff "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman. Most of them appear to be using it as a doorstop. But my point in sharing the book with my senior managers at Trinity was to illustrate a point I make almost every day: the key to business success is cross-functional relationships among talented people wherever they are, regardless of boundaries created by nations or corporate entities or org charts.

Too much emphasis in traditional organizations is on vertical reporting structures. The flat world, however, has already smashed the corporate pyramid in favor of autonomous individuals working in teams to create new ideas, new products and new ways of communicating with the public.

Organizations that insist on rigid local hierarchies are as doomed as the Ottoman Empire -- or General Motors. Universities, of all organizations, should be able to innovate new structures and ways of communicating.

What's next? My summer reading list is growing, thanks to the faculty who are sending suggestions. I will post results of my reading on my Trinity blog later in the summer. Rest assured that there will be at least one big, cushy, juicy historical biography! I'm picking it now...

By Patricia McGuire  |  June 24, 2010; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  Careers and success Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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