Talking About Books

Professional reading is a critical part of being a leader, especially when tightly integrated with action.  When we weave together what we are reading with what we are doing, the rate at which we learn can increase dramatically.

To make reading even more impactful, talk about what you are reading.  It is talking about books–with a constant eye for how it applies to our current work situation–that takes reading to the next level. This is in contrast to how many of us have experienced professional reading–as an individual activity.

As I engage with leaders, I like to recommend books that have made an impact on me.  And because I know the power of talking about books, I recommend that teams pick a book to read together.  Yes, like a book club!

When I was in the Army, we created something called the “Pro-Reading Challenge”–which boiled down to: Read a book and talk about it with your team. So simple, and yet so impactful.  It is the kind of simple leader development tool that any leader can put into practice.

This week I got an exciting glimpse into the impact of the Pro-Reading Challenge through a Twitter conversation.  Paul G. posted a message to his former company commander Joe B.:

Not long ago we were discussing this book in a small falafel stand in Mosul [Iraq]. Tomorrow, it’s my turn!

While commanding an Army unit in Iraq in 2010, Joe picked a book, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession, and talked about four chapters with his officers.  This, my friend, is leader development in action.  In the middle of a combat deployment!  Joe replied on Twitter with a picture of the four chapters highlighted in the table of contents of his copy of the book.  Paul replied with:

It was those 3 or 4 chapters that changed my outlook on studying history!

And here Paul is, five years later, reading and talking about the same book with his own team of leaders.  Creating time for talking about a book made the unit more effective in combat, it inspired a passion for studying history, and it role-modeled a leader development approach that Paul is now emulating.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick a book and engage in conversation about it with your team.  Focus on how it applies to your work.

And, have fun!


Leader Challenge: Dynamic, High-Energy Leader Development

On 27 September, 144 platoons of cadets met across West Point to conduct the first “Leader Challenge” workshop of the year. In each platoon, the cadet platoon leader and an officer mentor worked together to facilitate a platoon-level session that featured round-robin, small-group conversation about a real-world, high-stakes, ambiguous problem faced by a second lieutenant in Afghanistan.

The “Leader Challenge” methodology is a two-part process: (1) Online Interaction; (2) Face-to-Face Workshop — all centered around a challenging, concrete experience that an actual leader faced.  You can read more about the Leader Challenge approach to developing leaders in this ARMY Magazine article (PDF).

Participant Feedback

Sometimes, participant feedback gives you the best feel for the value of an experience.  These are some responses after this particular Leader Challenge:

“I feel like I got to check out of being a cadet and check into being a PL for an hour. It was awesome!”

“I was really excited last night when I walked down the hallway and overheard a group of yearlings standing around the CCQ desk debating some courses of action for the scenario. They asked me if they were going to be able to do more Leader Challenges, and then we discussed the scenario for a little while.”

“The Leader Challenge had the best content and material in any PMEE lesson I have seen at West Point.”

“I am very pleased with the new system, and it really puts the control, tempo, and discussion of PMEE back into the cadets’ hands.”

“I was amazed at the energy and the deep level of discussion that was taking place. This was relevant & meaningful development.”

“Everyone loved the small groups of four, and the rotations kept the conversation lively.”

“It really forced cadets to think. It pushed them outside of their comfort zone by having to share and discuss the actions they would have taken, but it also helped them see the variety of possible answers as they listened to what their peers had to say.”

Things to Sustain in Future Leader Challenges

Upon reviewing the feedback, the top two most mentioned “sustains” were:

(1) the small-group format with rotations (high energy) in which one facilitator stays at the table and all other cadets move to a new table (all new people at the new table);

(2) the real-world relevancy of the content. Cadets appreciated wrestling with tough issues in the context of the profession they are entering.

I will close out this blog post with a few more participant comments to reinforce how positively the high-energy format is received:

“The LC concept with small group discussion and round robin is a winner. More cadets participate and they universally agree that small group sessions are the most productive part of the program.”

“The rotating groups kept the dialogue going. It allowed the groups to gain multiple perspectives on the problem.”

“I love the small group idea. Cadets talk so much more in groups of 3-5.”

“The discussion atmosphere, instead of a lecture.”

“This format is by far the best and most well received by the cadets.”

“I want to sustain the different rounds switching up the small groups. I felt that by getting different people’s take on the situation was good and allowed us to see the scenario from different points of view.”

Storytime with Madelyn Blair

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a workshop in which Madelyn Blair led us through several exercises focused around storytelling.  She began her session by telling a phenomenal story drawn from her youth.  She had us hooked with her voice, the rich 1st-person perspective, the details in the story, the suspense, etc.  AND, she ended at just the right place, leaving us wanting more; leaving us to draw connections and to make meaning of it for ourselves.  So many times, we jump right into explaining what the story means. Madelyn taught us that it is more powerful to design the story so that it engages the listener and makes her think about the “moral” or “so what?” for herself (or, better yet, also in conversation with each other).

Although “we live in a sea of stories,” we aren’t necessarily naturally good story tellers.  Maybe we are in the right setting (picture a bar with friends or around the family dinner table)–but to use stories in a professional setting?  Usually, we flip right into the third-person mode and focus on lessons learned and what “you” should do–rather than describing what “I” actually did. You can take away the PowerPoint slides, but many of us stay right with that bullet-point approach.
To take us from theory to practice, Madelyn had us practice.  She had us tell each other stories!  She told us that “stories are made up of words, and words are made up of stories.”  I love that line!  (That doesn’t mean I understand it, but I love that line!).  Using the UN Charter, Madelyn asked us to pick out a word in the charter and to think of a personal story to tell that relates to that word.  I was amazed at how much we not only learned about each other through the stories that emerged, but also how it connected us to the words of the charter in new ways.
This made me think about the team I work with.  We have a vision as well as a set of operating values that act as filters for the decisions that we make day to day.  The values really describe what is most important to us.  As we bring in new team members, we talk a lot about the values and what they mean to us.  Thanks to Madelyn, I’m seeing a new way to bring those values alive, especially for new team members that might not initially feel as connected to that set of values as are team members that were there in the beginning.  To pick a value and to craft a personal story related to that value could draw out new meaning and more powerfully connect individuals to those “words” as well as to each other.


In addition to work with storytelling, Madelyn is passionate about understanding how successful people learn and stay on the cutting-edge–keeping their knowledge perpetually “fresh”–even as the world around us changes at a tiring pace.  She has written a book to capture some of her insights on this, which she titled Riding the Current: How to deal with the daily deluge of data.

The Knowledge Around You

The other day, I got a ride to Newark airport with Driven Eco, a really cool car service.  Just before I was picked up, I received a real downer of an email — one of those that sucks the life right out of you.  I was not in a small-talk mood.  Well, that is until the driver and I started talking.  Who would have known Ed Stapleton, Jr. — that’s the driver — co-founded the company and is crazy passionate about entrepreneurship, social media and online conversation?  That was the quickest drive to Newark airport I’ve ever experienced.  By the time I was getting out, I loved this guy!  I walked away with no less than five book recommendations (Ed is a reading machine), invites to two cutting-edge online communities, several cool ideas, and a plan to connect again when I get back up that way.

Are you wondering what the deal is with the picture of the rabbi?  So, I’m on the plane, at Newark, and who sits down next to me?  That’s right, a guy who looks just like this dude, only wearing spectacles.  I had just that morning done a google search on “Biblical Meditation” and found a site that described the original Hebrew words that ended up translated into the word meditation. Why you ask? That’s for another story.  But, I jumped on the chance to get this guy’s take on meditation.  I’ll boil his thoughts down to this:

The soul is the motivating force for action; the heart is the gateway to the soul; we have to get knowledge from our minds to our hearts, and it is meditation on God’s word and His work in our life that moves knowledge from our minds to our hearts — and, thus, without meditation, our souls never move us to action.

How about that?  Wow!

Is it possible that every person you come in contact with has a story? Some cool knowledge?  I’m glad I was paying attention on this day.