We expect the most of our work life. It should be interesting, useful, intellectually challenging, vary regularly to avoid routine, allow us to have rewarding social interactions with our colleagues and possibly to change the world. As for what we are expected to be, those sometimes schizophrenic needs could paraphrase a famous Kipling poem:
if you can show leadership skills while remaining a team-player;
if you can work your socks off and save some family time;
if you can take criticism and give constructive feedback;
if you can deliver quality work fast, fast, faster;
if you can follow instructions, yet stand up for your convictions;
if you can stay calm when everyone around you loses their nerve;
you will be a precious worker.
This is a non-exhaustive list of books that echo beyond the story they tell, because of their memorable characters, strong, independent or simply funny.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
As far as role models are concerned, Atticus Finch is hard to beat. Beyond his struggle for justice, he’s an example of fairness, tolerance, rectitude and intelligence, picking the right fights to fight and therefore creating an unbeatable sense of trust within his family and local community. All of which should be any manager’s top quality to give them the authority to lead.
Vanity Fair, William Makepiece Thackeray
In this landmark 19th century novel, Becky Sharp, a smart and charming nobody, climbs the ladder of a rigid and posh British society, not particularly open to what we now call equal opportunities. Am I implying that this self-serving, manipulative evil plotter should be an example? Maybe not. But the novel does question the notion of ambition, striking the balance between serving one’s own interests and opening up to others. And ultimately pictures when ambition turns into downright obsession.
“Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dulness takes the lead in the world?”
The Luck of Barry Lyndon, William Makepeace Thackeray
Another Thackeray novel? This well-known story relates the rise and fall of another outsider, the bold Redmund Barry of Bally Barry. The idea here is that a daring attitude can take you a long way – and then possibly back again, but that’s another story. Too often do we hesitate: asking for a raise, additional responsibilities, a new account. Most of the time, there is little to lose in asking – or taking – and a lot to gain in the process.
“Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.”
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
In this classic 1950s British comedy, Jim is all but lucky. He doesn’t like his job as a university professor, but nevertheless needs to keep it by putting himself through endless chores for his boss, an old and light-headed teacher. If you can read Jim’s frustration and infinite repulsion at his boss’s long list of drawbacks – inability to finish a sentence, distraction, tendency to spit and/or drool while speaking, never-ending monologues – without being reminded of a co-worker: congratulations! You work with sane colleagues!
No shortcuts to the top, Ed Viesturs
Choosing a mountaineering book to discuss management is indeed a bit of shortcut I took myself. However, there is nothing like a pro alpinist to teach you priceless lessons on courage, preparation, teamwork and risk. And you don’t need to be climbing the Everest to implement a few, simple strategies:
Taking one step at a time; when you are at 8000+ meters, every breath you take represents an effort big enough to make you want to give everything up. Ed’s method is to break his final objective, ie the summit, into smaller, reachable goals, and take one step at a time to the next landmark.
Teamwork; in mountaineering, climbers are tied up together, and trust each other with their lives. Good teamwork is not only a key factor of success, it is a matter of life and death.
Determination; physical preparation is nothing if you haven’t got an iron mind set on your goal, which will help you get over failures and difficulties.
Risk-taking; in a sport which can turn into a deadly affair within seconds, the question isn’t so much to calculate risks than to avoid them altogether.
“I talked about how on an 8,000 meter peak, you have to trust your partner – your teammate – implicitly. In climbing, the rope ties you to your partner in a life-or-death linkage of trust. I also talked about plugging away, taking some steps forward, some backward, while staying focused on the final goal, no matter how far away it seemed.”
What about the books that change how you view your work life? Share your thoughts in the comments!