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Stories of Public Sector LeadershipIn this section we recommend a number of books that provide insights into some superb exemplars of public sector leadership.
Ray Blunt beautifully weaves together the lives of two of history's great men--William Wilberforce and Thomas Jefferson--and in doing so reveals compelling new insights about the importance of a leader's world view and how mentors influence that world view. This inspiring and thought-provoking story also teaches us much about the importance of a clear life mission and how a leader's allies can help him accomplish that mission. Read More...
It's Our Ship: The No-Nonsense Guide to Leadership
When Mike Abrashoff published It’s Your
Ship in 2002 he recounted how, as Captain of the
USS Benfold, he had inherited a demoralized crew
and engaged them in the phenomenally successful process of turning
Benfold into the best ship in Navy. In his superb
new book, It’s Our Ship, he tells more anecdotes
from Benfold as well as stories of several
outstanding business leaders—all of which he tells through the prism of greater
experience and wisdom. For example, he demonstrates great humility in expressing
regret that his extreme competitiveness vis-à-vis other Navy Captains had
blinded him to opportunities for building a strong sense of teamwork with the
other ships in his battle group. Includes many terrific stories related to
issues of trust, speaking truth to power, collaboration, and taking risks.
Team of Rivals
The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the
History has been unkind to William Bligh, the Commander of the
Bounty, who (along with 17 others) was set adrift in the South
Pacific by Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers. The
traditional caricature of Bligh portrays him as a physically abusive
tyrant. In this thoroughly researched and wonderfully written
account of the story, Caroline Alexander paints a much more complex
portrait of Bligh as a brilliant navigator who took fastidious care
of the health of his crew and mostly tried to avoid corporal
punishment (by that day's standard). Bligh learned a great
deal of value from his mentor, Captain James Cook, but Bligh's sharp
tongue, micromanagement, and failure to learn from his mistakes cost him
dearly throughout his life.
Sent to Rwanda in November 1993 as UN Force Commander to enforce the
Arusha Peace Accords between the Hutus and the Tutsis, Lt. General
Roméo Dallaire of Canada ended up bearing witness to a genocide.
In Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire
describes how the UN's leadership prohibited him from taking action
that he believes could have pre-empted the genocide and then pulled
out most of his troops once the genocide was underway. This is
an intense, complex, and beautifully written story of how
international (and bureaucratic) indifference failed the Rwandan
people. Ironically, even though Dallaire may have done more
than anyone to try and stop the killing, he blamed himself for years
for not having done more.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
General of the
In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L.
Chamberlain and the American Civil War
When the U.S. Civil War began, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a professor at Bowdoin College with no military background whatsoever. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of Major General and had become one of the most heroic and inspiring leaders in U.S. history. Best known for leading the charge at Little Round Top that turned the tide at Gettysburg, Chamberlain also showed great class when presiding over the formal surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox. After the war, Chamberlain went on to become President of Bowdoin College and Governor of Maine. In the Hands of Providence describes Chamberlain's transformation from professor to soldier and includes numerous inspiring anecdotes about his leadership. Read More...
Arguably one of the most brilliant British politicians of his era, William Wilberforce set aside personal ambition early in his career in order to pursue two goals: the abolition of the slave trade and the "reformation of manners." In 1807, following a 20-year struggle, Wilberforce won approval for legislation banning the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce is also widely credited with bringing about the "reformation of manners" that characterized the morality, attitudes, and social philanthropy of the Victorian era. A deeply religious man, Wilberforce demonstrated how one individual with tremendous talent, moral courage, and perseverance can bring about major change. Read More...
In 1914, Ernest Shackleton led an expedition to Antarctica in hopes of being the first to cross the southern continent by land. Before even arriving in Antarctica, however, Shackleton's ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice--and was eventually crushed by it. Stranded on an ice floe with no means of communication, Shackleton led the crew through a 26-month struggle for survival. Thanks to Shackleton's determination, crisis leadership and effective management of group dynamics, not a single member of the 27-man crew was lost. This is an epic saga full of leadership lessons. Read More...
Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” was one of the most successful—and controversial- public managers of the 20th Century. His accomplishments are the stuff of legend. For example, in three short years, Rickover’s team designed and built the first nuclear submarine--the Nautilus—an amazing feat of engineering given that it involved the development of the first use of a controlled nuclear reactor. The Nautilus not only transformed submarine warfare, but also laid the groundwork for a whole fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers and cruisers (which was also built by Rickover and his team). Rickover was also an exceptionally demanding boss and was disliked by many outside his organization because of his uncompromising nature. In The Rickover Effect, Theodore Rockwell (who was one of Rickovers top managers for 15 years), offers many entertaining stories and useful insights into the Admiral's leadership, character--and impact. Read More...
Mike Abrashoff has
followed up his powerful first book, It's Your Ship,
with this new study of six leaders from the public and private
sectors who have used grassroots leadership styles to achieve great
things. Each of the profiles includes several compelling stories of
effective leadership. The chapters about Captain Al Collins
(US Navy), and about Ward Clapham of the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police, are particularly inspirational. Throughout the
narrative Abrashoff also includes a number of new stories from his
tour as Commander of the USS Benfold.
Both useful and highly readable, Tales from the Trenches
uses more than 60 true stories to highlight examples of good--and
bad--public management. In many cases the names were changed
to protect the hapless, but the stories provide many wonderful
insights into the day-to-day challenges faced by public managers.
address issues such as decision making, leadership style, budgeting
skills, relations with elected officials and the media, and ethics.
The authors, both former public managers themselves, provide
numerous helpful tips and observations about the lessons taught by
each story. While tailored to public managers at the local
level, many of the stories and insights are relevant to managers at
any level of government.
During his 34 years with NASA, Gene Kranz served as Flight Director during numerous missions of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Kranz played a key role in building NASA's flight control team, preparing the team to manage crises, and then leading them during crises--most notably the Apollo 13 Mission and the high-pressure Apollo 11 landing. Failure is Not an Option, Kranz's memoir, is a great story, but also describes his own development as a leader and the role he played in growing more leaders for NASA. Read More...
Michael Useem pulls together a number of compelling stories of
leaders who needed to lead up effectively when the stakes were high.
Some did it well, (e.g. Gen. Peter Pace and former US Trade
Representative Charlene Barshefsky), while others were less than
successful (e.g. Gen. George McClellan in the US Civil War and UN
Commander Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda). This book can serve as a
wake-up call for government managers, as public sector organizations
often have hierarchical and risk-averse cultures that can make
employees reluctant to lead up.
As Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Installations, and later as chief of the Clinton Administration's Reinvention team, Bob Stone inspired and facilitated countless improvements in the way the government operates. In his riveting book, Confessions of a Civil Servant, Stone uses many colorful stories from his career to describe how government performance can be dramatically improved by empowering front-line workers and aggressively cutting stupid bureaucratic rules. While "reinvention" may no longer be the official catchphrase for improving government, this book is a great read and should be an inspiration to any government employee who wants to make a difference. Read More...
The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All
By Michael Useem
Michael Useem has identified nine powerful stories that
illustrate different aspects of leadership, including the stories of
Eugene Krantz (Apollo 13), Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (the Battle
of Gettysburg), and Alfredo Cristiani (peace in El Salvador).
Useem's storytelling is superb, and the lessons from each story are
quite actionable. This is a great read.
Don't be put off by the offbeat title. This terrific book
should really be called Serving with Integrity: Letters from a
Supremely Effective Public Servant. Written as a series of
letters to a fictitious niece who is preparing for a career in
public service, Ashworth recounts many stories from the 21 years
he spent as Commissioner of Higher Education for the State of Texas.
Includes sections on dealing with the press, working with
politicians, dealing with unpleasant people, risk taking in
government, delegating, professional development, ethics, and
The stories are highly instructive and at times quite funny. A
speech (PDF) Ashworth gave a few years ago provides examples of
the stories and wisdom found in the book.
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