It's an awkward time in American history to dwell on the subject of leadership. Some millions of us were led to believe in a place called Hope earlier in this decade, and that trail led to a girl called Monica. Millions more have suffered through enough Dilbert-esque misrule at work to make anyone cynical about self-styled leaders.

It takes a certain courage, then, to publish books about leadership in the current environment. And yet, either in spite of the leadership vacuum in our public and working lives or because of it, leadership titles abound among this month's new releases. There are authors out there who want to tell us how to lead the 21st-century organization, why leadership is essentially a moral function, what to do as a first-time manager, and how to maintain productive relationships with other leaders and subordinates. And, believe it or not, they have some valuable insights to share.

Leading Beyond the Walls

Leading Beyond the Walls, a compilation of essays produced by the Peter F. Drucker Foundation, offers a wide-ranging set of new ideas about how to run organizations. There is a metaphysical quality to this book, which features work from thinkers as varied as the famed Drucker himself, Stephen Covey, and Arun Gandhi (grandson of the Mahatma). Over and over, the authors ask readers to embrace contradictions in the pursuit of heightened understanding.

For Peter Drucker, the tearing-down of walls around medieval cities marked not their defeat but the emancipation of their people from narrow parochialism a process he sees metaphorically repeating itself in corporations and non-profit groups today. For essayist Jim Collins, one of the guiding truths of management is that the exercise of leadership is inversely proportional to the exercise of power. Such statements may sound like mere clever wordplay, but the authors back them up with convincing arguments.

Perhaps the most surprising paradox in the book is Drucker's about-face on the issue of corporate social responsibility. Having once been in the forefront of the movement to get corporations to recognize all of their stakeholders (including employees, customers, and communities), Drucker now sees a narrow focus on a well-defined business niche as a primary responsibility of every company. His reasoning: Corporations are generally not in the business of addressing diffuse social needs, and when they spend energies on non-business concerns, they detract from their ability to create the shareholder value that indirectly benefits all stakeholders.

And yet the book makes room for alternative viewpoints on the issue of how corporations should lead the broader community. In the essay Leading in a Leaderless World, Iain Somerville and D. Quinn Mills take the opposite position from Drucker. They see the current emphasis on shareholder value above all else as one of history's great and unfortunate ironies, since it forbids corporate leaders from taking a broader view just when society most needs them to do so.

Though its authors approach leadership from different directions, Leading Beyond the Walls exhibits a clarity of vision throughout its 23 essays. This book will lead leaders to a new understanding of what they can accomplish, not only within their organizations but in the world at large.

Leadership A to Z

From the time of Julius Caesar, ambition has often been viewed as a negative trait. But author and consultant James O'Toole recognizes that an appropriate level of ambition is essential to sound leadership. (For examples of inappropriate ambition, see Hitler, Mussolini, and Kim Il Sung, each of whom took Leader as his title.) O'Toole explores what makes true leaders in Leadership A to Z: A Guide for the Appropriately Ambitious.

O'Toole's widely acclaimed 1995 work, Leading Change: Overcoming the Ideology of Comfort and the Tyranny of Custom presented several corporate chieftains as positive role models for moral leadership. In Leadership A to Z, he spices up the moral mix with a few villains such as Lenin, Hitler and deposed Sunbeam CEO Chainsaw Al Dunlap. Of each of these forceful personalities, the author makes the most scathing possible assessment: They weren't true leaders. At the same time, he acquaints us with a few new and unlikely heroes such as Joe Thompson, a Veterans Administration official whom O'Toole praises for transforming the culture of what had been a notoriously unresponsive bureaucracy.

Leadership A to Z's alphabetized entries cover some of the more colorful aspects of leadership, from Coolidge Syndrome (when nobody is putting forth much effort because the top guy doesn't) to hangings, public (the necessary act of disciplining flagrant wrongdoers within the organization). These short essays, more or less randomly presented, embody more wisdom and common sense than many weightier tomes and make this a uniquely accessible book.

The Rookie Manager
In The Rookie Manager: A Guide to Surviving Your First Year in Management, author Joseph T. Straub focuses on the basics for new managers. This much-needed management handbook is sure to be required reading for rung-climbers in organizations of every size and type. Straub's hand-holding approach is designed to allay the anxiety and even terror that every first-time manager feels at times or at least everyone with an appropriately humble attitude.

Straub details the conciliation techniques most likely to build good working relationships in even the most intimidating situations facing those who are promoted through the ranks, such as managing former peers and colleagues. (It would be hard enough if all of the buddies left behind acted like grown-ups about the change in roles, but often they don't.) The author tries to take some of the stress out of new managerial roles by coaching the neophyte leader in new skills such as time management and delegation of authority.

The Rookie Manager goes beyond simply addressing the roles of a manager; it covers the relationship between theory and practice in motivating workers. And Straub is not afraid to buck fashion in certain instances, as when he points out that there can be a time and a place when an autocratic style is the appropriate way of managing people. What would Peter Drucker say to that?

Working Relationships

Which brings us to the leader's role as corporate trouble-shooter. In just about every office, there's one person widely referred to behind his or her back as a difficult employee. It's up to the leader to manage not only that person, but also the leader's feelings about that person. Working Relationships: The Simple Truth About Getting Along with Friends and Foes at Work is author Bob Wall's guide to that and other thorny workplace issues.

Actually, Working Relationships may make its way into some of the same gift baskets as The Rookie Manager. This book, too, is a primer for people trying to get off on the right foot, including new managers. Wall is frank about the stakes at that career moment: Technical abilities may get you into management, but it takes interpersonal abilities to stay there. And although his book addresses a broader audience than just managers, it is full of leadership insights.

Wall, a psychologist and consultant, has mediated enough troubled working relationships to write a book, and here it is. He presents case after case of leaders gone wrong, and what makes these studies compelling is that none of the people are ogres. It's easy to identify with any of them and to understand why one guy broke down in tears, and later left his job, upon learning how radically different his employees' view of his leadership abilities was from his own view. The theme of self-deception by leaders echoes through this work and makes it a cautionary tale for anyone in the executive suite.

Some of Wall's examples rise to the level of moving drama. Case in point: A company owner comes to him for help in motivating listless workers. After Wall helps him understand that he himself is the problem, he stands before his employees in a moment of epiphany, apologizing for his managerial shortcomings and telling them he wants to do better. Other cases illustrate more limited concepts, but the wealth of real-life glimpses into the trials of management makes this an exceptionally worthwhile read for managers of any kind, at any level.

Briefly noted:

Goldilocks on Management: 27 Revisionist Fairy Tales for Serious Managers by Gloria Gilbert Mayer and Thomas Mayer (AMACOM, $21.95, 0814404812) adds a new twist to the genre of cultural icon (Shakespeare, Winnie the Pooh) as management expert. This entertaining collection of business parables, intertwined with real-world stories on the same themes, embodies lessons any manager can take to heart.

In Gravy Training: Inside the Business of Business Schools (Jossey-Bass, $25, 0787949310), British journalists Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove survey the MBA landscape throughout Europe and North America and don't always like what they see. All too often, they assert, business schools are more about business (enriching universities) than schooling (educating students). Though the authors chronicle plenty of positive contributions by B-schools, they tear down the oft-touted image of the business school as a source of important new ideas for the business community.

Roger J. Volkema's interactive text in The Negotiation Toolkit: How to Get Exactly What You Want in Any Business or Personal Situation (AMACOM, $17.95, 081448008X) truly as much a toolkit as a book trains readers in the techniques they need to get the best deal, whether negotiating an office lease on the job or a car deal on their own.

And there's a new edition out of one of the most useful reference works available for aspiring entrepreneurs: Paul and Sarah Edwards' The Best Home Businesses for the 21st Century (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, $17.95, 0874779731). Among other things, this volume will be a valuable anthropological document someday, detailing such uniquely late-'90s jobs as microfarmer, doula, and feng shui consultant.

Journalist E. Thomas Wood is an editor with the Champs-Elysees.com family of European language-and-culture magazines.

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