NNN book club: Uplifting Leadership

I never expected to sit down and review a book about international cross-sector leadership practises for No Nay Never. But Uplifting Leadership is a little different.

I’ve been reading the book during my commute to work every morning, on a rickety Northern Rail train that feels more like an old shed on wheels, and often found myself gripped so much that I almost forget about the repulsive smell, noise and worrying vibrations the moving shed throws in my direction.

Uplifting Leadership bookThe book’s tagline is the somewhat uninspiring ‘How organisations, teams, and communities raise performance’. I don’t think that really explains what the book’s heart really is about. Surely all business books (I don’t know, I’ve never read any before) are all about raising performance?

And this book certainly is about that. Of course. But it’s more about how people lift and inspire other people.

It’s about doing a lot with a little, creating something from nothing or turning failure into success. It’s not about making Big Mr Moneypants even richer.

The book’s introduction makes it very clear that the organisations studies didn’t aim to make the most profit, or to be the best in the world – instead their aims were based more around their people. For example, the leaders at Dogfish Head craft brewery wanted to promote the craft beer industry as a more exciting alternative to mainstream beer, and Burnley FC wanted to be at the heart of the local community.

For example, one of the organisations studied in the book turned California’s state education system from one of America’s worst performing to one of its best by inspiring teachers and pupils in new and innovative ways. And how Singapore’s school system rejected proven education protocols to go in a brave new direction.

Burnley FC is at the heart of the book. It took just four lines to find the first reference to the Clarets, and we have a lengthy section dedicated purely to discussing the club, in addition to loads of smaller mentions throughout.

In fact, one of the three academic authors, Andy Hargreaves, is originally from Accrington. He spent many a happy time at Turf Moor as a youngster after he began supporting the Clarets upon Accrington Stanley’s collapse in 1966.

Uplifting Leadership noteWhen Andy sent me a copy of the book to review a couple of months ago, he included a little note in the opening page that reads ‘Up the Clarets’. We’ll have more from Andy on the site tomorrow.

The book is the result of a 7 year study in which the authors looked at 18 different organisations from across the world in a number of different sectors – sport, education, car manufacturing, fashion, craft beer production. All the organisations studied had achieved incredible feats against the odds.

The authors set out a criteria of what made this all possible – what they call ‘uplifting leadership’. These include:

  • Dreaming with determination: having a clear dream and inspiring people to believe in it, so that they have the determination to overcome any setbacks
  • Creativity and counter-flow: doing things your own way, often doing the opposite of everyone else
  • Collaboration with competition: getting the right balance between working together and wanting to be the best
  • Pushing and pulling: building a team that will push each other to achieve more, and also pull each other up when the chips are down
  • Measuring with meaning: using data in a way that fits the organisation, in a way that is genuinely owned by the people
  • Sustainable success: rather than quick-fixes, uplifting leadership makes fundamental and sustainable changes

It can be a bit pie-in-the-sky at times (“Some only see the crescent, others see the whole moon”) but on the whole it’s jargon and superlative free, an honest and down-to-earth account. It’s entertaining too. As I said, I’ve never read a business book before – the very notion sounds frightfully stale and boring – but I really enjoyed this book purely as an enthralling read on that rickety train.

When the Clarets get their first dedicated study in the book, about a third of the way in, it’s by far the most comprehensive so far. There are three pages on how Fiat turned their fortunes again dramatically in a surprisingly short period of time, another three on DuPont (inventors of Teflon among other magical materials) switched focus during the credit crunch and came out bigger than ever, five on the California Teacher’s Association – and then seven on the Clarets.

The Burnley case study begins with the obligatory clichés – deprived mill town, population would fit in Old Trafford, punching above weight etc. – but soon moves into more interesting stuff.

This is more than just the manager signing good players and giving a good motivational speech before the match. In fact, much of the discussion ignores the playing team completely and focuses on what goes on above the manager.

There’s discussion of how Barry Kilby had Ian Britton’s shirt from the Orient game on display, to remind him and those around him where the club have come from. “For Burnley, the fight for survival is endless”.

There’s also talk of how former chief executive Dave Edmundson began the ‘uplifting’ approach by returning the club to ‘the beating heart of the community, on and off the pitch’.

Of course, ITV Digital makes an appearance – but rather being the black hole we’re often presented, this book argues that the debacle actually helped us. It says that almost going out of business allowed the club’s management to rally the supporters around the club.

Citing examples such as the ‘1000 Club’ – where a 150 fans donated a grand each to the club – and other initiatives such as bucket collections and sponsored bike rides, even a little girl who donated her Christmas money to the club with a touching letter, the book compares this flirt with danger to the Orient game. Both, it says, inspired the community around the club and allowed the club to turn that community into an asset to help drive forward momentum. It says everybody gave that little bit extra.

It’s not all behind the scenes, of course. The main hook of the chapter is that little old Burnley managed to make it to the Premier League. This is in reference to our previous promotion, in 2009, and Owen Coyle is praised for his undying belief in his players, and his demand for ‘hard graft’ over anything else.

The authors even traveled to Wembley in 2009 to with thousands of fans who had ‘dare to dream’ on the back of their shirts, to watch us secure that promotion.

After so much bigging up of Coyle, not even this book can make his departure sound less sheepish. It’s mentioned in one short sentence, almost apologetically: “The circling wolves of competitive commercial soccer snatched Coyle mid-season”.

Finally, even though the book went to print this summer, there was time for a last-minute addition praising Sean Dyche for taking Burnley up again in 2014 using similar uplifting techniques.

Although there was little time to analyse Dyche’s impact at Turf Moor, his philosophies are ingrained throughout the book. It’s easy to see clear parallels between Dyche’s management approach and the’uplifting’ formula the book sets out. The word ‘relentless’ is littered throughout its pages.

All-in-all this is a really interesting read, and an inspirational one at that. There’s a nice balance between hard business theory and genuine human storytelling. It’s almost more of a book about people than it is about business.

You can buy Uplifting Leadership on Amazon

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