Cornerstone: March 2012

Opening your mind before opening books
March 19, 2012
Written by Lyle Quan
Over the years, I have recommended numerous books on topics ranging from leadership, to risk management to embracing uncertainty. All the books I have written about have not only made a positive difference my life, they have also changed or enhanced the way I view the world and how I deal with others  – both in the workplace and in my personal life. Even though my focus when writing about these books has been to educate those in the fire service about all of the aspects and challenges that we face in our industry, the goal has also been to demonstrate that we are not alone and that many others (in all professions) deal with the same basic issues.

As a result of my columns, I have spoken to and received many e-mails from those who have read my articles and have taken my advice and read many of these books. And, on several occasions, I have received feedback from readers who have either gotten a great deal out of a book that I have recommended, or that a specific book didn’t have any real impact. So, the question is, why do some benefit more from a particular book than others?

To begin with, there is an old saying, which, in my opinion, is at the root of this question: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear (author unknown). I hold this to be true when it comes to learning about most things in life, especially when it comes to reading a book. Whether it’s a book on leadership or about project management, what you get out of the book depends on your frame of mind and what you are looking for in that book. If you are ready to learn about that specific topic, then you will be more receptive to embracing the concepts put forth. If you are in a negative (or doubting) frame of mind, then the book may not be able to penetrate that negative wall that has been erected by your attitude.

So, what is the answer? First and foremost, you need to understand what you want in life and in your career. What are your goals, both short and long term? Do you want to simply find an answer to a question relating to a process, do you want to know how to better manage your staff, or do you want to understand how you can become a better leader? All the finest leaders I have met, heard speaking at seminars or with whom I worked, had several key traits that have made them successful at what they do: they believe in the people with whom they work, and they truly want to leave the organization better than when they arrived. But, most importantly, they are lifelong learners, which means they face the world with inquiring minds.

So, take some time and think about what you truly want in life and what you’re hoping that the book in your hand will offer you: a promotion, the greater likelihood of succeeding in the challenges that are facing you or simply, to be better at what you are presently doing. If you can answer this question, then you will be more focused and more open to what you read.

With all this in mind, I thought it best to introduce just one book that I believe will get those leadership juices flowing again and make you think about your next steps.

The book is Leadership on the Line, Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy (2002).

David Broder of the Washington Post says (about this book) that, “There are many books about leadership, but I know of none more realistic about the risks and rewards of challenging an organization than this one. It is ‘tough love’ applied to the real world.”

Leadership is about supporting your people, communicating with them and leading by example. But as Broder notes, leadership sometimes means you can’t be everyone’s friend. That doesn’t mean you respect these people less; it means that sometimes you need to push them outside of their comfort zones.

Authors Heifetz and Linsky cover several key leadership points, such as:
  • People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss. In other words, it’s not the change that people fight; it’s the possibility of moving outside their comfort zones or, perhaps, the risk of losing something that they’ve gotten used to over the years.
  • Leadership requires disturbing people at a rate they can absorb. As leaders, we sometimes try to move things ahead too quickly. So, if you see that deer-in-the-headlight look on some of your staff, then you may be pushing them faster than they can handle.
  • Tactics of leadership involve making observations, asking questions, offering interpretations, and taking actions.Communicate with your staff, offer input and make sure it is followed up with an action.
I know this book will give you some food for thought relating to leading your people and supporting them in times of change. Change is a fact of life; it’s how you introduce it and communicate the value of the change that will make the difference between success and failure.

Leadership on the Line (2002) is published by Harvard Business School Press and can be purchased through Chapters.ca and Amazon.ca.

Lyle Quan is the fire chief of Waterloo Fire Rescue in Ontario. He has a business degree in emergency services and a degree in adult education. Lyle is an instructor for two Canadian universities and has worked with many departments in the areas of leadership, safety and risk management. Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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