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InReview – Issue 24

Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet
by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon; New York, Basic Books, 2001;

Good Work is the first book published under the auspices of the “Good Work Project” (http://www.GoodWorkProject.org), a research program led by the authors, aimed at understanding the traits of persons who excel, professionally and ethically. The book focuses on two critical professions in our technologically advancing time: genetics and journalism, with four sections on (1) defining good work, (2) good work in genetics, (3) good work in journalism, and (4) good work in the future.

The first section defines professional realms as negotiations between individuals and communities that include practitioners, domains, practices within a domain (fields), and other stakeholders. When the interests of all four elements are in “alignment,” “good work” is most likely to thrive. The second section features results of interviews with “creator leader” geneticists. In one chapter, they are asked their “level of concern” regarding ten scenarios of escalating moral dimension, with number ten being “large scale genetic farming” for purposes of “eugenics.” A third of the respondents did not have “great concern” with this scenario, a troubling result the authors largely ignore. The third section focuses on the moral decline in journalism as a profession, a consequence of a profit-hungry industry, though sources of strength in journalism are also noted. Finally, the fourth section whizzes through barriers to alignment, elucidates on “what good workers can do,” and describes key elements that “could lay a foundation for good work in our time.”

Overall, Good Work is worth reading, though it falls short in a few areas. First, one wonders whether a survey of “good work” across professions may have been more interesting than a narrow focus on two disciplines. Second, the authors avoid graphical representations of all findings, even though some would be more effectively displayed in visual format. Third, the book is inconsistent in evaluating the ethics/excellence overlap for both professions. For example, though moral scenarios were posed to geneticists, they were not posed to journalists. Finally, at times, the authors seem biased, as evidenced by generalizations such as, “Everyone suffers when religious or political authorities try to control the practices of a professional realm by imposing parameters foreign to it” (p29). To be fair, the authors later reference positive examples of scientists who integrate their religious and scientific beliefs. Criticisms aside, this remains an influential book written by influential scholars.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenan

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The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership by Steven B. Sample; San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2002; xix, 192 pp.

Steven Sample, an engineer by training, is currently president of the University Southern California. He shares some wonderful ideas and practical constraints about leadership in this little book, identifying key principles that have worked well for him as president both at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and, for the past 11 years, at USC. The book is a collection of chapters designed to be read in any order.

The book opens on a very strong note in the first chapter, “Thinking Gray, and Free.” Here he challenges the traditional wisdom that good leadership calls for quick and decisive decision-making. Rather, he suggests, the big and important issues are not so clear-cut. Taking the time to gather information from all sides, making the decision only when it must be made rather than quickly, is a key to good decision making. In the end, this approach often calls for much less back-peddling and will stand up to more challenges. The illustrations make the point extremely well. This concept flows through the rest of the book.

His chapter, “You Are What You Read,” is more controversial and less reasoned, I thought. He describes why he reads books rather than periodicals such as newspapers and magazines, and why he prefers ancient books to modern ones. While this is good for gaining enduring ideas rather than fads, it leaves some strange gaps in his work. For example, his statement that “leadership is an art” passes without reference to the fine book by that title written by Max DePree when he was CEO of Herman Miller furniture.

The most obvious illustration of this shortcoming is the chapter entitled “Work for Those Who Work for You.” This approach is the subject of Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership, Alderson’s Theory R Management, and is rooted in the biblical teaching of Jesus. I was surprised that he left out the reference to Jesus, since his knowledge of ancient texts, including biblical knowledge, is impressive. The other omissions are simply illustrative of his reading style. Thus his statement “many of the concepts expressed in this book will seem strange and counter intuitive at first” is only partly true.

Another strength and weakness of the book is that most of the modern illustrations are drawn from events and interactions in the author’s life rather than from the collective experience of others. Some may get tired of his excitement about his own accomplishments. It is surprising to find a book written by a scholar with no index or list of references (mainly ancient) that he draws from. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book immensely and can heartily recommend it. Being challenged by the issues he raises, and enjoying his significant story telling ability makes it worth the time to read this well-crafted book.

Reviewed by Al Erisman


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