InReview – Issue 28

Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround by Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.; New York, Harper Business, 2002; xi, 372 pp.

Lou Gerstner served as chairman and CEO of IBM from 1993 till 2002, and remained as chairman through the end of 2002. Prior to this he was chairman and CEO of RJR Nabisco, and President of American Express.

After all the corporate scandals of the past year, the cartoon captured it well showing a wife advising her husband as they entered a party, “Don’t let anyone know you are a CEO.” Lou Gerstner appears to be different. He took over a badly struggling IBM (they had lost over $8 billion in 1993) and not only got the company back on track, but he led the way to today’s successful IBM creating true shareholder value, lots of jobs, and positive impact in many communities around the world. What did he do? That’s the story of this book.

This is not an autobiography, but a first person discussion of what it was like to come into IBM with minimal background in technology, and create change that literally salvaged the company. There are lots of corporate critics out there, who make clear statements as to what CEOs do even if they’ve never met one. Here’s a chance to get another point of view.

Gerstner’s goal at IBM was to take a sluggish, large company weighted down with incredible bureaucracy and transform it into a company that was much more responsive and agile: to teach the elephant to dance. In this book he chronicles the series of decisions, responses to his ideas both supportive and resistant, and shares why he made the choices he did.

He got off to a rough start with the press, claiming IBM didn’t need the “vision thing” but needed execution. In this case, he was shown to be right. His summary of internal IBM lingo and some internal memos he received screaming “bureaucracy” are incredibly funny, though they may not have seemed so at the time. His steps to clean out the bureaucracy, simplify the rules and focus on delivering on promises to customers were crucial to the turnaround, and well documented. Once the financial change had taken root, he then rebuilt the company and brought in the vision. Some bold, tough steps.

There were several places where I was disappointed with the book. He describes in some detail his efforts to eliminate the administrative assistants (AAs), the note takers in white shirts that followed the executives around and took great care of them. He doesn’t mention his own AA, a person at IBM that I worked with rather closely. He is perhaps more “I” oriented than any of the leadership books I have read recently. In fact at one crucial point after financial stability had been restored, he was preparing for the next steps of growth. The scene is walking along “back on the beach” in Florida on vacation (p.103). This sends a clear message: I came up with the ideas myself. With the success he had, I don’t think it was this simple.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book to read. It represents a powerful inside look at the life of a CEO in one of the largest corporations in the world. It is well worth reading.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by Arbinger Institute; San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2002; 192 pp. by Arbinger Institute; San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2002; 192 pp.

This is a most unusual book on leadership. It is a close and powerful look at how we view others and how that view impacts our ability to lead them. Leadership and Self-Deception starts with a first person story of a man who has recently joined a successful company as an executive and is called in to meet personally with the company senior leader. From the first few pages I was eager to know what would happen next.

The concept of leadership presented in this book is also unusual in that the focus is not on “what” we do behaviorally to others, our outward leadership style, but rather our inward view of people as individuals. The foundational question is whether we are “in the box” or not. “In the box” refers to viewing others as objects through our own biased lens, often inflating our self-importance while diminishing theirs. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to companies I have worked for where a culture of leadership was in place but, despite all the tools, many managers were not effective leaders. This book will give one explanation why.

This book is personally challenging. The focus is not on how we act in that compartment of our lives called work, but rather who we are in relation to others in our family, our workplace, and even to strangers in our society. The message here should be experienced firsthand, so I will not disclose all the components of the book, but rather encourage you to read it for yourself.

Others have said that this book “could be life changing.” While the basic concept is not new, the packaging of this idea is so eloquently and powerfully done that you may also experience some awareness bursts as I did. I found myself re-examining how I lead my team at work, how I interact with peers and co-workers, and how I relate to my wife. Simply put, a great book on leadership that would benefit anyone who reads it.

Reviewed by Michael Erisman

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Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card; Tom Doherty Associates Inc, 1996; 402 pp.

Pastwatch is a science fiction novel which examines the interaction of business, technology, and ethics on a huge scale, with a large overlay of religion as a driving force in our history.

Early in the third millennium, the earth, in Card’s novel, has become barren through exploitation and environmentally destructive practices. Huge projects for reforestation, restoration, and population control are in effect, with some optimism for their success. But these efforts prove to be too little, too late. The consequences of centuries of planetary abuse cannot be reversed in time to save civilization.

A breakthrough in understanding of quantum mechanics allows scientists to examine the past, as though through an all-seeing lens that can be directed to any place and time in history by the researchers of the Pastwatch Project. Being a Pastwatch Project participant becomes a recognized profession, and the research reveals much that we have wondered about. The inflection points in history are carefully examined and eloquently expounded upon by Card’s characters. His protagonists are well developed; a diverse group from many cultures. Their interactions and discoveries through Pastwatch provide keen insights into the prejudices of humanity, the destructiveness of social class, and the horrors perpetrated in the names of the gods.

The insights into European and American civilization development are particularly fascinating. Card’s novel examines them from the inside out, and while fictional, they seem plausible and are well referenced at the end of the novel. Among the central themes of special relevance to Ethix readers:

  • Business: the business of trade, and, unfortunately, of slavery as it developed through the ages.
  • Technology: the refinement of Pastwatch technology opens the door from just observation to potential intervention in the past. The ethical dilemma of a small group deciding what is good for humanity is agonizingly presented. Regarding the “science” (it is science fiction!), Card deals plausibly with the paradox of meddling around with the past. He even includes a mini lecture by a mathematician on how this all works!
  • Ethics: the two great “in-humanities” practiced by humans: slavery and human sacrifice, are juxtaposed with the 15th century cultures of Europe and the Americas. The solution proposed to eliminate both involves fundamental changes to the human psyche, but remains believable through the novel.

Columbus is clearly the dominant figure in the novel. His persistence and presence makes him one of the strong personalities in the history of the world. I won’t spoil the read by telling more of the plot; suffice it to say that there is a significant intervention in history, and it has profound effects. The novel is fun to read, and it hooked me emotionally and intellectually from the very beginning. It was hard to put down until finished. The ending is a bit idyllic, but that is how Card makes his point: humanity is forever turning down the opportunity to create harmony amongst its many factions, and in a universe of parallel existences, it is conceivable that we could tame the lizard brain, embrace the larger truth, and interrupt the generational streams of hatred that drive so much of human interaction.

This is not a “how to” book helping you run your business better tomorrow. The take-away is that even on a grand scale, looking at all recorded history, we still make micro-choices every day that can affect the whole of humanity. I’ll be a little bit more compassionate and understanding because of Card’s novel.

Reviewed by Peter Morton

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Minority Report (Widescreen Edition) A 20th Century Fox film (2002) directed by Steven Spielberg

Maintaining a free, secure society always comes with costs. Since 9/11, some of these costs have been in the form of increased limitations on our privacy. What would our society be like if these costs could continue to escalate without limit, and be extended to include the monitoring of our very thoughts, intentions and future actions? This tension between freedom and privacy is what Minority Report is all about.

In a futuristic Washington DC, murder has been eliminated thanks to an experimental “Precrime” police unit. Led by its chief zealot, Cpt. John Anderton (Tom Cruise), Precrime exploits three genetically mutated psychics (precogs) to help cops foresee and stop murders before they occur. On the eve of a referendum to take Precrime national, Anderton gets tagged by the precogs as a future killer of a man he has never met. Convinced he has been framed, Anderton flees to find a “minority report” — a conflicting account from one of the precogs to prove his innocence. Although he finds what he’s looking for, the future doesn’t turnout as he expected — despite his foreknowledge.

Minority Report reminds us of the delicate balance between free will and predestination, between privacy and freedom. Held captive by society against their own free wills, the precogs are destined to foretell disturbing precrimes. Yet these precrimes will be committed by persons who are exercising their own free wills. When Anderton collides with his precrime destiny, Agatha, the most insightful precog, implores him, “You have a choice!” As it turns out, the future isn’t so inevitable after all. Could knowing our own future be the ultimate illusion, deceiving us to believe we could have omnipotent control of that future, while sacrificing our true freedom in the process? Steven Spielberg seems to think so. I tend to agree.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenen