Book Depository: Way of the Master

This review, of a draft of an unpublished book, comes at the invitation of the author, who uses a nom de plume. I publish it because I hope that the review is of interest even if you can’t yet buy the book.

Its cover advertises this book, by Dr Niklaus Abelhauer, as ‘An easy-to-use self help guide to world domination’. This device presumes Way of the Master to be a cult leader’s handbook after Machiavelli’s The Prince. Except, in this case, the kingdom is not a physical kingdom of land, citizens, and buildings, but one composed of lonely and vulnerable people, and maintained mostly through psychological terror.

Today, Machiavelli sits on a grand pedestal. Nevertheless, we are invited to compare Niklaus and Niccolò. The Prince weighs in under 35,000 words, and can be read in a day. Way of the Master, at 200 pages of dense prose, required three sittings to complete, and felt as though it may have been shorter.

The Prince is successful in part because kingdoms need rulers, and the lives and troubles of rulers are interesting. On the other hand, the world has little use for cults: they are self-serving by design. Were I to lead such a community, I might place this book discreetly on my shelf with its spine facing inwards in case I needed it, but that’s not what Way of the Master is really about. The true intent is conveyed through the author’s transition from instructive to humorous registers throughout the book, and is revealed completely in an epilogue that I would have preferred to read at the start. There are, after all, many reasons why this book is about ‘How To’, and not ‘How I’.

Ironically, a novice cult leader might actually resort to self-help books — such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People — in an attempt to learn a superficial charm. But, once you’ve seen a psychopath or narcissist in action, you understand how they intuitively push every button they can in pursuit of what they need. The psychological aspect of this book is a litany of the secondary characteristics of psychopaths and narcissists, a list of human frailties, and a repeating tale about one class of person easily coercing and bullying another to protect their delusions about themselves.

The second aspect of the book is sociological. It is The Madness of Crowds for the information age: a critique of under-examined collective beliefs and, by extension, of religions. The postmodern ‘self-help’ framing strains under the gravity of this purpose. The author constantly stretches for a levity that is not always necessary, so that the humour misfires in places, or the self-help pretence shatters because the author needs to expect more self-knowledge from his ostensible reader than that reader would possess.

Such a book will mostly be about the less pleasant side of already very unpleasant people, so there is little consolation. Nobody, not even the reader, gets admiration or sympathy from Abelhauer. The journey through the first three stages was especially lonely and dispiriting, and I considered that there might be alternatives to the How To structure that could admit some love. That I finished the book suggests that I’d make a better minion than a leader.

That said, to get lost in the necessary dreadfulness of the material risks understating its value. The book is full of close studies of the ways in which degenerate leaders operate to keep their minions isolated, motivated, and obedient; how they outmanoeuvre those around them, prevent authorities from intervening, and get away with their crimes. In this sense, it is a well-observed, well-researched examination of a pathology that it is important to understand. The descriptions of cognitive vulnerabilities, biases, and interests that such people exploit in others are particularly compelling. I enjoyed the quotes and the case studies that broke up the prose. I would have liked to see more variety to these, and some deeper references to books about psychology, mass delusion, and control. As a contrasting voice, for example, it would have been interesting to read a little of L Ron Hubbard’s own hand, or quotes from Dobelli’s pithy book about common logical fallacies.

There is a more sinister problem with the How To device. Cult leaders are always ridiculous to outsiders. Blessed with little subtlety or self-awareness, they guard grandiose fictions about themselves against all evidence to the contrary, usually including appalling personal habits and a grubby private life. It seems a natural setting for a situation comedy, but few dare tread in this direction because cults are not, in practice, funny.

Charles Manson might have been a source of mirth in his early days, hearing in a throwaway song from the White Album a prophecy of a racist apocalypse, but there are few laughs to be had from the trajectory of the Manson family. Similarly, the famous audio recording of Jonestown’s final moments, presided over by a barely-coherent but fully monstrous Jim Jones, is full of bathos. Among Jones’s final pronouncements is ‘Without me, life has no meaning’. Outside the room, the irony raises eyebrows, but we cannot smile. Jones needed his minions far more than they ever needed him. They were so used to being treated as his property that they cheered him on. If only they could have seen him as we do today.

People fall for cults, and always will, because we love to be charmed, and because we want to believe in supermen. Every culture has a fable of an audacious young boy who fights a giant or a god and prevails, and who wouldn’t want to carry his spear? To do something of enduring worth, singly or collectively — to write a successful book, for that matter — means nurturing a dream in the face of poor odds, against attrition from reality, and at the risk of ridicule and abandonment by those you love. When you’re in a cult, having moored your self-belief to their cause, it will feel the same as any worthwhile endeavour. All this is a warning that you cannot treat cults lightly: to belittle them is to risk infecting more valuable human themes with the same contempt.

The protagonist of Chris Morris’s latest comedy, The Day Shall Come, is the leader of a cult. Morris just gets away with this because that leader is inept, and because the film as a whole is a satire against the American administration, which — surprise surprise — turns out to be far more sinister and hardly more capable than the two-bit cult it’s trying to infiltrate. A comically incapable leader can be only so terrifying, but Way of the Master is largely about the ones who achieved their ends at a massive cost to the people in their care.

This is why the cover’s promise of ‘world domination’ is at once misplaced and a missed opportunity. The limits of one person’s ability to control another means that most cults comprise no more than one hundred people. Those with a shallow hierarchy can command around a thousand. Bigger religions require towering bureaucracies to maintain control. By the time they’re big enough to reach millions, their prophets (Smith, Hubbard, Moon) are usually advanced in years, or long dead. However, the book touches on the idea of using the tools of Social Media as an indoctrination mechanism once a cult gets a little established. This seems quite promising: you don’t need to control what your minions see when algorithms purposely create filter bubbles on your behalf. You don’t need to work too hard to correct what your followers are thinking when a thousand people can pile on a clumsy comment and drive the careless interlocutor to despair. Long friendships that become suddenly inconvenient can be silenced forever with the click of a button. In just fifteen years, Social Media has divided and controlled humanity like no other force in living memory, and has enabled hidden operators to shift global opinion and go almost undetected. This is a terrifying tool for mass manipulation, and the author gets tantalisingly close to a deep treatment of it on more than one occasion before backing away.

Let us return to the need for a kinder narrative framework. One of the aspects of this book that is clearest, most insightful and entertaining is the inter-stage quizzes. This is not least because it gives the author room to temper his snider humour with some real warmth.

It suggests the beginnings of an epistolary novel made from such material. We already imagine drafts of speeches with an editor’s suggestions left in (‘Can we replace the alien abduction with an eleven-month visit to a monastery?’). We can envisage a panicked memo about how to handle difficult questions after a narrow escape from a dissenting journalist. There might be some corridor dialogue about whether the pseudoscience branding is sufficiently populist. A committee, unlike a single leader, can be aware of the evil they are perpetrating without having the power to avert it. This is why dystopian novels are so often told from the perspective of those in the middle third of the regime. The narrator can be articulate enough to explain without grasping the full horror, can be both complicit and relatable, and is in practice entirely powerless. An unexceptional junior administrator, piecing together archive material and interviews in an attempt to honour the Supreme Leader with an official biography, would make a more sympathetic vehicle for imparting the message.

Alternatively, a Gulliver’s Travels narrative would take the form of an academic anthropologist who joins two or three cults, one after the other, and is studying their relative idiosyncrasies in subterfuge. Such a person must live inside a cult to understand it, but remain separate enough to be aware of the framework and structures, to be able to compare it to the ones they’ve seen before, and to survive. Naturally the need to maintain a colossal level of cognitive dissonance would drive them almost mad.

Robert Lifton’s work is occasionally quoted in the later sections, and I wish more were made of this material earlier. It would directly help those who might really want to buy Way of the Master. A reader interested in cults will have a mind full of healthy questions: How do such contemptible people sucker intelligent men and women? What are the minions really getting from the deal? Is the summer programme that my loved one is considering joining a cult? How can I try to stop them, or limit the damage that the cult might do? If it’s based in a compound, will I ever see them again? Is a friend trying to entice me into one? How do I know if I’m being brainwashed? Is Buddhism a cult? Is Freemasonry? Can some cults be benign, or even good? — Direct, authoritative, honest answers to these questions would be of enormous benefit to vulnerable people and their friends. These are the topics that Way of the Master sets out to address, but dropping the self-help pretence would enable a more humane narrative because the conceit of turning the reader into a monster would no longer be necessary.

Cults are tragic on an individual scale because they tempt good but troubled people from a world of dizzying colour and variety, of light and shade, dangers and rewards and loving families, with the promise of something even greater. They are then systemically impoverished and parasitised until their self-worth has drained away. Cults are a problem on a sociological scale because when a society falls for a confidence trickster, bad things happen. Mob rule and mass killings are such a common consequence of the false messiah, of the lazy ideology, and of misdirected love that examples are not necessary. You cannot just say, as this book does, ‘Don’t incite your minions to commit murder or suicide!’ whilst ignoring the fact that this is never the starting intention. Unfortunately, the tricks that are used to keep your followers loyal appear to set you on that path. By the time you notice — even as their leader — events may be beyond your control.

It all makes for a very ugly lesson, and one we keep failing to learn. The healthy reader will wonder how they can stop hearing the same story again and again.

Book Depository: The Grid

The first edition of Matt Watkinson’s book hasn’t been out for long. In this review, I’m deliberately not giving away much away about the model, although you can get more information from his site. The book’s worth a read, though: I’d recommend you find a copy if you’re interested in knowing more.

Spare a thought for managers. After being assailed by the seven habits of highly effective people, they’ve had to learn the five dysfunctions of a team, and how to wear the six thinking hats. They’ve sat exams on the thirty-odd rules for winning friends and influencing people. And that’s before they’ve reached the maze of psychometric systems. Whenever an occupational psychologist or PPE graduate from The Guardian tosses a fresh paperback into the fray, off tramps the executive team to a Home Counties barn to hear all about today’s mnemonic. Management, too, must have its fads.

Those books I flippantly cited share a perspective on how to come together as fallible, sensitive human beings, to engage with emotion but not to be controlled by it, and to cooperate. So much is written about this because ego-driven organisms need constant reminding. What we haven’t yet had, but we desperately need, is a self-consistent guide to untangling the collective insights we contribute into a coherent strategy that is explainable, defensible, and good for our business.

The cognitive load of business decisions is enormous. Most people retreat to their own specialisms under such pressure, but this is dangerous: decisions have consequences that affect organisations in ways that we continually fail to anticipate. There are well-trodden books on this pathology in other arenas of endeavour: The Checklist Manifesto, Thinking Fast and Slow, and so on, but the favourite best practices in surgery and aviation are a decade or two ahead of the art of management.

The Grid (uppercase ‘G’ for the title; lowercase ‘g’ for the tool) is an attempt to address this problem. It presents a system for thinking about the business as a whole when making choices. The exposition of the grid is interwoven with real cautionary tales, where complacency or poor groundwork by well-regarded leaders resulted in expensive, high-profile cock-ups. There are also positive lessons: tales of clever but difficult manoeuvring saving companies from disaster. Versions of these stories exist for businesses of every size and kind: the ones in this book tend to be very recent (the bones of Edsel can rest in peace), but it’s clear that failures can be post-rationalised back to the dawn of time. What matters is anticipating them before it’s too late.

Part checklist, part canvas, the grid looks almost too simple. On one axis are the three parties that a decision will affect: customers, the market (in this case, other companies such as rivals, distributors, and suppliers), and the organisation itself. On the other axis are the three categories by which the viability of a business is measured: its desirability, profitability, and longevity. The nine pigeonholes where the categories intersect are the grid, which is all that you need to consider. Each pigeonhole contains a checklist of three items. That’s twenty-seven things in total — a lot to remember, but the idea is that this data is organised. You start in one position in the fully-formed grid, and dance around it until you’ve looked at a decision in terms of every relevant part of the business it could affect. You mark the things that might be problems in red, and work out what to do about them, gradually minimising the amount of red ink until it’s small enough to deal with.

It’s really that simple. Well, almost: the book is nearly 300 pages long, and most of this is commentary about what is meant by the subheadings in each pigeonhole, and how to understand them. These ‘deep dive’ pages concern the clarifications, footnotes, anecdotes, and lessons. They furnish breezy tutorials of the accounting, marketing, and product-related terminology for those who aren’t already generalists. This was clearly a difficult but necessary courtesy: it’s one thing to say ‘look after capital expenditure’ (which Matt does: it sits in the space where ‘organisation’ meets ‘profitability’). It’s of limited use, though, until you’ve satisfactorily explained to an autodidactic marketer what capital expenditure is, and why a company’s books are balanced in the way they are. Matt does this adeptly.

Where some of this material is simplified to the point of absurdity, the author confesses that his cavalier examples are dumb for the purposes of brevity, and then cuts straight to the point. He has enough respect for the subject and the reader to judge this trick about well enough. The examples are well-referenced, and written in the snappy journalistic style familiar to readers of modern management books. While the synonyms for ‘company’ wear occasionally thin, Matt steers just the correct side of Jeffrey Archer when describing a business once again as an ‘icon’, ‘phenomenon’, even ‘behemoth’. However, that I’m judging a management book by its cover-to-cover readability means that he’s already pushing standards that these books rarely set for themselves. Matt’s joy for his subject and his humorous, knowing flourishes impart a refreshing charisma and self-awareness that seldom coexist in much of this literature. His occasional bitchy parentheses are a delight.

The genius of the grid, as with any explanatory system, is its method of abstraction. The effort it took Matt to concoct the grid is explicit in the introduction, and implicit elsewhere. Twenty-seven headings are all you need. That it doesn’t matter that these tabulated things are, in reality, nested, interrelated, recursive, fly out of their pigeonholes, sit behind other things, obscure one another from time to time, and cannot always be fully characterised or understood in a real enterprise, is stated but doesn’t always matter. The central tenet of this book is that all the horrendous complexity of a business decision can be laid upon the grid like a spatchcock chicken, visible at once holistically and reductively. At first, this seems extraordinary and magical. It’s so far withstood my whataboutery, and there is no shortage of better-placed people queueing up to tug at its threads, so we’ll soon learn if anything is misplaced or omitted. I’ve printed out the twenty-seven headings and stuck them on the inside cover of my workbook as an aide memoire, and I’ve never done this with a management manual before. The Grid deserves repeated attempts to attack it. It will get them, and has a good chance of prevailing.

What’s less good about this book? It’s hard to fault its research even in my own area, but specialism is what your company will need. Without trustworthy domain experience, you can’t check the information you put into the grid. You might not otherwise know whether to write on it in red ink, green ink, or no ink at all.

The section on legal compliance, for example, is where an expert can add light and shade. Yes, larger firms have specialist teams that make the demands of meeting a territory’s rules part of their fixed costs; yes, they can even negotiate sweetheart deals with governments if they’re powerful enough both to broker them and to weather the backlash that follows. At the other end of the scale — something Matt doesn’t mention — obscurity is also a strength.

Once upon a time, I was working for a company whose rivals were hit simultaneously by multimillion dollar fines by the FCC for first offences of mislabelling products. We were too small, and our infractions too minor, for them to care. A company will often evade a regulator’s radar until they are big enough. Compliant and appealing product packaging and labelling, for example, are actually very hard for any company to nail. There’s no point in a regulator litigating an upstart into the dust, unless they’re posing a danger to life and limb, the native economy is threatened, or they’re so flush that it’ll make a decent difference to the exchequer. Perhaps it’s in bad taste to publish the advice that laws apply mostly to those in the middle, but it’s been said in print before, and needn’t be seen as a problem. My industry supports hundreds of home-build enthusiasts selling their own little electronic music toys outside product law, because their margins and costs afford no other way of working. The grey market is where innovation often starts, and where tomorrow’s legitimate CEOs come from. If our governments shut down these operations, cultural movements and would-be entrepreneurs would disappear forever. It’s all data that fits the grid, but you still need the right person at the table to hand you the correct colour of felt tip.

Where he’s on his own turf, Matt writes most persuasively and fluently. There are some beautiful set pieces, such as the discussion of power play at the start of the ‘bargaining power’ chapter. His coda on the relationship between running a business and learning to surf assimilates a personal passion without seeming at all indulgent. And now I know that Windows 8’s breaking of the ‘Start’ button is called a strong habit intrusion, I’m going to be using that term every time I see an example of it, until designers scream at me to stop.

My wife, one of the best hole-pickers I’ve ever met, points out a limitation of the grid over untidier table-based systems such as the Business Model Canvas, or the upstart Lean Canvas variant: the grid is a best fit for incremental business decisions, where you understand your position, and can trust your data. Shall we make this product, or that product? Shall we spend on a campaign, or an acquisition? What needs to be in place this year, and who do we need to watch? If your tenure begins, as many do, with a shaky foundation: building a tech company from scratch, merging two disparate organisations, or fixing an old-school enterprise that hasn’t made a profit in a decade, the grid might be too granular, and not the first resort. Otherwise, you’d quickly be overwhelmed with dubious data unless you switched either to intuition, seeing the problem as one requiring a visionary backed up by strong discipline, or by going back to first principles and redrawing the company around the scraps that already function. Only then would the grid make its outing, to confirm the robustness of your next steps.

All this considered, the only thing that’s wrong with The Grid is what’s missing on purpose. As Matt explains at the beginning, the grid determines how you turn information into a decision: not how to read the data, or how to carry out the plans you make. What you don’t find in the book are thorough treatments of technology strategy or culture, although the stories are there. It doesn’t account for the role of visionaries in your business; the art of persuasion, compromise, and execution; how to communicate a plan to subordinates; the extent to which change in any company is limited to what politics and culture will permit. The danger with this book, then, is that its readership will be those who pick it up because they have a desire to embrace complexity and follow the evidence. They’ll love this book as I have, will grow from its lessons, and may run brilliant businesses of their own but, with the ability to learn and assimilate, they might not have needed the grid. The cautionary tales that The Grid retells are mostly the consequences of hubris, which no amount of analysis will ever avoid. If the information your company needs is purposely ignored or suppressed; if your power structures were set up so that feel beats fact; if the people who would check your excesses are locked out of the boardroom because they bear inconvenient news, then The Grid won’t help you, and neither will anything else. For the rest of us, it’s a refreshing, authoritative manual for business design, and the most comprehensive planning tool of the many I’ve seen.

(In case you missed it, the Amazon link is here.)

Book Depository: Primal Leadership

This book, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, boasts a handful of plaudits on the back cover. There’s one copy at ROLI and it wasn’t well-thumbed.

If you’ve been assigned a team, and had to steer everybody through the maelstrom of adversity, distractions, and competing opportunities that circumstance will generally chuck your way, this book argues that there are two broad categories of approach. First, the resonant approaches, which are great for teams that are already motivated and capable. Then, the dissonant ones, which are best applied in determined bursts to teams or individuals who aren’t.

Experienced leaders of quality will naturally pick an appropriate style for the circumstance, although different people will have different favourite tools.

The book suggests that there are four resonant styles:

  • Visionary. Persuading the team to buy into an audacious long-term strategy.
  • Coaching. Orienting people to the organisation’s goals, individual by individual.
  • Affiliative. Encouraging harmonious interpersonal relationships to exist within the team.
  • Democratic. Soliciting individual opinions and perspectives.

and two dissonant ones:

  • Pacesetting. Applying aggressive individual targets and grinding these out of the team.
  • Commanding. Providing direction without supplying rationale or getting buy-in.

They are all suitable under certain circumstances and problematic under others. The democratic style, for example, will paralyse an organisation if its survival depends on making quick decisions. Coaching can fail if individuals’ styles don’t match those of the coach, or for people who need regular, detailed feedback and excessive contact hours.

Dissonant styles are great when you think people have lost motivation or are underperforming. They are engaging and can actually help reconcile people with their work, but there’s a risk of damaging the morale of those who feel rewarded when they’re given greater autonomy (most engineers I’ve met are like this).

Much of the rest of the book is about building emotional intelligence through coaching, introspection, and honest solicitation of feedback. Emotional intelligence is the thing that tells you which tool is best to deploy at a given time. There are a few pages explicitly on not being a dickhead, as it’s a poor long-term strategy — but how many tech CEOs, with their shareholdings and their eyes on a lucrative exit, are interested in building companies to last these days?

There’s also a section on why leadership can fail with even the best of styles and intentions. These reasons will be familiar to anybody who’s read MSP or received training in programme management: lack of executive buy-in; failure to align with the culture; failing to motivate people to understand why they need to change their behaviour.

A leader must be part of the team, so that bad news and drifting goals do not get withheld from them, and also so that respect can naturally be cultivated. However, leaders must also be visibly removed from the team. They are concerned about wider priorities, and the relationship of their team to the others, so they must not become engrossed in the minutiae of fine-grained problems and tasks. This is a hard balance to maintain.

Essentially, if you live to learn, you love what your company does, you’re genuinely interested in the welfare and dynamics of your team, and you’re supported by a functional mentorship scheme, you’ll be all right without this book.

At a little under 300 pages, it’s another seam of great information that might have been written as a twelve-page pamphlet, if only they’d removed all the flaccid case studies that people seem to think are needed in a book like this. This book’s volley of supporting stories are so generalised that they are neither memorable nor convincing. Added to this padding is the occasional foray into neuroscience. Without any central thesis about how neural anatomy relates to emotional intelligence, this ends up reading like the marginal scrawlings of a New Ager: it’s all amygdala here and occipital lobe there, and then a digression about radiating spiritual harmony.

So I suppose I’m fortunate that I found this book so hard to digest.