Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 1am

Leadership Books and Movies: Recommendations from an IMD Graduate

Leadership Books and Movies: Recommendations from an IMD Graduate main image

IMD graduate, Andrey Shapenko, discusses a selection of leadership books and movies he found instructive and would happily recommend.

The leadership module was a hugely popular part of the MBA program at IMD and I expect many of my fellow alumni would agree with me when I say it I found it by far the most challenging, interesting and valuable course of the year.

What makes the subject of leadership so valuable? First of all, it enables deep and thoughtful self-discovery, because only a person who fully understands oneself is able to lead others. This understanding does not come smoothly: during the IMD program students have to pass through a series of so-called 'leadership experiments' involving painful feedback sessions, conflicts, deep self-reflection, discussions with coaches and even as many as 20 sessions with professional psychoanalysts.

Unlike many disciplines within an MBA curriculum, leadership is a practical subject which you cannot learn from books. That is why I always find it difficult when people ask me for recommendations for leadership books and movies. However, there are still some very good books and movies which were recommended by IMD during its leadership module. Here are three of the best.

Warren Bennis: On Becoming a Leader

First published in 1989, On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis is often referred to as a 'Bible of Leadership'. It is a timeless business classic based on extensive research and hundreds of interviews with business and political leaders.

So, what is the nature of leadership? Many readers may be surprised to learn that it is not 'doing the right things', as the popular saying goes. According to Warren Bennis, a ‘leader’ is a person who has the ability to fully express him/herself. Thus, the best way to become a real leader is not by learning how to fight, but by discovering what is important for you and becoming more and more at one with yourself.

Leadership is not the ability to run a company or give speeches. It is a process of continuous learning, of engagement with life, of escaping mediocrity and of leading yourself. On Becoming a Leader provides a lot of great insights and can really change your perceptions of leadership. For me personally, it was a clear highlight among leadership books and indeed, one of the best things I have read over the past couple of years in general.  

George Kohlrieser: Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others, and Raise Performance

George Kohlrieser is an IMD professor of leadership, and I had the fortune to attend some of his talks. A professional psychologist and hostage negotiator in the past, Kohlrieser wrote what I would consider a masterpiece, which I read in one go without stopping.

In Hostage at the Table, Kohlrieser explores the phenomenon of being a psychological hostage. A problem experienced by many people and in particular, business leaders, is that they are limiting themselves and do not fully understand their true potential. The key to break out of this cycle is not to change your behavior, but to change your mindset. Habits and behavior will follow on from this and progress in the right way too.

To avoid being held as a psychological hostage, people need to use their so-called 'mind's eye' to focus on opportunities and objectives, as well as the positives. Another extremely important skill mentioned in Hostage at the Table is the ability to create an emotional bond, even with your 'enemy'. Bonds between people foster inspiration and build a secure base, something which is absolutely essential for performing well in your job and for feeling good about your life.

Finally, Kohlrieser argues that it is necessary to find the right balance between the personal, professional and the organizational sides of our lives. If you don't have this balance and you’re not using all the neurons in your brain, something is eventually going to go wrong – because you can get pulled up and taken hostage.

All in all, I would say Hostage at the Table is a must-read for anyone who does not want to remain a ‘hostage’ for the rest of one's life.

Leadership perspectives within Twelve Angry Men

We watched this movie at IMD when we, as a group, studied inter-group dynamics and notions of authority. I thought it to be an amazing example of leadership through communication: Twelve Angry Men (1957) shows how one person can change a group's perceptions and influence its effectiveness.

The plot is simple: twelve men from diverse backgrounds are sitting in one room and unable to leave until they take a decision to condemn a young Puerto Rican to death or to set him free. The young man is suspected to have killed his father, and initially the jury is almost unanimous: eleven members vote for his guilt. However, one person (a great role played by Henry Fonda) first manages to persuade them all to discuss the case one more time and later, one by one, he convinces jurors to re-examine and reverse their initial verdict.

What is interesting about Twelve Angry Men is how the main character takes authority at the table of jurors without having it at the start, and how he then persuades his peers to reconsider their decisions. Each juror comes to this new decision through the lens of their own character and the crucible of their own lives. The harder the life, the harder the re-examination depicted by the movie.

When you watch the movie, try to look at it not only as you would, say, a criminal drama, but also from a leadership perspective. Look for examples of persuasion, self-examination, courage, risk-taking, listening, reasoning, asking open questions, building empathy and trust... You will find a whole set of leadership techniques in just 96 minutes.

Final Remarks

There are hundreds of excellent leadership books and movies to read and watch. The three mentioned here can provide only initial guidance, so please do not cease in your efforts to discover your leadership potential and inner-self. Practice leadership every day: step out of your comfort zone, discover your motivations, create bonds with other people, avoid self-limiting thoughts and focus on your true objectives.

The world needs leaders. The world needs YOU.


About Andrey Shapenko:

Andrey Shapenko lives in Switzerland, where in 2012 he graduated with an MBA at IMD business school in Lausanne. He has 10 years’ experience in strategy and M&A in oil and gas and chemicals, as well as a Ph.D. in Economics. Besides his professional occupation, Andrey is a passionate traveller, photographer, author and business coach.

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