Book Notes. Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. Crown Business, 2002.

Tom Morris

This New York Times bestselling book, co-authored by Larry Bossidy, the Chairman of Honeywell International, and Ram Charan, a well known business professor and corporate consultant, is meant to recall people to, as its subtitle specifies, "The Discipline of Getting Things Done." It was pre-reading for a conference where I recently spoke, a couple of days after Professor Charan. In preparation for my talk, I decided to read it, and I'm glad I did.

According to Bossidy and Charan, the three areas of people, strategy, and operations are crucial to any corporate culture of discipline. To get things done well, you need the right people directed by the right strategy, and implementing it in the best operational mode. Lest that sound like no more than basic common sense, I should quickly point out that the book's distinctive feature is how philosophical, as well as practical, it is in its directions concerning how this three-fold emphasis is best to be achieved.

This may be one of the most philosophical books on corporate success in several years. And that makes it more than a bit odd that the only explicit mentions of "philosophy" and "philosophizing" in the book are somewhat dismissive (pages 6, 8, 129). But a look at the context of each remark shows that what is being characterized as philosophy, and dismissed, is just empty theorizing, abstract gassing, or highly general rumination unattached to reality. I hope anyone who has ever heard me speak, or read one of my books will know right away that this is not what philosophy is. It's rather a nice characterization of bad philosophy. Good philosophy is never empty and disconnected from reality. It always gives us something we can use. It's all about wisdom for life and work.

This book focuses throughout on a paradigmatic philosophical ideal: the concept of reality. In fact, the authors use the word 'reality' and its cognates over 65 times - a usage not normally seen in a business book. Of course, the philosophical originator of the distinction between appearance and reality was Plato. Remember his famous cave analogy? We're all like people chained to the floor of a cave, watching shadows play across the cave wall and mistaking those shadows for realities. The philosopher is the person who breaks free of his chains, leaves the cave and emerges into the light of day where he can see reality for the first time. He then goes back into the cave to rescue his fellows. They may not at first believe what he reports, or agree to leave their chains, but it's his job to do the best he can to liberate them.

Bossidy and Charan recognize that failure often comes from people laboring under illusions, unable to distinguish appearances from realities, in their business endeavors and in their lives. For any business context, they recommend Socratic questioning and Socratic dialogue as effective ways to peel away illusions and grasp on to the relevant realities, and then they emphasize the importance of holding people accountable to the realities discovered, as well as to whatever commitments are made on the basis of those realities.

Socratic questioning, Socratic dialogue, and strong accountability are indeed crucial components of any culture of execution. But these three things alone should never be taken as the whole story. Socrates himself sometimes seemed to think this was enough. And we have to ask: How did that work out for him? The title of the book we're talking about says it all: Execution. Socrates was poisoned by popular demand. He had half the formula for human excellence, but not the whole thing.

For the other half, we need Aristotle and several more great thinkers. Good people pursuing the right strategies through the best operational processes need a great and supportive environment within their teams and organizations, to bring out the very best in them, and to help them sustain their excellence over the long run. They need a context that respects and nurtures the Four Foundations of Sustainable Excellence that I have written about in the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors: The New Soul of Business (Henry Holt, 1997), and that I speak about all the time. We all need Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Unity as the foundations for our greatest results. We need to work in an environment that respects and nurtures the intellectual, aesthetic, moral and spiritual dimensions of our experience, and the related needs that we have as human beings. I wish Bossidy and Charan had said more about this side of human motivation. Execution depends on sustaining a form of ongoing motivation on the part of everyone involved. And ongoing motivation requires an experience of these foundations of Truth, Beauty, Goodness and Unity.

Readers who know my 7 Cs of Success will spot these universal conditions of achievement all through Execution, although they are never organized or categorized as such. I'm happy to see such a book recognize so many of the philosophical principles of human excellence. There are also interesting case studies throughout, of companies that have done things right, and of those that have failed in the discipline of execution. These illustrations make the book very instructive. By the time you finish it, you realize that every leader should be a teacher, deeply engaged, passionate, and committed wholeheartedly to the process first hand. You also realize that each of us should be a leader. For these and other reasons, Execution is a book well worth reading.


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