Book Review: Hard Things vs. Leading

Good books come in pairs or bundles to enhance understanding of one or more interdisciplinary domains.

“The Hard Thing about Hard Things” (HTAHT) by Ben Horowitz (Co-Founder of VC Firm a16z) was the first book that I read in 2016. A week ago, I finished “Leading” by Sir. Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz, former Manager of Manchester United and Chairman of Sequoia Capital respectively. Both books are about leadership/management and written by manager/investors, but their perspective and context to the topic are different. As a result, one gets different takeaways from reading both. If “HTAHT” is about growing a company from scratch that is constantly tittering on the brink of extinction, “Leading” is about inheriting a club and building a high-performance organization competing at the very upper echelon of professional soccer – the entrepreneur vs. professional manager perspective, though there are common threads.

I would characterize “HTAHT” as a situation-based battleground handbook written for wartime CEOs. It is a collection of stories based on Ben’s experience as founder/CEO of Opsware and very much in touch with the day to day realities at growing companies. Unlike books that talk about how to do the right things, this book is all about how to get through the inevitable struggles during a start-up’s journey without throwing up too much in the process, and about how to make decisions and move forward when there are no easy or right answers. It is organized around specific scenarios like how to hire (i.e. should you hire star employees from your friend’s company) and fire people (i.e. friends), how to deal with employees who are smart jerks, and how to cultivate a healthy culture and minimize politics when scaling the firm etc. For a relatively short book, it packs many actionable insights and management principles that could help shape one’s leadership/management philosophy. It is super tangible and pragmatic and should be a must-read for any aspiring founders or CEOs (peacetime or wartime). If there is an overarching take away from this book, that is:

Dreams and fictions are meaty and sexy, realities are often bony and sometimes ugly. 

That said, we need dreams and fictions to give meaning to reality and to keep going. For a better summary of the key takeaways from this book, I recommend this blog post.

On the other hand, I picked up “Leading” as it has shown up several times on some respectable people’s reading lists. Also as a retired die-hard soccer fan (trained semi-professionally for two years in China), I thought it would nice to reconnect with my passion for the sport in a more pragmatic way. Sir. Alex Ferguson’s accomplishments speak for themselves, 38 trophies over a 26-year career at ManU, including two Champions League trophies. The book was organized around higher level managerial topics (i.e. setting standards, engaging others, managing the bottom line, leading vs. managing) then back-filled with anecdotes, sprinkled with lively stories about household names like David Beckham, Christiano Ronaldo etc. I also found the discussion of the sports vs. business management aspect of the club very educational. Sir. Alex is also a fan of Warren Buffett it seems. Overall it was a pleasant and entertaining read, but one should not expect ground-breaking management insights. For me, the book mostly goes back to the timeless basics of success, like listening and watching more than speaking, being disciplined and focused, being long-term focused, communicating with clear and concise messages.

However, principles are only as important as their execution, and if one could get the basics right most of the time, he/she is already ahead 95% of the people. True enough, to Sir. Alex Ferguson, leadership principles are easy, but one needs to have the stamina, knowledge, and skills to consistently implement them. In the end, it comes down to three things, preparation, perseverance, patience – and if condensed into one thing, it is consistency.

Key takeaways and unconventional ideas from “Leading”:

  • To lead, you don’t need everyone to like you, but they need to respect you (this is very useful to keep in mind as often times I overly worry about likeability)
  • You only need six people to carry your coffin (Pick your confidant carefully)
  • As one of the most successful managers in history, Sir. Alex only had less than 60% chance of winning a game when he stepped  into a stadium, so defeat is a constant like in other domains (poker, investing, start-ups)
  • See defeats as something caused by what we failed to do vs. what adversaries did. This is a healthy view as we are in control
  • As a leader, acts as players’ heat deflector, never disparage players in front of the public and save criticism behind closed doors, as good players sometimes are their own worst critics. It usually does not pay to single out and publicly hang someone
  • A display of temper is more effective if used sparingly, otherwise, it is a negative and corrosive way to run a team. Silence could be as effective as words
  • Be a puppy master, not a control freak. Control and delegation are two sides of the same coin, often times the most effective way is to work with and thru others
  • A leader who seeks control is very different from craving power. Made sure control was never usurped at ManU, sold players undermining control. Anyone is dispensable, the graveyard is full of indispensable men. Hate to lose Christiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid, but had to look to the future without him, if managed properly, club could continue to flourish
  • Take a hard look at club ownership before taking a job, important to focus on the long term 1) no meddling from owner 2) cash when needed 3)support 4) fair comp

Conclusion: I enjoyed both but if you have to pick one, read “HTAHT.” If you want to read both, still read “HTAHT” first to get the war scars and then supplement it with “Leading” to reinforce the principles.

“Running a start-up is like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. After a while, you stop staring, but the glass chewing never ends.” – Elon Musk

“As a CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.” – Ben Horowitz

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