A Leadership Tale Of Two Bookshelves

a leadership tale of two bookshelves

Recently I was at my friend Sara’s house to do yoga together on a rainy, non-running day. Afterwards – making tea and catching up on our lives – I spotted her bookshelf and had to laugh.

Sara is an Integrative Medicine MD with a NYTimes Best-selling book on hormone balancing. While also working with pharmaceuticals, she preaches first focusing on diet and lifestyle to help heal your body imbalances. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that her bookshelf was neatly organized with books to the tune of “Sugar Detox,” “Conscious Eating,” and “Real Food Fermentation.” (Huh? I don’t even know what that is!)

Of course I had to snap a picture and then send her one of my cookbook shelf to compare.

As you can see from the photos: mine is a) messier and b) less focused: it ranges from Mindful Eating to Desperation Dinners, with several dessert cookbooks in between.

This caused me to ponder: what lessons can our bookshelves teach us about leadership?

Leadership tales from the (book) shelf:

1) Focus on your path:

My cookbook shelf is a hodgepodge and meandering. Sara’s is on task and on target. Who do you think will reach the goal of a healthy eating utopia first?

So maybe healthy eating isn’t your goal — I just focus on feeding my family at the end of a long day — then what is? At the end of your long work days, do you know whether you’ve been on track to your goals? Can you clearly state what they are?

What I see among so many professionals is that they are struggling just to make it through their day without missing any essential deadlines. That kind of thinking will keep you afloat in your career but it likely won’t help you get the choice roles and projects that you ultimately crave. You need to know when to stand-up and say “Me! That’s the perfect role for me!” — and you can’t do that if you haven’t spent time considering your ultimate destination, and good stepping stones along the way.

2) Know what’s essential and what’s optional

What are your guiding principles?

One thing I love about Sara’s bookshelf is that she knows what’s necessary (a lot of green vegetables), and when to loosen up (Book of Wine, anyone?).

While knowing your path is important, knowing when you need to be rigid to stay on it, or when you need to flex is also key. Sometimes you just have to take a project you hate for the team, or stay up late to finish it. Other times, you need to get your workout in at all costs, because sacrificing your body continually for your never turns out well.

What about you? Where do you need to set firm boundaries, and where can you be more fluid?

3) One size does not fit all – Be willing to experiment

Sara’s bookshelf would not work in my family. In my family we love desserts. And I need “Desperation Dinners” – sometimes I only have 20 minutes from my last client until dinner needs to be on the table. (Ok, maybe more than sometimes.)

It’s easy to look at what is working for someone else and believe that it’s the only path towards your goal – but it’s not! I work with many successful professionals and I can tell you that there is never a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why, whether you are in the world of healthfulness, or the world of corporate America, you need to pay close attention to where your successes are and what led to them.

Chip and Dan Heath call it “Finding Your Bright Spots” and for both individuals and companies – it turns out the looking at “what works” and doing more of that is much more effective than following the book written by someone else word for word.

4) Know your strengths

This is a variation on finding your bright spots. My strength is baking. I’m a great baker. That means whenever I get asked to a potluck – I always volunteer dessert.

Luckily for those that socialize with Sara – she usually brings the salad – not the dessert.

While I’m all for shoring up your weaknesses – start with bolstering your strengths. . . after that – we’ll analyze your weaknesses!

5) Keep learning

When I look at Sara’s bookshelf, I see a range from classics to newer takes on nutrition (4- Hour Chef anyone?). Likewise on my cookbook shelf, you can see my recipe binders. That way anytime I taste something amazing and the cook says “Oh it was sooo easy to make!” I ask for the recipe!

No one in my family wants to eat the same five dinners each week, and everyone on Sara’s list wants to know about the newest health craze and whether it really works.

What skills could you learn at work that would really bolster your success? Maybe it’s time to read a new leadership book? Sign-up for a course you’ve been eyeing and make the time.

Being a perpetual learner is one of the ways we keep ourselves open to growth – personally and professionally.

Ok I could create a lot more leadership lessons from these two photos – but my top five are here to kick start your thinking. What does your bookshelf tell you about your plans, your vision and your journey?

If you’re not a reader – there’s Audible.com and podcasts for listening, and web-based online college courses for free (known as MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses). There’s even hiring an amazing coach to guide your leadership journey. My point is, how can you make use of the resources out there and available to you, to take yourself to the next level on your leadership path, and in your career?

P.S. For comparison sake: I just had to show you my leadership bookshelf.

Let me know what you think your bookshelf says about you in the comments below!

Curious what Sara had to say about our two different bookshelves? Read her analysis of what it means about us here.

Jo Ilfeld, PhD

An executive leadership coach, Jo helps C-suite leaders, executives, and high-potential managers develop the flexibility, skill, and frame of mind to meet the challenges of the next five, ten, twenty years…. and beyond. She works with individuals, teams and organizations on four core areas of leadership development. Check out Jo's bio page for more information.

Leave a Comment