You’ve Got to Draw the Line Somewhere: A Review

Henry Cloud is the coauthor of the perennial psychology bestseller Boundaries, which has spawned a series of other books (Boundaries in Dating, Boundaries with Kids, Beyond Boundaries… I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before we get Boundaries for Grandparents, Boundaries with Siblings, The Return of Boundaries, Boundaries Strike Back, Boundaries: First Blood, Part 2, etc.). The latest in this series is Boundaries for Leaders.

In his solo books, Cloud tends to focus on the psychology of business and leadership, drawing on his experiences as a consultant. This book is Cloud’s plea for leaders to foster the kind of culture that enables their people’s brains to work optimally, using the three “executive functions” of the brain: attention to what is relevant, inhibition of what is distracting, and the working memory to always stay aware of relevant information.

The boundaries Cloud writes about for the bulk of the book have to do with setting the right emotional tone, staying connected, reducing negativity, focusing on things that can be controlled, creating the right values, and fostering an environment of trust. At the end, he writes about the leader creating boundaries for him- or herself.

For the most part, these boundaries seemed obvious. Of course people need to be in a good place emotionally if they are going to be a positive contributor. Of course people need to focus on what they can control rather than wring their hands over what they can’t. Of course people need to stay connected if they want to accomplish anything. Of course nothing good is going to happen in a culture of mistrust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I subscribe to Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.”

But this book isn’t just a restatement of the obvious. Cloud’s major contributions are that he roots his insights in neuroscience, and he makes creating the right kind of culture the responsibility of the leader. That’s the “ridiculously in charge” of the subtitle. Leaders, Cloud says many places throughout the book, get what they create and what they allow. It’s a heavy responsibility, but one that leaders everywhere need to be reminded of.

Note: Thanks to HarperBusiness for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

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Book Review: Integrity

Popular psychology books get a bad rap. So do business books. That means Henry Cloud’s Integrity: the Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, which fits in both categories, is not supposed to be a good book. But it is.

Early in the book, Cloud tells the story of a company he consulted for. The CEO didn’t know what to do about one of his employees. This employee was very profitable for the company, but he was very difficult to work with. He caused other good employees to leave, his presence was bad for company morale, and the CEO had to spend a lot of time dealing with the effects this employee had on others. Cloud then informed the CEO that every person has two aspects of the “wake” they leave behind them: the tasks and the relationships. If you only look at the tasks, you don’t see the whole picture. If you ignore someone’s character and only look at the “bottom line,” you’re blinding yourself to a huge chunk of reality. This eventually leads to failure, because character affects the bottom line in unforeseen ways.

Cloud then spends the rest of the book looking at six aspects of integrity. A person with integrated character:

1. Creates and maintains trust.
2. Is able to see and face reality.
3. Works in a way that brings results.
4. Embraces negative realities and solves them.
5. Causes growth and increase.
6. Achieves transcendence and meaning in life.

One unfortunate part of the book (which came out in 2006) is that Cloud uses Tiger Woods as a positive example of someone with character. Woods, he says, was able to focus on growth in his golf game despite overwhelming success. He wasn’t satisfied with how he was playing, even when he was winning. Of course, the revelations about Woods’s private life only came out later.

But using Woods as an example doesn’t weaken what Cloud is saying. He says that someone with an un-integrated character can be successful in many areas of life. A person can leave a very positive task wake and a negative relationship wake. I wonder if this characterization could also be applied to Steve Jobs. I have read several articles about him in the past week, and the consensus seems to be that, while he was brilliant and a visionary, he was a very difficult person to work with. Here is an extended quote from Cloud:

[S]ometimes people think that it is the lack of development that got someone to the place where he is. I hear this all the time when people talk about leadership character. They say, “Well, it is his drivenness and dictator personality that made him so successful. It is a problem in that it makes him difficult to work with, but without it he wouldn’t be where he is.” Wrong! What they are calling “drivenness” means an unbalanced achiever who is aggressive about getting the goals accomplished, but absolutely immature or terrible in working with people, or so narcissistic that he is unconfrontable and has a “God complex.”

That is not what made him successful. It is what created the collateral damage along his path toward success. His initiative, assertiveness, good use of being aggressive, brains, charm, strategic thinking, and other things made him successful, in spite of the imbalance and narcissism, not because of it. If he integrated those aspects of his character as well, the good ones that made him successful would not disappear! They would be augmented by other skills and make him even more powerful, not less. There often seems to be a fear against becoming a balanced person, as if accomplishment only belongs to the truly dysfunctional. (266-7)

This book isn’t groundbreaking; it’s filled with a lot of common sense, but sometimes common sense isn’t all that common. I came away from it with a greater understanding of integrity and how it plays out in a work environment. It confirmed my suspicion that only caring about the bottom line can actually be harmful to the bottom line. Not only that, but it was a good challenge for me to grow in my own character.

May 2009: Books Read

1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I had never heard of John Irving until I lived in Eastern Europe and saw his books in all the English language bookstores I visited. His overseas publishers are apparently amazing. I picked this particular one up just before my trip to Boston, because i thought it would be fun to read a book set in New England while I went to New England. As usual, I didn’t have as much time to read on the trip as I thought (which was good), and so I didn’t finish it until early May.

The first hundred or so pages went pretty slowly, because there were so few surprises. I had seen the movie Simon Birch, which is based on this book, and the plot of the movie follows the first part of the book pretty faithfully. It became more interesting a couple hundred pages in, when things not contained in the movie started happening. It was a bit bizarre, though, to read about Owen growing up, driving, and smoking, because from the movie I always thought of Owen as an 11-year-old boy.

The scope of the novel was also much larger than I had realized, too. It turned out to be not only a heartwarming tale of life in small-town New Hampshire, but a commentary on the Vietnam War. All in all, it was an interesting read, and I liked how Irving kept turning the screws and leading the story to its inevitable, tragic conclusion. My only complaint is that, by the end of the story, I didn’t find either of the protagonists (Owen or the narrator, John) to be sympathetic. I wasn’t particularly rooting for them, though it was interesting to see how things eventually played out. The main reason why I stopped rooting for Owen was that he screamed at his parents for coming to see him in a nativity play, and this was never explained. He became a much less sympathetic character as a result. The reason why I stopped rooting for John was that by the end of the book he had become whiny and cynical. Maybe Irving portrayed his characters this way on purpose, to make them anti-heroes, but to me it just made the book less enjoyable.

2. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright. This book has been very popular in the past year, and I very much enjoyed reading it. Having gone to Regent, however, this book didn’t really have any “Aha!” moments for me. I was already familiar with the (biblical, but somehow overlooked in modern Christian culture) idea that we are meant not just to go to heaven when we die, but that we are to be resurrected and the New Jerusalem will come to earth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though I wish that Wright had spent more time emphasizing the biblical roots of his ideas. He does refer to the Bible quite a lot, especially in chapter 14. He also refers a good deal to longer discussions in his heavier books, like Jesus and the Victory of God and The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s not that I don’t think his ideas are biblical; I just think that relying heavily on the Bible for every major point would go a long way toward silencing his critics who suspect that he is saying something new and strange. But I suppose there would always be critics, even if there were multiple Bible citations on every page.

3. The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. This is a novel involving talking animals, and it reminded me of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Unlike Animal Farm, however, this book was not intended to be allegorical. It is just a fantasy involving talking animals, and I thought it was rather a good one. The main character is Chauntecleer the rooster, who rules over a domain that even includes larger animals. He keeps time several times a day, rather like the set prayers that monks do, through his crowing. The narrator tells us that God put Chauntecleer and the other animals in place in order to keep watch over Wyrm, a great evil force that lies deep under the surface of the earth. Chauntecleer and the other animals don’t know anything about Wyrm until Wyrm tries to break free through the agency of his minion Cockatrice, a cross between a rooster and a dragon. It is a story of good vs. evil, and culminates in a huge battle between Chauntecleer and the other animals on one side and Cockatrice and his many serpent children (and ultimately, Wyrm) on the other.

This was a fun book to read, and I’m glad I read it. Wangerin is a good storyteller, and he kept my attention the whole time. The only complaint that I would have, if any, is that the plot moves too quickly. Significant events in the book, like the final day of battle, only take up a few pages. Perhaps Wangerin intended the book for a younger audience than me. I would recommend it for children age 11 (or so) and up.

4. God Will Make A Way: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I bought this book several years ago, during the summer of 2003 between my year in the Czech Republic and my year in Hungary. At the time, I was not sure what I was going to do after I was finished teaching, and the title really jumped out to me. I never got around to reading it until just now, though.

It is by the authors of the well-known book Boundaries, and it is about what the title indicates: relying on God to make a way when life seems hopeless or just stuck. In the first part of the book, they give several principles to live by, and in the second half they talk about how those principles play out in various areas, like dating, marriage, divorce, addiction and planning for the future. It was not a life-changing book, since much of what I read here I had already read elsewhere, but it was also not a bad book. It was a good reminder of God’s providential care.