Robert Townsend, Up the Organization

October 30, 2012

Web 2.0 asked for recommendations for books on leadership.  I’m sure I swamped them.

One that almost no one today has read should be required reading of every new school principal, and any principal who hasn’t read it yet:  Robert Townsend‘s Up the Organization.  It’s a great book, with very short chapters — each chapter can be consumed within ten minutes.  It’s also loaded with the kind of leadership advice that seems to be beaten out of education “leaders” before they ever get close to a real position of leadership.

I found a blog, LeadingBlog, probably a commercial outlet for a consulting organization, that mentioned the 2007 reissue of the book and carried several pithy quotes from it.  Heck, if most principals practiced just these few points of leadership, their faculties would be astonished.

Up the Organization

Up the Organization

Cover of Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits

Jossey-Bass has released a commemorative edition of Robert Townsend’s (1920-1998) leadership classic, Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits. Originally published in 1970, this candid and provocative book deserves to be re-read every year. Here’s a sample of Townsend’s straightforward and practical advice:

On People: Why spend all that money and time on the selection of people when the people you’ve got are breaking down from under-use. Get to know your people. What they do well, what they enjoy doing, what their weaknesses and strengths are, and what they want and need to get from their job. And then try to create an organization around your people, not jam your people into those organization-chart rectangles.

On Delegation: Many people give lip service, but few delegate authority in important matters. And that means all they delegate is dog-work. A real leader does as much dog-work for his people as he can: he can do it, or see a way to do without it, ten times as fast. And he delegates as many important matters as he can because that creates a climate in which people grow.

On Leadership: True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders. In combat, officers eat last. Most people in big companies today are administered, not led. They are treated as personnel, not people.

On Rewards: Rewarding outstanding performance is important. Much more neglected is the equally important need to make sure that the underachievers don’t get rewarded. This is more painful, so it doesn’t get done very often.

AVISOn Compromise:Compromise is usually bad. It should be a last resort. If two departments or divisions have a problem they can’t solve and it comes up to you, listen to both sides and then, unlike Solomon, pick one or the other. This places solid accountability on the winner to make it work.

Robert Townsend served as the president and chairman of Avis Rent-a-Car from 1962 to 1965 during its celebrated turnaround. You may remember the infamous the “We Try Harder” advertising campaign that helped to transform it into a world-class organization.

See if you can find the book in your school or local library.


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