Book Review – Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose

Real Leadership: 9 Simple Practices for Leading and Living with Purpose, by John Addison. 2016. NY: McGraw-Hill Education. 256 pages.

John Addison demonstrates Southern charm and homespun wisdom in his memoir about his leadership of Primerica during the last decade’s economic downturn. He and his co-CEO managed to keep their financial company from melting down, unlike so many others. Instead, they separated Primerica from the parent company and went public, becoming a major success story.

Addison describes his thirty years of working his way up the organization from an entry-level business analyst to the co-CEO. Although he probably began to learn about leadership during his MBA training, his nine leadership practices are mostly based on his experience.

Addison is from a small town in Georgia, and he plays up his Southern accent and folksy observations about human nature. His nine leadership practices are:

  • Decide who you are
  • Shine your light on others
  • Build on your strengths
  • Earn your position
  • Focus on what you can control
  • Develop a peaceful core
  • Be a lighthouse
  • Don’t burn bridges
  • Make your parents proud

I’ve read many books on leadership, and these practices aren’t very different from those described by other successful leaders. But they are definitely his, spun in his unique style. He devotes a chapter to each of the leadership practices, along with a page that summarizes the main points and presents action steps for each. Here are a few of his most vibrant proverbs.

  • A mediocre leader tries to impress people with how important he or she is. A great leader impresses upon people how important they are.
  • There’s a big difference between a problem and a situation. If writing a check or making some kind of adjustment to what you’re doing can fix it, then it’s not a problem. It’s a situation. If an asteroid hits the earth, I call that a problem. But that doesn’t happen too often.
  • Inside the head of even the most sane, calm, sweet-tempered person there lurks a raging negativity that will start spreading its weeds at every opportunity. The moment you turn your back, they’ll take over the garden of your mind.
  • Most people’s somedays become a handful of people’s everydays.

Addison is a powerful motivational speaker, and at times his book is as gripping as his speeches. Other times, though, it reads pretty much like other leadership books written by successful leaders. Everyone who has been successful has their own thoughts about how and why they succeeded when others didn’t. These are interesting, and reading about them is useful to people who want to learn from the masters. What sets this book apart is the story of how Addison and his co-CEO weathered the financial crisis. Reminisces about this time are just now starting to be published. Addison attributes much of his success to being likeable and having developed a large cadre of people over the years who were willing to go to bat for him in a problem situation. And this was definitely a problem, not a situation.

We can learn a great deal from successful people’s personal stories. I just wish Addison had thrown in a few pieces of data or some research about leadership to buttress his claims about how best to lead. But that would have created a different kind of book altogether, and this one holds its own with other, similar volumes.

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