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July 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 50th Anniversary Ed., Harper, 2015, 336 pages)

I was prompted to re-read this after seeing Jeff Daniels play Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin's recent Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee's one-hit wonder.  Sorkin's adaptation was wonderful and Daniels was outstanding.  The only other time I had read Mockingbird was in junior high school, when I did so under protest--I (arrogantly) never took kindly to stuffy English teachers telling me what to read because some school board somewhere decided it was a classic.  I did not then give Lee her proper due.  Only now, after re-reading, do I understand why Mockingbird is universally acclaimed as the most important and beloved work of American fiction in the twentieth century.  It deserves to be called a classic, and it is just as relevant today as it was when first published. 

      


Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around (Roberta Chinsky Matuson, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017, 224 pages)

Good read, and full of simple, direct, and immediately actionable advice. 

Success as a new or even seasoned manager depends on being able to effectively manage your relationships with your boss and with those that report to you: managing up and managing down.  Sadly, in most schools and workplaces, managing up is rarely, if ever taught, and managing down doesn't get much more attention.  Managers are often left to their own devices--self education and learning by observing and doing.  It needn't be that way--there is plenty to be learned from folks that have been there and done that. 

Suddenly in Charge is actually two books in one--and creatively designed that way too: start at the front of the book with the Managing Up cover and content, or flip the book and start at the back of the book with the Managing Down cover and content.  For managing down, Matuson explores the importance of building trust, first impressions, bosses who aren't afraid to get into the trenches, respecting subordinates, flexibility, listening more and talking less, and helping others shine.  For managing up, Matuson emphasizes learning about your boss, understanding their management style and adapting to that style, and, importantly, respecting the organizational chart (i.e., making your boss look good and respecting their role in the organization, even if you might not like them personally). 

Matuson includes some worthwhile advice as to navigating office politics, an unavoidable part of every organization.  Power in the office takes two forms: hierarchical, which depends on position, and personal, which depends on influence.  To survive, you must learn where power (express and implied) resides in your organization and behave accordingly: (i) know the players, (ii) think before acting, (iii) learn from your mistakes, and (iv) play quietly. 

 


Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson III (Robert A. Caro, Knopf, 2002, 1200 pages)

Volume III of Caro's masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson.     

Caro carries Johnson’s story through one of its most remarkable periods: his twelve years, from 1949 to 1960, in the United States Senate. At the heart of the book is its unprecedented revelation of how legislative power works in America, how the Senate works, and how Johnson, in his ascent to the presidency, mastered the Senate as no political leader before him had ever done.
 
It was during these years that all Johnson’s experience—from his Texas Hill Country boyhood to his passionate representation in Congress of his hardscrabble constituents to his tireless construction of a political machine—came to fruition. Caro introduces the story with a dramatic account of the Senate itself: how Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun had made it the center of governmental energy, the forum in which the great issues of the country were thrashed out. And how, by the time Johnson arrived, it had dwindled into a body that merely responded to executive initiatives, all but impervious to the forces of change. Caro anatomizes the genius for political strategy and tactics by which, in an institution that had made the seniority system all-powerful for a century and more, Johnson became Majority Leader after only a single term-the youngest and greatest Senate Leader in our history; how he manipulated the Senate’s hallowed rules and customs and the weaknesses and strengths of his colleagues to change the “unchangeable” Senate from a loose confederation of sovereign senators to a whirring legislative machine under his own iron-fisted control.
 
Caro demonstrates how Johnson’s political genius enabled him to reconcile the unreconcilable: to retain the support of the southerners who controlled the Senate while earning the trust—or at least the cooperation—of the liberals, led by Paul Douglas and Hubert Humphrey, without whom he could not achieve his goal of winning the presidency. He shows the dark side of Johnson’s ambition: how he proved his loyalty to the great oil barons who had financed his rise to power by ruthlessly destroying the career of the New Dealer who was in charge of regulating them, Federal Power Commission Chairman Leland Olds. And we watch him achieve the impossible: convincing southerners that although he was firmly in their camp as the anointed successor to their leader, Richard Russell, it was essential that they allow him to make some progress toward civil rights.  Caro details Johnson’s amazing triumph in maneuvering to passage the first civil rights legislation since 1875.

The gold standard in biography.