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I love this book.

It’s easily the best thing I have read this year.

I’m writing this review to try and condense some of my thoughts about what it is saying and how it applies to my work and to my life. The connection to work may be tenuous, but the need to download and conceptualize what has in occupying my mind for the last week is real.

The subtitle to this book is “Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.” How will the historians, and the general public, of the future view us; our history, and more particularly our culture, and society in the future – decades or even centuries hence? This is a serious book, that makes serious points about life and the remembrance of cultures and culture. It is also extremely funny and irreverent.

Whether it be books, music, film or television, it is impossible for us to be able to predict what will be considered a classic and why. What the book makes clear is that it will not be the things that we hold in high esteem today, mostly due to their value being on how relevant they interpret our world today from today’s perspective, even when that is not immediately obvious. What seems certain from past history is that major political and cultural events will have a direct effect on how we see and interpret cultural artifacts. For example, given on how we view cultural materials from the 1940s through a prism of the Second World War, we can assume that most of the early years of the 21st century’s culture will be viewed through the prism of the 9/11 attacks. What that cultural touchstone will be, of course, is unknowable.

However, cultural touchstones from our recent history can now be hinted at that would never have been dreamed of at the time of their initial impact. The Matrix, when it came out in the late nighties, was seen as a great action movie, with a clever script and innovative visuals. However, in the past 20+ years there has been dramatic changes in the visibility of, and how society views and accepts, transgender individuals. This includes the directors of The Matrix movie, the Wachowski Brothers, both of who transitioned during this time period. Lana in 2008 and Lily in 2016. It is hard to watch the Matrix today without seeing it as a metaphor for transitioning. A metaphor that was never even considered, or hinted at, when the movie was released.      

How future generations will view our world, which of course will be through our culture which is what we leave behind, will depend partly on what that future culture itself will look like. This is of course is impossible to predict, but there are fascinating clues. The rise of video games and what that means for teams and team sports; changes, or lack of them in the world of science; democracy and how we view written constitutions, the very nature of reality or possible realties.

Whole musical genres are summed up by single proponents when we look back over long periods of time. Marching band music, for example, is represented in the minds of most of us today by John Philip Sousa. However, he was just one on many composers of marching band music. How would our view of Rock Music change when viewed through the prism of Elvis Presley versus Bob Dylan?    

“But What if We’re Wrong?” tackles all of these and a lot more with insight and wit. This is book to think about and ponder. A book to return to and revaluate, much as it suggests we do with the culture of the past and we are bound to do with our own present.   


I know this is difficult
Because it is difficult for me too.

I know you are scared
Because we are all scared.

I know you are tired
Because everything is harder.

I know you are frustrated
Because what should be simple is fiendishly complex.

I know you are wanting this to end
Because the end is not in sight.

I know you want to get back to normal
Because normal was awesome.

I know you are glad to be busy
Because the alternative sucks far worse.

I know you value your teams
Because we all feel the same way.

I know we can do this
Because we kick ass on a daily basis.


Written as the introduction to a staff meeting.  


The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Loose Influence, is a slim but insightful book on the relationship between power, the powerful, powerlessness and the powerless. “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place”, which is from the introduction, nicely sums up the premise.

The author, who uses his own experimental data and a number of graphics, makes a solid case for the phenomenon that others have labeled, incorrectly, as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Separating the Power Paradox into 20 ‘Power Principles, which are too extensive to list here, Dr. Keltner neatly lays out why leaders become leaders, and why they can go off the rails.
What is missing from the book, is historical perspective. It is filled with experimental data, but real world examples from business, or politics, would make for a more compelling case. One of the reasons that I appreciate the argument made in the book so much is due to the insights of Nassir Ghaemi in his excellent: A First Rate Madness which I reviewed here and is full (in retrospect) of historical examples of the Power Paradox in action.

From my own experience, I have seen the Power Paradox at work in supervisors and in myself. Terminology is, of course, a problem. I have always accepted that “power” means the control that your job, or position, grants you; whereas the ability to lead is granted through “authority.” Authority is given by a group. The Power Paradox lumps these both together, though it does make use of “empowered” but because of the larger framework of the “principles” this actually works. The definition of power and authority, may be too simple for such a complex subject, particularly when dealt with in such detail as here with “The Power Principle,”

The book becomes particularly interesting, and potentially controversial, when Dr. Keltner deals with gossip. Long considered a symptom of a potentially hostile work environment, Dr. Keltner makes the argument that gossip is how strong groups self-regulate and expose the “reputations of the selfish and the Machiavellian.” The author does recognize that gossip can be extremely harmful, particularly when it is abused by the powerful; however, the case for it not being the cardinal sin that we have long believed it to be – particularly if your goal is to have high functioning groups – is pretty solid.

Annoyingly for a book written by an academic, but probably a sop to writing a pop-science book, the footnotes are exiled to the end of the book, making following a path of enquiry more complex than it really needs to be, but this is a small criticism of a great leadership book. It is particularly useful for those who have been in leadership positions for a while. There are lots of books out there on how to become a leader, create functional teams, and even dealing with powerlessness; however, it is rare to find a book that addresses the dysfunction of leaders who get used to their positions, and why things can go awry.
For leaders, you need the book before you really need it, otherwise you will not stay a leader for long.

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