A leadership book from a real leader

Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen, by David Novak. Portfolio/Penguin. 227 pages.

FORTUNE —┬áPity the aspiring manager who wants to become an excellent business leader. His or her bookshelf creaks and buckles under the weight of leadership books that authors crank out seemingly without limit or shame. But readers of these books don’t become stronger leaders; instead they grow fat with platitudes as they consume these alluring tomes, the vast majority of which offer only empty calories.

The problems are two. First, most of these books aren’t by real leaders who’ve produced knockout business results. They’re by observers who weren’t under the gun to hit numbers and often didn’t even have up-close access to the people they write about — so why risk your career by doing what they tell you?

The second problem is that even leadership books by credible authors generally don’t explain, in useful, nuts-and-bolts detail, how to do what they recommend. Foster an open, candid culture? That’s a great idea, but without an instruction manual, it won’t get you far.

Among the many reasons to like Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen by David Novak is that on these two critical points where most leadership books are terrible, it’s extraordinarily good. Specifically:

Credibility. Novak is CEO of Yum! Brands (I will henceforward omit the exclamation point, lest the constant excitement of mentioning the company become distracting). Yum (YUM) is the restaurant business spun off from PepsiCo (PEP) in 1997, comprising KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, and Novak has run it from the beginning. Its performance has been spectacular. The stock has risen almost 16% a year on average; Yum’s return on capital consistently towers over its cost of capital. If anyone in business has earned the right to opine on leadership, Novak has.

Usefulness. Besides being the title of this book, Taking People With You is the name of a three-day leadership program that Novak teaches up to eight times a year within the company; he began developing it even before Yum was spun off and has taught it to more than 4,000 employees. So this book isn’t just Novak’s thoughts on leadership; it’s a highly organized program. In fact, it isn’t a book you curl up with at all; it’s a workbook, so be prepared to work. Novak recommends reading just one chapter a day. I’d say one a week.

This book is demanding because Novak understands that leadership isn’t about techniques. It’s about your own deep nature, your traits as a human being, and how you connect with other people at deep levels. Most business books tell you to do analysis; this one makes you do psychoanalysis, mostly of yourself, and that’s a lot harder. Calculating free cash flow is easy. Being honest with yourself about whether you ever pretend to be something you’re not, whether others see you as reliable, whether you really value the contributions of others — that can leave you exhausted.

Taking People With You isn’t entirely about introspection. It’s also about strategy and structure, action plans and execution. But those things come later. The foundation of the book’s message is the profoundly human experience of leading. For example, one of Novak’s most powerful themes is the value of recognition — he is an absolute fanatic about publicly recognizing good performance, and recognition is at the heart of Yum’s culture. It’s such a simple concept; recognition costs nothing, and its value is staggering. Yet most managers seem virtually clueless about this basic facet of human nature.

Not many business leaders have produced long-term performance that merits our attention; of those few, not many write books; and of those who do, hardly any write good books. Novak is in that tiny subset. You can safely declutter much of your business leadership bookshelf, even if it’s just taking up gigabytes in your iPad or Kindle, and install this one in the vast empty space.

 

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