Books: More Oregon trail than Agincourt

A must-buy book this is not, but it contains enough useful tips for those CEOs in need of a refresher, says Patrick Dunne.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Smashing, I thought, as I looked at the cover of this book, and in particular at the subtitle, Creating the focus you need to achieve your key business goals. I've always believed passionately in the benefits of focus - that is, as long as you focus on the right things.

What are must-win battles?

According to the authors, they are the ones that are urgent and important, the three or four battles that you absolutely must win to achieve your objectives; battles that require the leader to take 'an emotional, as well an intellectual journey', and ones that demand an extraordinary level of leadership.

Having read this, I began to worry that this book might be a bit of a chore, but I was heartened by the authors' advice that one of the traits of extraordinary leadership is the ability to ignore advice. So, the book is clearly aimed at mortals like most of us. Yet no-one has a monopoly on wisdom. A leader needs to decide - to make the important calls - but a leader who is cocooned in his or her own little world and listens to no-one is likely to screw up big-time.

Must-Win Battles appears to be aimed at divisional CEOs in large international businesses, who are taking up leadership positions in companies that require major change. It contains good, relevant case studies from companies most of us would recognise, all well set out and fairly straightforward tales.

For example, 'The Unilever Ice Cream Journey', where there seemed to be considerable opportunity for meltdown, contains a classic quote, one familiar from sport, music and many other walks of life, as well as business: 'How can we have such talented execs producing such mediocre results?'

A major challenge for the book is the battle analogy; the authors clearly don't see business as a battle or a series of battles. The content demonstrates the balanced and more modern view for which the IMD business school in Lausanne is famed. It would be a shame if potential readers are put off by the title because they expect tales of great victories, ghoulish descriptions of losers and some nice gory collateral damage. That is not what this book is about.

So what is it about? Well, if you cut through the matrices and metaphors, and avoid getting muddled between your 'journey' and your 'battle', the book essentially encourages you to focus and to prioritise, to assemble the best team for the job, and to lead that team and the organisation in an energetic way. More Oregon Trail than Agincourt.

It is written in an accessible style and the content is pretty sensible, if not original. The one thing the book doesn't emphasise enough is the need for leaders in major change situations to simplify.

I was most looking forward to the chapter called 'Colliding to Decide'.

But the authors very quickly deflated my enthusiasm by saying that the title conjures up (politically incorrect) visions of 'banging heads together' to reach agreement on a critical issue.

Either that or the slightly less politically incorrect idea of locking people in a small room until they reach a consensus. But whoever said political correctness should be your guiding constraint when your back's against the wall? Sure, we need to behave responsibly, but we should be driven first by substance and then by form, and not the other way around.

I was reminded of the story of JP Morgan, the famous banker of the gilded age who would fail abysmally on the political correctness front today. Yet he saved a major financial meltdown in the 1920s by locking America's top bankers in a room and telling them they would not get out until they had found a solution. Irrational?

Yes. Risky? Absolutely - the weakest bladder loses whether he has the right answer or not. But it was effective. Legend also has it that the moment led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System. Sometimes, having a highly respected third party around to bang heads together can do the trick.

MWB may not be a must-buy book, but it's a reasonable read and contains useful tips if you have just inherited a dog of a subsidiary or if you need a bit of a refresher.

If you've been on the journey before, though, go for the works of John Kotter at Harvard Business School or those of Manfred Kets de Vries at INSEAD.

Must-Win Battles Peter Killing and Thomas Malnight with Tracey Keys FT Prentice Hall £21.99 To order, visit

- Patrick Dunne is group communications director at 3i.

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