Famous and powerful people regularly write books about their leadership experiences quickly after leaving a significant position. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that publishing stories about your professional life isn’t just for presidents, CEOs and rock stars — it’s for every leader that wants to remain competitive.
American newsreaders have been bittersweet over the last three weeks. The transition from President Obama to President-Elect Trump has – for some media personalities – inspired some wistful nostalgia for Obama’s predictable and efficient approach to media relations. Several newsreaders predicted that the about-to-be-former president would take a much-needed holiday from his predictable practice of addressing the press, gather his thoughts and then write another autobiographical book focusing on his biggest challenges during his time in office.
It’s hardly a daring act of prognostication to suggest that a major political figure will write a book after leaving office. Of course he’s going to pen another one. All he’ll need are a few snappy quotes, a handful of anecdotes and one or two mildly shocking revelations about some other political figure and the book will easily sell out its first print run. It might even turn out to be a good read. I’m not going to speculate on that – I’m just predicting that some sort of new text is coming from Mr Obama in the near future. I’m also confident that millions of Amazon customers will rush out to buy it.
I suppose this might make me sound jealous. I just finished publishing the e-book edition of Office Cowboys in December and I’m in the process of finalizing the print edition of In Bob We Trust for release in second quarter. I’m not expecting either of those books to reach the bottom edge of the New York Times bestseller list – ever. Mr Obama’s book, on the other hand, is likely to out-sell mine by at least 1,000 to one. Probably by more.
The two of us are writing our respective books for very different reasons. I suspect that one of Mr Obama’s motivations will be financial. Publishing a new collection of ‘inside the beltway’ stories is an easy way for Mr Obama to secure a future revenue stream. Not that he necessarily needs the money. He’ll be able to live comfortably on his pension, his speaker’s fees, the royalties from all three of his previous books and whatever investments he has. Still, it’s darned foolish to forego the additional revenue that’s he’ll earn on a book that you know that the public is guaranteed to buy.
His more compelling motivation will likely be to frame certain events and decisions that he made in the line of duty in the light that he wants them to be remembered in. The incoming administration is highly likely to dismantle many of the programmes and policies that Mr Obama fought to create. This is normal in politics. Part of that dismantling process will include demonizing the previous president in order to justify whatever the substitute programme or policy might be. This is also normal. A swiftly-written book detailing Mr Obama’s presidential legacy will arm journalists with a ready-to-recite counter-narrative to whatever story the new administration’s lackeys tender to justify their undoing of things like the Affordable Care Act, normalization of relations with Iran, et al.
This is one of the areas where the former president and I differ. I write books so that business leaders can (a) learn something useful that helps them to be better leaders and (b) maybe get a laugh. That being said, it turns out that being the American correspondent for Business Reporter isn’t nearly as high-profile a job as being the President of the United States.  As such, I don’t have to ‘justify’ my major policy decisions the way that a senior politician or an executive does. Major public figures – like politicians, mega-corp CEOs and other celebrities – often get a few years at the helm of a hugely-influential organisation, face some terrible existential challenges, make controversial decisions and then return to the job market to do it all again. The decisions made by people like Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg and Rex Tillerson affect hundreds of millions of people. Their actions usually have long-term ramifications that move markets, change how society functions, and even influence life-or-death situations. Everything controversial that they do is guaranteed to get dissected by their advocates and detractors alike.
That’s why major public figures are highly incentivized to tell their side of the story as soon as they step down from their major position of power. They have a legacy to protect, sure. They also have a compelling need to demonstrate that their professional judgement was sound. By framing their actions in context, they can argue that a controversial decision that they made was the best option available given the totality of circumstances. A reasonable reader will then (hopefully) hold a more favourable opinion of them. More importantly, influential business leaders will judge the public figure’s reputation to be sound enough to take a chance on him or her for future opportunities.
Presidents don’t tend to seek out for-profit corporate gigs after they leave the White House, but they do establish and run major organisations. Jimmy Carter, for example, created the Carter Foundation and has been hugely influential in humanitarian endeavours like eradicating Guinea Worm Disease. George W. Bush took up… painting. To each his own.
Businesspeople, on the other hand, are always looking for their next for-profit opportunity. For the average FORTUNE 500 executive, one’s professional reputation is crucial to one’s long-term survival. Having a reputation of poor judgment, awful mistakes, casual cruelty and/or general incompetence will cause future business opportunities to dry up. Rational boards don’t want to entrust their business to a fiend or a loser. That’s why it’s in every CEO’s long-term self-interest to publish books swiftly after they finish a leadership role in order to retroactively paint themselves in the best possible light.
None of this should come as a surprise. We’ve seen high-profile leaders attempt to shape their own legacy via autobiographical arguments for decades. I submit that Alfred Sloan’s book My Years with General Motors set the gold standard for this practice back in the 1950s. Sloan attempted to justify GM’s collaboration with Nazi Germany throughout the war – arming both the Axis and Allied forces simultaneously and profiting off the resulting carnage. Sloan’s rationalisation seemed to have worked – his autobiography is still used as a textbook in business schools worldwide today, and the global mega-corp he helmed company still exists… despite having armed Nazi Germany.
That aside, we’ve established that high-profile leaders have a vested interest in using print media to defend their legacy following the end of a controversial job. Telling one’s own side of a story helps to re-frame contentious events in the best possible light. The more that a decision generated drama or trauma, the more likely it is that their decision is going to be analysed – if not by the figure at the centre of the controversy, then by outsiders with an agenda. As a poignant example consider what Woodward and Bernstein’s book All the President’s Men did to eviscerate President Nixon’s legacy.
So… here’s the thing: if we accept that this practice is normal and appropriate, then how do we get even more business leaders to engage in it? Specifically, the lower-level leaders that we’re actually likely to work with?
Yes, I realize that non-celebrity figures aren’t likely to sell a lot of books. If you’re not the sort of person that paparazzi will make an effort to photograph, then it’s unlikely that many people outside of your immediate family are going to buy (let alone read) your books. You’d think that legacy-framing autobiographies are something that only ‘popular people’ need bother with. Who (outside of a few disgruntled underlings) really cares what Alice Smith did during her tenure as the vice president of product development at Some Company LLC?
Actually… I do. That is, if I’m considering Ms Smith for a potential role in my organisation, then I want to know as much about her personality, perspective, decision-making skills, biases and ability to function under pressure as I possibly can. If Ms Smith went to the trouble to write a book (or a whitepaper, or a journal article, or even a blog post) about her experiences in a leadership capacity, I’m darned well going to read what she had to say before I interview her in person. The more that I can learn about her before I hire her, the better.
More importantly, if I can see how transparent Ms Smith was in telling her side of the story – that is, owning her mistakes – the more likely I am to consider her for a leadership billet. If Ms Smith is the sort of person that can publicly declare, ‘I made a bloody awful mistake. Here’s why I screwed things up,’ then she’s probably sort of person that I can trust to play straight with me (especially during a crisis). If, on the other hand, she’s the sort of narcissist that insists that she’s always right and that everyone else is always wrong, then I probably won’t be able to trust her in any capacity, ever.
I strongly believe that there’s a lot we can learn from leaders’ public writings. That’s why I encourage my peers in industry to publish. Telling your own story is a valuable tool for showing the working world who you are and what it is that you stand for. Your stories reveal what you value – and what you don’t. Your stories allow a potential boss, partner or collaborator to get a glimpse of what they can expect to experience working with you far better than any conventional interview answer can.
Is telling your story going to make you a bestselling author? No. Trust me on this. For those of us who exist well below the celebrity threshold, our non-fiction publishing is not a path to riches or fame. Nice as it might be, that’s not the point. Publishing stories about your professional life is a tool for telling the story of you. It’s an act of marketing, interviewing and branding directed at anyone who might be interested in working with you.
I’ll probably buy and read Mr Obama’s next autobiography about his presidency. I’ll definitely buy and read your story if you’re coming to me looking for a job. Surely that counts as a worthwhile investment of time and energy, right? It’s like getting a free second interview when everyone else competing for the role gets only one.
If the fellow that just finished eight years of keeping the world from falling apart in a nuclear and/or economic firestorm can invest a few hours jotting down an amusing anecdote, then you can too. Get on it already.
 If that comes as a surprise to anyone…
POC is Keil Hubert, email@example.com
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.