November 22, 2006


The Nature of Leadership: Reptiles, Mammals, and the Challenge of Becoming a Great Leader. By B. Joseph White with Yaron Prywes. AMACOM. $21.95.

Fire in the Grove: The Cocoanut Grove Tragedy and Its Aftermath. By John C. Esposito. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Every book about business leadership seems to have a different gimmick to help disguise the fact that it is making many of the same recommendations found in other books on the same topic.  B. Joseph White, president of the University of Illinois, offers a reptile-mammal contrast as his gimmick – although it should be noted that this conceit is ill served by the book’s cover, which shows a majestic lion but only a small, unassuming lizard (why not a Komodo dragon?).  Abetted by organizational consultant Yaron Prywes, White recommends a leadership style that draws on the analytical, rational and tough “reptilian” characteristics and combines them with the nurturing, participatory “mammalian” ones.  It’s best not to consider these images too closely, or one will notice that reptiles are driven largely by instinct, not analysis (and certainly not rationality) – and that many of them, such as pythons and alligators, are effective nurturers of their young.  And then there all those mammals – rodents in particular – that regularly eat some of their young.  So this book’s concept – its “grabber,” if you will – is perhaps even sillier than most.  But the book is saved by the quality of its advice and its unusually practical orientation (more than might have been expected from someone in academia).  White’s five qualities of great leaders, for example, are well thought out and well presented: innovation, willingness to take risks, ability to spot and attract top talent, a sense of the larger context within which an immediate challenge presents itself, and the ability to cut people and resources appropriately when necessary.  None of these qualities is newly discovered – the “larger context” idea, for example, is essentially the same as being able to determine whether something is urgent, important or both.  But White presents them well, and his comment that a possessor of all the recommended qualities still needs a “sparkle factor” to be considered a great leader is worth remembering.  Charisma, whether you consider it reptilian or mammalian, does count.

     Charisma, leadership and old-fashioned honesty were in extremely short supply in Boston during World War II – a state of affairs, says John C. Esposito, that was largely responsible for the city’s worst disaster.  On November 28, 1942, the worst nightclub fire in U.S. history hit Boston’s No. 1 nightspot, the Cocoanut Grove, killing 492 people – almost half of all the revelers and staff in the building.  Fire in the Grove not only details the horrific event itself but also looks at the sociopolitical climate in which it occurred and the aftereffects, some of them lasting, of what happened.  This is a story of the speed with which tragedy occurs: the victims were dead or doomed within a mere eight minutes after an imitation palm tree caught fire.  It is a story of the heroic efforts of doctors to save burn victims – improvising some treatment techniques that later became standard.  And it is a story of the cronyism and barely concealed corruption that famously pervaded Boston life at the time – and for many years afterwards, despite the public outcry after the fire.  Esposito, an attorney and consumer advocate, takes a somewhat lawyerly, lecturing tone in parts of the book, and never quite explains why people unfamiliar with this tragedy should want to explore it in such detail.  Still, for those who are familiar with the Cocoanut Grove fire – and see echoes of it even today, as in the fire in 2003 at The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which claimed 100 lives and which Esposito mentions at the end of his book – Fire in the Grove will stand as a thorough exploration of a major tragedy and a clarion call for stronger building codes and better, more honest code enforcement.

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