I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction. To see a particular period of time and cultural context through the experiences of a cast of characters helps me to get a feel for life in that era—the common human challenges and joys and the elements that forge a person’s or community’s character. It gives me a different lens through which to view my own life path. One such series is The Saxon Stories (13 books), by Bernard Cornwell, set in the context of England’s birth during the ninth and tenth centuries (common era). It is the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg that most captured my attention. In retrospect, his maturation journey, especially as a leader, and his interactions with Alfred the Great, also on his own leadership development journey, showcases so many of the features highlighted in this week’s reading. I knew there was a reason I enjoyed the series so much .
Eve Poole in Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership would have been a hit with Uhtred. Her practical approach to Leadership as a craft to be developed over the course of a lifetime, with skill sets that can best be honed in the pressures of real life, parallel Uhtred’s hard won lessons about the centrality of personal character development and integrity, the disastrous costs of failing to prepare for key meetings, the importance of being apprenticed and apprenticing others to develop leadership skills, and more.
Poole makes it clear from her Introduction onwards that the focus of so many leadership books (both historic and contemporary) on the heroic acts of high-level leaders, without actually revealing their trade secrets for effective leadership, has to end if our collective societies and organizations hope to cultivate the caliber of leadership needed in today’s complex world. She wants to demystify leadership and make it accessible to everyone in the same way that a blacksmithing master teaches an apprentice all the details of mastering the heat of the forge to produce fine steel. Hence her book title that shifts from discussing leadership as a concept to discussing leadersmithing as a craft.
Leadersmithing falls under the broad classification of sociology and contains a scientific element through its reliance of research from the field of neurobiology. But this is not a textbook. Poole intends for her writing to be used as a manual, as a practical guidebook that those in leadership positions can utilize to develop their leadership, thinking, and learning capacities in a disciplined manner so that they are ready for the next level of leadership before they step into it. She divides her book into two parts, with a very helpful introduction and conclusion, and five practical appendices. In addition, both her bibliography and index are robust resources for further reading and research.
In Part One, Poole lays out her theory of leadership in four concise chapters. In Part Two, she gets down to business, inviting the reader to step into the heat of actively practicing the skills central to honing 17 key areas of leadership (named by her as Critical Incidents). For each of these Critical Incidents, she puts together a suite of skills (what she calls a template) utilizing the metaphor of a deck of cards. Hearts are skills related to putting others at ease, Spades are skills related to tools and techniques that get things done through others, Clubs are skills that impact a leader’s physical well-being and presence, and Diamonds are skills that sharpen a leader’s capacity to lead well under pressure. The reader is invited to jump into this guide at whatever point will be most useful to their leadership development.
Her metaphor of cooking also resonated with me. She equates recipes with her concept of templates. Using The Great British Bake-Off as an example, she contends that a contestant will practice as many different recipe versions of a soufflé they can find, so that during the competition they are prepared to improvise their own version. In the same way, leadersmithing is about collecting, practicing, and integrating relevant templates now in order to be better resourced to innovate when in the pressure cooker of higher-level leadership.
To truly engage Poole’s book will require discipline. As I reviewed the different Critical Incidents with my upcoming Design Workshop in mind, I found myself drawn most to the skill set under “Taking Key Decisions.” Then I started reading through the “cards” that make-up the template of skills for this leadership capacity. Wow! Practicing each of these with deliberate focus will take effort (which is one of the skills listed—understood as developing the mastery to operate consistently at a high level) and time. I’m grateful she ends her book with the encouraging word that leadersmithing is a lifelong pursuit. I’m also grateful that I now have a guidebook that offers tangible and practical skill sets to develop, along with a roadmap for doing so. This book will stay within easy reach on my desk as I continue to be forged in the furnace of real-life.
 Poole, Eve. 2017. Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Business, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
 Ibid., 177-178.