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Jacob Wackerhausen

The One Thing You Need To Know

By Marcus Buckingham

Free Press, 289 pages, $43.50

In the movie City Slickers, Jack Palance's character, Curly, holds up one finger portentously and tells Billy Crystal's character there is only one thing to know about the meaning of life.

"What's the one thing?" Crystal's character asks.

"That's what you've got to figure out," is the evasive answer.

In a world where executives are overwhelmed by the many things they are expected to know, many wish there was just one thing they needed to achieve success -- and that, unlike City Slickers, somebody would supply the answer.

Marcus Buckingham, author of the bestseller First Break All The Rules: What The World's Best Managers Do Differently and a former Gallup researcher on leadership, not only shares that enthusiasm for simplicity but believes that, beneath all complex phenomena lies a core concept that can be discovered.

He set out to find that elusive secret for executives and, although the title of his new book suggests he found it - The One Thing You Need To Know -- in fact, he came up with three interlinked concepts, one for managing, one for leading and one for sustained individual success:

Management: To excel as a manager, you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that you can capitalize on those strengths.

"The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance," he advises.

Leadership: To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must rally people toward a better future, which means tapping into the things that followers share: Discover what is universal and capitalize on it.

Common needs include security, community, authority and respect. But the most powerful universal need, he stresses, is for clarity.

"To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely," he says.

"As your skill grows, so will our confidence in you."

Sustained individual success: Discover what you don't like and stop doing it.

Your strengths -- be it your love of problem-solving, intuition, assertiveness or ability to deal with people --are your natural appetites.

When using them, you feel powerful, confident, authentic and challenged.

But inevitably after you have employed your strengths and achieved some initial success, Mr. Buckingham notes, you will be offered new opportunities, assignments or roles that may not use those strengths.

"The secret to sustained success lies in knowing which engage your strengths and which do not, and in having the self-discipline to reject the latter," he says.

The critical skill in each of these roles, he stresses, is not balance but intentional imbalance.

As a manager, you bet that success will come from magnifying, emphasizing and then capitalizing on each employee's uniqueness.

As a leader, you come to a conclusion about your company's core customer, the organization's strengths and the right strategy and then, in the service of clarity, banish from your thoughts and conversation almost everything else.

Similarly, in seeking personal effectiveness, you ignore all the calls for balance and to improve your weaknesses, and remain resolute on fulfilling your strengths.

"Every minute you invest in an activity that grates on you is a poorly invested minute. It is a minute in which you will learn little and that will leave you weaker and less resilient for the next minute," he says.

And ignore those who tell you only people who are already successful can have the luxury of cutting their dislikes from their job.

Mr. Buckingham insists those people are successful precisely because they were unwilling to tolerate aspects of their job they didn't like.

He comes to those conclusions from the research literature and his own interviews with successful people, which readers get to share as he describes his quest for the one thing you need to know.

The book isn't as simple as the title promises because Mr. Buckingham takes readers on a circuitous journey to his Holy Grail, looking at other intriguing and helpful possibilities.

It's an enjoyable excursion, nonetheless, and, unlike City Slickers, does leave you with an answer, or, to be more accurate, three.

In Addition: In Get Your Ship Together (Portfolio, 200 pages, $38), D. Michael Abrashoff, the celebrated commander who turned the USS Benfold into the best ship in the American navy, mixes his own experiences with profiles of six other leaders he admires, including Ward Clapham, superintendent of the Richmond, B.C., RCMP detachment and a pioneer in community policing.

Each profile is broken up into a series of lessons that revolve around memorable incidents.

While the lessons aren't profound, they tend to stick because of the rich storytelling and the proficiency of the leaders.

Just In: For Mothers Lead Best (Dearborn, 231 pages, $30.95), IT executive Moe Grzelakowski interviewed 50 female corporate leaders and tells how their experiences as mothers improved their leadership skills, in everything from risk taking to adaptability to understanding differences.

In The Power of Giving (Tides Canada Foundation, 158 pages, $14.95), Vancouver consultants Amil Jamal and Harvey McKinnon tackle the issue of giving to others in your work and home life.

The fifth edition of The First-Time Manager (Amacom, 223 pages, $23.95), by Lorin Belker and Gary Topchik, offers advice to rookie managers.