What is great about Ways and Means is that it is more of a "help others" book than a self help book and it focuses on the reality that even in a subordinate position you are responsible for using whatever power and influence you have for good. And of course the reality for most of us is that even if we are quite successful we will spend most of our careers being subordinate to somebody.
In Bill Smullen's case, late in his career that somebody was Colin Powell. He was Powell's chief of staff both while Powell was America's top general and while he was Secretary of State. In between those two assignments Powell was focusing in part on writing and promoting his autobiography My American Journey also with Smullen's help. Smullen refers to that phase as "two old soldiers trying to sell a book".
The perspective of the book is laid out in the introduction
Whether you are starting out in professional life or have been part of it for some time, you have a boss and a responsibility to manage him or her like the other resources for which you're responsible.
Taking care of business by making the boss look good was something I strived for each and every day in each and every way.Some Examples
We then get 50 pieces of good advice, each illustrated by an interesting story.
One of my favorites were "Be a Gatekeeper, Not a Gate Blocker", in which we learn how complicated it could be to help a guy who owned a Boston fish market send a lobster to General Schwarzkopf, who was his hero.
"Expect the Unexpected" is about a pivotal moment in 1995. He and Powell had just retired from the Army and he had set up an office to work on the completion and promotion of My American Journey when Powell started being besieged with encouragement to run for President. That one is too much of spoiler.
"Don't Speak for the Boss Unless He Asks or Knows" is a heck of a story. In 1990, Smullen then chief of staff to America's top general (i.e. Colin Powell) had to deal with the fallout from an Air Force general more or less spilling the beans on US military strategy for the First Gulf War. The lesson is about knowing where you fit in the chain of command.
"Prepare Now For Crisis" is about Murphy's law. Smullen relates that when he became the media relations officer for West Point, he did not expect too many problems and then was hit with something of a one-two punch as President Ford decided that the instituion had to admit women and there was a major cheating scandal. An interesting observation he makes is that FEMA in August 2001 predicted that the two most likely emergency events we would be facing were a terrorist attack on New York City and a high-intensity hurricane hitting New Orleans. He notes that people of responsibility did nothing to prevent or prepare for their happening.
Strong Points And Weak Points
The strongest point of the book is the wealth of anecdotes that give insight into key events of the second half of the twentieth century. I used to have this dividing line in my mind between history and current events (I explain that a bit here in a story about somebody I knew who to me came striding from the pages of history). Now though I perceive it as more continuous and Bill Smullen was on the scene at some pretty significant historical moment. His role in the Colin Powell presidency that never was could make for a really good Harry Turtledove novel like the Guns of The South.
The strong point of the book in terms of interest is probably the weak point in terms of its value as a self-help book. Although Smullen was not himself that famous (I think the nature of his positions required him to be somewhat self-effacing) he was at the center of things and affecting immensely powerful institutions. The lessons are broadly applicable, but you have to think a bit to make a connection. I think it would be a better self-help book if his anecdotes were supplemented with stories that make a similar point on a more mundane level.
Why I Had To Read The Book
I have to restrain myself into breaking into a full blown memoir here, so there will be of necessity much detail omitted. I attended my 45th high school reunion last week which among other things had me thinking about the most inspiring teachers I had had in high school.
Xavier High School just a bit north of Greenwich Village in Manhattan is kind of a peculiar high school arguably sui generis. We provided just a little bit of the color of the crazy diversity of New York City as we commuted to school in uniforms loosely based on the US Infantry uniform of 1847, the year the school was founded and were dubbed the "subway commandoes".
In grammar school we had been taught what good patriotic Americans, Catholics were -contributing disproportionately to the soldiers killed in action in America's wars - the men of Meagher's Irish Brigade being but a down payment
And of course we had just had a war hero President who was martyred.
So in 1966, when I started in the school there appeared to be no tension between the Society of Jesus and the United States Army. Ignatius Loyola had been a soldier after all. So those two venerable institutions were ideal partners in forming the character of young Catholic gentlemen, whose certificate of completion in the JROTC would give them a head start on becoming officers
You won't see in "Bill" Smullen's biography that he ever taught high school, but he did and he was the only teacher to give me a failing grade, which was the result of a fairly silly act of adolescent rebellion on my part.
Just back from a tour in Vietnam, Major Smullen was the Senior Army Instructor at Xavier high school. The rest of the Military Science faculty were senior sergeants, a couple on active duty, the others mostly retired employees of the school whose pay was subsidized by the Department of the Army. They were probably among the most colorful members of the faculty. For example, during the marksmanship block of instruction in the school's basement rifle range, we learned that "cunt hair" was a unit of measure.
The gap between SJ and USA was at its widest when we were seniors and protest against the Vietnam War was at its height. A Jesuit from the New York Province had to be listed as resident in New England, because Father Daniel Berrigan SJ was in the federal correctional institution in Danbury for burning draft records. So my which side are you on moment was deliberately failing Major Smullen's block of instruction on Counter-insurgency.
Nonetheless, even then and more so in retrospect, I greatly admired Major Smullen. His block of instruction on the Psychology of Leadership, where we learned the officer's code - The Mission and the Men - was the best management training I ever received. His handling of the divisive situation strikes me in retrospect as masterful. Many Xavier graduates of that era would be anti-war, which is not really such a bad thing, but I doubt many would be anti-Army and certainly not anti-soldier.
The Book Is Good
I have explained why I felt compelled to read the book, because it is a story I find interesting and who knows maybe somebody else might, but if the book had sucked or something I would have found another venue for the story. It was a really good read and was breezy. If like me you have a big reading backlog, you can stick this one without much disruption
About Forms Of Address
"Bill Smullen" is how the author characterizes himself on his website, so that is what I used, except when I went into the time warp. He actually retired from the Army as a full colonel. He remains Major Smullen in my memory, though. Major Smullen made a cameo appearance in one of my forbes.com pieces, I'm hoping I might get Bill Smulen to weigh in there some time, but we will see.
I have to thank my classmate Scott O'Connell for helping me track down Bill Smullen. Scott wanted to comment but was frustrated by a glitch of some sorts. Here is his comment:
Great review Peter! Bill was a great PMS. And he is still passing on his leadership lessons at Syracuse University's Maxwell School where he runs the National Security Studies program.(PMS stands for Professor of Military Science, not, well you know.)
Scott was career Army officer serving both in tanks and counter-intelligence. Driving tanks and catching spies. How cool is that? Like Samuel Johnson said "Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier or been to sea", but Scott is really rubbing it in with that career.
Scott is also an author spy novels about the American revolution. They have not quite made my reading list yet, but I will get there. So many books so little time.
Xavier High School Class of 1970 has at least two other authors. Bradley Ferguson has written several Star Trek novels including A Flag Full of Stars which is set in part at a high school not far from the Avenue of the Federation, which New Yorkers continue to insist on referring to as Sixth Avenue. Where did Brad ever get such a notion?
The other is John Sundman whose trilogy shows a lot of Jesuit influence. He tells me the three books can be read in any order, but I would recommend you start with Acts of The Apostles which while covering several genres (thriller, science fiction, horror) is farily conventional. Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains are much more complex in their structure. Reading them is like wandering around in mine picking up gems, but having no hope of being able to tell people where I had been afterwards.