They Told Me Not to Take that Job - Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center
by Reynold Levy
Published: USA, May 2015
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*
Everybody has a story of 'the thing they shouldn't have done, but did'. Unlike most this one turned out to be a success for both the company and person concerned.
Surely a man who has "dealt with Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, and their followers" would find chairing a not-for-profit in the arts sector more boring than daunting? Apparently not.
This book promises a tale of tumult, betrayal, heroics and transformation. It delivers a modern day odyssey of corporate leadership in the face of almost unsurmountable opposition.
The book is not 'arty' or moralistic. It gives the author's perspective of the transformation of a neglected and increasingly irrelevant arts precinct into a vibrant cultural centre that is poised to survive and thrive for another 75 years. Anyone who has ever encountered the conservative and/or reckless directors governing organisations that are really too important to fail but headed in the direction of failure and seemingly wedded to the path they are on will share Reynold's despair at the lack of leadership and team-spirit. Anyone who has negotiated a coalition of the (mostly) willing to drive controversial progress will recognise his perseverance. And anyone who thinks a not-for-profit board is a safe place to learn the ropes whilst being applauded for your contribution should be thankful for the warning.
Although the book pulls no punches and names names with accuracy and aplomb it is not a bitter or opinionated tract. The story is related from the author's early life (which is covered in merciful brevity) through his prior work experience (again, no self-aggrandisement) to a recognition of the difficulty of attracting support to gain the role and then the detail of the building of vision and confidence to develop (and fund) a major arts precinct. It ends with a compelling vision of the future and some suggested courses of action to ensure the vision becomes reality.
It reminded me of the passion I felt for my first non-profit board and that I feel for its current successors. It will strike a chord with any NFP director and gives some valuable lessons on resilience, persistence and strategic focus. Finally, as a cautionary tale that turns into a valedictory saga it is stranger than science fiction and more motivating than a pile of parables. If every endeavour that we have (often in the face of sage advice to the contrary) insisted on pursuing had worked out this well our world would be a better place.
Understanding how this author has achieved this success will increase the chances of success for any and every director. I wish you luck. Wish me some back. We will all need it!
* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors", Dilemmas, Dilemmas II: More Practical Case Studies for Company Directors (Volume 2), "The Director's Dilemma", "Presenting to Boards", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.