Book Review                                      Online Exclusive


The Clarity Principle 

How Great Leaders Make the Most Important Decisions in Business (and What Happens When They Don’t)


by Chatham Sullivan, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, Calif., 2013, 227 pp. with index, $27.95 hardcover

The Clarity Principle, is a straightforward attempt to offer leaders and potential leaders a sampling of the decision making that has had a profound effect on various organizations. Author Chatham Sullivan, an organizational psychologist with the Pivot Group, draws on his experiences consulting with a handful of Fortune 500 companies, and he states his basic message early on: “Every company, including yours, exists for a reason. Every business has a purpose.” From this premise, he extrapolates that one of the most crucial needs of any organization is to know “who” they are.

Sullivan frames his discussion with the story of Donna Dubinsky, an Apple Computer executive who came into conflict with other members of the Apple hierarchy over distribution of the Macintosh computer in the early 1980s. He uses her story to illustrate the propensity of business executives to identify problems as coming from lower levels of the organization when many of these issues develop primarily because organization leaders fail to identify the clear organizing principles that drive their businesses.

In example after example, this scenario is played out. From CNN’s inability to identify its mission after the establishment of more focused news networks such as MSNBC and Fox News, to a technology company named Davidio struggling to find its path in the increasingly complex world of website design, Sullivan illustrates companies stuck in what he calls “the murky middle.” Though the examples he uses are interesting and his stories compel readers to keep flipping pages, they become repetitive as he describes helping company after company succeed in determining a path for itself during uncertain times.

Throughout the narrative, Sullivan maintains that employees crave purpose in their work, and that this hunger is a more critical factor even than money and compensation. He uses a series of articles and reported survey research to concludes that “people in a workplace have a strong desire to feel that they are part of something larger than themselves,” and he uses the story of his consultations with PayPal as his last illustration of this principle.

Ultimately, this is the message of The Clarity Principle that will resonate most strongly with education leaders. The need for purpose is important to young professionals, whom, Sullivan says, seek a sense of shared purpose, to the extent that it “engenders meaning, motivation and, finally, commitment.” Indeed, today’s set of unclear and seemingly unattainable expectations do leave many yearning for clarity.

Sullivan asks readers to imagine a purpose-driven company and he contends that such an organization would be “galvanized, productive and possibly even happy.” These are powerful statements and certainly carry some weight in the world of education, where it might seem that the purpose of an organization would be easy enough to discern, but, amid outside influences over which schools sometimes have no control, finding a clear purpose can be murky indeed.

Reviewed by Robert J. Lupo, superintendent, Ridgewood High School District 234, Norridge, Ill.


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