Book review: A higher standard

TLDR; In the book, Ann Dunwoody describes her journey within the US Army starting from the very beginning to the highest rank ever achieved by a female person at times of her service. Along the way, she shares a great number of thoughts and examples of both good and poor leadership encountered during the years of an outstanding career. 

The book is written by Ann Dunwoody –  the first four-star female general in the history of the US Army, and subtitled “Leadership strategies from America’s first female four-star general”. I’m not very familiar with US army ranks but four stars sound like a significant achievement for anyone in the army. However, the fact that Ann achieved this being a female person in the very male-dominant system (at least that was my perception of the military before reading the book) makes it an outstanding achievement. I was curious about the story of Ann on its own but the leadership strategies part in the subtitle increased my team lead’s interest. 

While reading the book it was obvious and impressive how Ann is very proud of her country and US army. Sometimes I even thought it couldn’t be ideal like that in reality, luckily there were moments in the book describing very tough challenges physical and mental, how arrogant male officers would try to put her down or obstruct personal growth and fail in their attempts. I admire how Ann overcome those challenges and changed the perception of many about what a strong leader can achieve no matter what their gender is.

At times it was a bit hard to read the book due to multiple references to military ranks. Without understanding them the difficulty of a particular choice, the importance of new opportunity, or the overall context of the described cases wasn’t fully clear. However, it wasn’t too much trouble, I was able to get the essence of leadership examples and as a bonus got a better picture of how the US Army operates.

Speaking of leadership advice and examples, there were plenty of them along the lines and I found them very useful and inspiring. My quotes list from the book got too long to publish in a single post, moreover, some of the quotes cover pretty broad topics deserving their own post. That’s why I’m sharing only some of my top picks.

You train people so they don’t flail or fail – you train them to succeed.

In my opinion, that’s a great mindset for leaders to have – focus on what needs to happen or to be done for success, rather than making minimum to escape failure. Despite the quote mentions people training, I think it applies to success in general as well, no matter if it is your success, direct report’s success, team’s success, company success, etc. Once the leader is aware of the success definition for each individual case they can work towards it.

The most important leadership lessons I learned throughout my career came directly from someone who took the time to teach, coach, and share ideas with me.

This is so true and I fully agree. What I also like in this quote is that one could receive and give support at the same time. I really appreciate the intention, time, and knowledge of people who mentors and coaches me, and at the same time, I’m doing my best to pay back and forward.

Never walk by a mistake

That rule might sound arguable and I think even be harmful if applied at the extreme level, but the idea is very powerful. An unaddressed mistake sets a lower standard by giving a signal to a person or a group that a particular level of quality/behavior is acceptable. After a few confirmations (unactioned mistakes) the lower standard transforms into the implicit culture. That’s why spotting, acknowledging, and working with mistakes helps to update the standard and support the culture. 

So this rule should be considered in the context of the culture you’re supporting. Never walk by a mistake disrupting your culture. Even if it’s small enough it’s way easier to fix it until it grows into something huge like a snowball.

Do the right thing for the right reason

Courage is defined in the book as “Having the guts to do the right thing for the right reasons”. This is so true, whether it’s speaking up, having a tough conversation, letting the person go, stepping back, or anything else, leaders need the courage to get out of their comfort zone and “Just Do It” :trademark: It may look like something easy to do in theory but very hard in practice at times.

To maximize potential – … – leaders need to look in the mirror and at their immediate surroundings to figure out what’s missing. Those courageous enough to embrace the power of diversity will thrive.

People are different, everyone has their own unique background – the mix of history, knowledge, culture, environment, and experience. It applies to people you work with and people you create products and services for. So our background inevitably affects any opinions, thoughts, or biases we have and limits our ability to see a bigger picture. That’s where the power of diversity is needed to look at the problem from various perspectives, assemble the pieces of the puzzle, and make better decisions.

Everybody is replaceable – kings and queens, generals, CEOs, Hall of Fame athletes. Great leaders should be prepared to fire themselves and help find their heir apparent.

No comments here, just fully agree and love that idea.


I got the book more than a year ago as part of the employee welcome pack at Automattic and it spent some time on the bookshelf before I finally read it. I enjoyed the book a lot and recommend reading it with a pencil, notebook, or any other tool of your choice to collect the leadership wisdom dimes and bring them to life for the win.