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Book review: A dark undercurrent to 'The Power of Being Yourself'

Amid Joe Plumeri's relentlessly upbeat calls to espouse your vision and passion, there is a dark undercurrent

Peak authenticity? I thought that had come some time ago. Business leaders, coaches and "storytellers" have long harped on about the potency of being yourself. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones led the charge with their 2006 bestseller, "Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?"

Yet nine years later, we have "The Power of Being Yourself: A Game Plan for Success — by Putting Passion Into Your Life and Work," by Joe Plumeri. It is published by Da Capo Lifelong Books. A former boss of Willis Group, a global insurance broker from New Jersey, Plumeri has a reputation as a charismatic and entertaining speaker.

The introduction to the book by Joseph Califano, U.S. secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter, recounts one occasion when Plumeri spoke at a fundraising event for addiction.

"As he spoke, some guests cried. Some cried so hard they had to leave the room to compose themselves," Califano wrote. "Over the months since, many who were there that night told me Joe's talk had profoundly affected their own lives."

This may be true. After all, Plumeri tells us later that when Mitt Romney was running for president in 2012 he came to meet him in his New York office. "'You're a great speaker,' he told me. 'Is there anything you can tell me?' "

Reading this book is at times like being cornered in a bar by a tin-eared stranger. "You've read this far …  and if you're like people in groups I speak to around the country, chances are you've been doing a lot of nodding your head at the points I've made throughout this book." No. "I know I made some of you smile," he continues. No, no.

This is a book, Plumeri says, to be enjoyed with friends over tea or a bottle of red. "Call up friends and loved ones or colleagues and read a paragraph or two out loud … take turns reading, and then talk over some of the points."

It is difficult to imagine whom this is aimed at. A teenage recruit to the Rotary Club? There is little in this book that has not been in many business books before.

Yet there is something irrepressibly guileless about the author. This makes him likable, which demonstrates the power of being yourself, perhaps.

Also, amid the relentlessly upbeat calls to espouse your vision and passion, the plea to enter the fray and try things out, there is a dark undercurrent.

In 2008, Plumeri's oldest son, Christian, died suddenly after battling anorexia and drug addiction. Not surprisingly, this had a profound effect on the businessman. The book is shot through with guilt.

Christian "was always looking for something to fill the void but never finding it," Plumeri writes. "Nothing could work for long because what he really wanted was the basic love and support that I failed to give him when he was a boy."

Long hours at the office and devotion to business are to blame, he writes. "I got so caught up in my career that I was blind to my kids' needs."

No one can ever know whether things would have been different if Plumeri had spent less time in the office.

Yet, ultimately the stronger message is not about being your most authentic self, it is to pay attention to life beyond work. As the author writes: "I have to live with failure — but you don't. There's still time for you."

Emma Jacobs is a writer for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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