House Rules by Larry James – My Seven Lessons and Takeaways




CitySquare:  We fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship.


There are books written by people who study what works.  There are books written by people who demonstrate what works (and, what doesn’t work).    But, for the most insight, you might want to look for a book written by someone who both studies, and also acts and builds.

71jc6mQUw6LLarry James is such an author.  He is a world-class listener, and a serious book reader.  And Larry James’ book, House Rules: Insights for Innovative Leaders lets us in on insights gained from these two two skills clearly evident in the leadership Larry provides.

For a few decades now, Larry James has been the leader of a nonprofit based in Dallas called CitySquare.  (It went through a rebranding quite a few years back, changing its name from Central Dallas Ministries to CitySquare).  He is an accomplished nonprofit leader.  CitySquare now has satellite locations in a few other cities, and he is sought after for his wise counsel by people from cities across America. And, full disclosure, he is a long-time friend.  (Also, I speak monthly for CitySquare at the Urban Engagement Book Club, focusing on books dealing with issues of social justice).

I presented my synopsis of House Rules last Friday at the October 5, 2018 First Friday Book Synopsis.  I asked about the book: What is the point?

People in need are also people with skills and gifts to contribute.  Innovative leaders find and affirm the contributions in all, and set about building a better community, and future, “together.”

And, as always, I asked “why is this book worth our time?”  Here are my three reasons:

#1 – Larry James is an accomplished leader in a major nonprofit organization in Dallas.  His “playbook” is worth reading to see how he did it/how he does it. 
#2 – There are people in poverty, and near poverty, in Dallas.  We need to build a better community with such people as partners.  This playbook will help us know how to do that. 
#3 – To put it simply, this is a book written by a man who has had to implement the great leadership lessons of the era – and, figure out a few on his own.  He has successfully provided genuine leadership.  This playbook gives us insight into his thinking and actions.

I was privileged to write the foreword for this book.  Here are three excerpts from my foreword:

I’m a firm believer in deep expertise—the kind that comes from a long effort, over the course of many years. What Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

This book is written by a talented leader, but it is also written by Larry the student, the life-long learner.

So, don’t miss this: Larry James knows how to execute. That’s business speak for “Larry knows how to turn a dream into reality and keep it going, effectively, day after day, month after month, year after year—a little bigger, and at times a whole lot bigger, as time marches on.”

And here are just a few of the key excerpts directly from his book:

Great leaders pursue learning with enthusiasm.
Great leaders read constantly.
Great leaders pursue life-long learning.
Great leaders love people.

Never quitting matters, and it matters a lot.

Organizations Resist Change. …No matter how innovative or cutting edge, most organizations reach a point where they long for holding out against any more change. Truly great organizations go beyond the status quo and choose the option of continuing to grow, evolve, and improve. Such organizations turn out to be in a decided minority!

By an accident of birth, I possess power, countless options, doors of opportunity that swing open for me whenever I approach them, and unfair advantages over others who don’t share my gender, my race, my educational background, or my inherent privilege.

Smart organizations and savvy leaders “keep the back door open” for the late arrival, premature departure, and subsequent return of partners, team members, and other participants in the work they seek to accomplish together. …When people leave and then desire to return, all things being equal, smart leaders provide for a gracious welcome back.

Persisting in a fundamental belief in the capacity, the goodness, and the potential of every person we encounter is another key to progress and innovation, no matter how unreasonable it feels or sounds or appears.

At CitySquare, we value chaos and ownership.

At the end of the day, every person who seeks us out must be regarded by every person on our team first and foremost as a customer.

This is how I summarized his book in a brief paragraph:

First you think about the needs to be met by your organization.  Then you think about the demands of leadership.  Then, you figure out what your “rules” will be.  Your rules; and, the rules for your organization.  And, the rules for how things will be done by you, and others, within the organization.  You need some “house rules.” 

The book is, as one would expect, filled with stories – stories of his friends who come from poor and even desperate situations.  Yes, he calls them friends – because they are his friends.

Larry James at the Cottages of Hickory Crossing, one of many CitySquare efforts

Larry James at the Cottages of Hickory Crossing, one of many CitySquare efforts

But the book is also filled with stories of the ever-forward progress of his organization. Facing many obstacles, and barriers, and much criticism, CitySquare now provides hundreds of homes for the formerly homeless, along with food, legal help, job-training and job-seeking help, health care help; among other services provided to its customers.  (Yes, he views the people they serve as customers, and calls them customers).  In other words, this is a comprehensive approach taken by this organization that has grown ever-larger and more capable by the year. Note their simple, yet powerful mission statement: We fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship.

His book is a substantive book, though simple (not simplistic; but simple) in its format. He has twenty-five “house rules,” each getting a full chapter in the book.  And each chapter ends with provocative questions for the leader to ponder; and answer. Here are his twenty-five House Rules. Read each chapter title carefully, and think about what it means for your leadership in your organization:

25 House Rules:
Chapter One: Let People Fail
Chapter Two: Breakthroughs Follow Darkness
Chapter Three: Honor Tradition; Celebrate Innovation
Chapter Four: Don’t Dismiss the Difficult
Chapter Five: Forget the Credits
Chapter Six: Patient with People; Impatient with Problems
Chapter Seven: Expect Results   
Chapter Eight: Interpret People—Listen
Chapter Nine: See the Treasure
Chapter Ten: Find Joy
Chapter Eleven: Keep the Back Door Open
Chapter Twelve: Pay Attention to Critics
Chapter Thirteen: Welcome the Unreasonable
Chapter Fourteen: Give Away What You Need
Chapter Fifteen: Lead Flat
Chapter Sixteen: Imagine Partners
Chapter Seventeen: Cultivate Chaos
Chapter Eighteen: Value the Counterintuitive
Chapter Nineteen: Remember the Mission
Chapter Twenty: Serve Customers
Chapter Twenty-One: No Stupid Questions
Chapter Twenty-Two: Vertical Trumps Horizontal
Chapter Twenty-Three: Act beyond Your Reach
Chapter Twenty-Four: Stick to Your Promise
Chapter Twenty-Five: Clean Handoff

And here are my seven lessons and takeaways:

#1 – Read more books — to build your knowledge base, and your compassion muscles (e.g., The Children by David Halberstam)
#2 – Talk to (and listen to) more people; more diverse people
#3 – View everyone you “serve” as a “friend,” and a customer; treat everyone like a customer.
#4 – Make mistakes; embrace risk. Then change for the better…
#5 – Disrupt on purpose – and often.
#6 – Establish your brand; and live up to it.  Earn your reputation in the community.
#7 – Don’t be selfish!  Or self-centered.  Or arrogant. — Be humble!

Any leader, of any organization, whether for profit or nonprofit, would benefit from reading this book.  And, anyone seeking to serve the needs of his or her community would also benefit from reading this book.

And, of course, you do take away this insight for sure:  every organization has some “house rules,” whether they are listed or not.  What are yours?


Click here to learn more about CitySquare.

And, click here to watch a recent report on a local newscast about their cottages for the formerly homeless:  Dallas tiny houses see two years of successfully housing homeless.  (John Siburt, the new president of CitySquare, is interviewed in this segment, along with a couple of residents in the cottages.  This reveals one of Larry’s House Rules.  He is the CEO, and is in the midst of a hand-off to the next generation of leaders).


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