Category Archives: Randy’s blog entries

Entries by Randy Mayeux

Do You Pay Attention when you join in during a remote presentation? — You should…

The Problem:

I recently visited with a person, in his 30s, who has a responsible and demanding job, about his participation in remote meetings at work.  He made a rather stark admission…he does not pay close attention.  And, he knows for a fact that others in the meetings do not pay close attention either.  He described how he knows this; just trust me when I say I think he is accurate in his assessment.

This observation applied to any and all kinds of remote meetings.  Whether or not it is a team discussion meeting, a training session, a pure presentation, or some other kind of remote gathering, he says the same is true; people are not paying attention.

I suspect that this is true for many people, in all circles…

For example, I am always a little suspicious when I see someone on a remote meeting with their camera turned off. I wonder…what are they really doing?

And,  as much as I hate to admit it, I have been guilty a time or three of not paying great attention myself.

I know a man who leads a company that actually provides online training.  He got a speeding ticket, and had to take defensive driving.  He took the online course.  Yep…he figured out how to pass the test with the least amount of attention.

I provide book synopsis presentations online. I always wonder…are people paying attention to my presentations?

Now, before we get too judgemental, in the years before Zoom I saw plenty of people in live settings not paying attention either. I knew a man who had to prepare for a weekly interview on the radio.  He would write all of his notes in preparation while…sitting in a church pew, not paying attention to the preacher’s sermon.  He did not even attempt to hide it….

This happens in other areas… Recently, when I attended a Texas Rangers baseball game, there were three people behind me who, I am completely convinced, did not watch even one single at-bat. But they really enjoyed their conversation; their plenty-loud conversation, I might add.  And a man sitting in the row in front of me kept his eyes glued to his Smartphone screen watching the Dallas Stars hockey game.  He did not appear to be very tuned in to the baseball game either.


The Reflection: 

This reflection is about learning opportunities online, not other kinds of remote team meetings.

(Like, for example,  my book synopsis presentations).

People seem to pay better attention when:

#1 – The person is in fact a lifelong learner.

They want to learn.  They are not attending (just) because a boss compels them to.  They want to learn.  They are always looking for the next new thing to learn.

#2 – The speaker provides learning “helps.” 

I speak with multi-page, comprehensive synopsis handouts.  I am very handout intensive as I present.

People print out the handouts (usually), and follow along, looking at the handouts more than my face.  Which is exactly what I want them to do.

here's a page from one of my synopsis handouts from a while back...

here’s a page from one of my synopsis handouts from a while back…

I literally point to the page, to specific spots on the page.  I give phrases to write; passages to underline.

Here’s the point: people need something to help them pay attention well.  Even the motivated, lifelong learners need such help. So, the speaker has to provide such help!

A sad observation/warning:  there is growing evidence that people just pretty much tune out when PowerPoint slides are shown.  Jeff Bezos banned the use of PowerPoint years ago.  His tool of choice is a written document, prepared by an executive team member, handed out at the start of a meeting – not before.  The team members read it in silence, and then discuss it.  I think this is a brilliant approach.

I have long been a fan of using extensive handouts.  It gets a pen in the hands of the participants, and they take/write their own notes as we go along.

#3 – The topic being presented matters…it is relevant to the audience!

This is rather obvious.  But don’t forget to give this serious thought.  You have to speak to the real needs, struggles, issues of the audience members.

The hardest part of my job, by far, is choosing books.  The right book is a book that beckons the audience’s interest and attention.  The not-right book becomes… boring.

A side note:  I have had plenty of people tell me that my book selection did not interest them all that much until they heard me present it.  Then they realized its value.

Closing thought:

Here’s my challenge to you…recommit to being a lifelong learner.  And, when you present, or when you are in the learner/student seat, use whatever tricks you can find to help others pay attention, and to help yourself in your quest to pay better attention.

And always…Keep learning!  There is always the next new thing to learn!

Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan – Here are my Five Lessons and Takeaways

Win Every ArgumentHe knew not just how to craft a reasoned argument but also how to compose himself under pressure. He knew how to reach his audience, in their hearts, their minds, and the very core of their identity. …The point of this book is to show you all the tools and tactics that Diodotus, and all the world’s greatest speakers and debaters, employed. So you, too, can win every argument.

Philosophically, I consider argument and debate to be the lifeblood of democracy, as well as the only surefire way to establish the truth.

Arguments can help us solve problems, uncover ideas we would’ve never considered, and hurry our disagreements toward (even begrudging) understanding.

Or to quote Winston Churchill, “Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.”

Simply put, this book is all about teaching you how to win.          

People often ask me: “Can what you do really be taught?” The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is: yes, if you have the right teacher and are willing to listen, learn, and put in the hours. Anyone can win an argument. Let me teach you how.

None of the fundamentals of debate—be it storytelling, bringing receipts, critical listening, connecting with an audience—can be achieved if you aren’t calm.

Mehdi Hasan, Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking


As much as I hate to disagree right up front with an author, I have to do so in this case.  I liked Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking by Mehdi Hasan.  It was filled with good advice.  It made sense.  But, can we really win every argument?  Well…

Well… alas, we are not in an era when all of his good advice will work.  We have too many who are not open to argument. And therein lies the problem.

But, for those who are, this book is a wonderful and substantive tutorial.  He draws deeply from classical rhetoric, especially Aristotle.  He points to research, and insight, from plenty of sources.  And, if both you and the “other” person in the argument are both honest actors, then you could really get somewhere using his advice and counsel.

I presented my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis.

A personal note:  I did my graduate work in Communication:  Rhetoric and Public Address at the University of Southern California.  He covered terrain I know fairly well.  And, I think I can say that he pretty much got it right. This is a good book to read.  Just remember, it does not guarantee success when both “sides” are not honest actors…

In my synopses, I always begin with What is the point?  Here is the point for this book:  All messaging is an argument, with the messenger seeking to persuade the recipient (audience) to adopt his/her argument. This book has great steps to follow on how to win that critical argument.

And I ask Why is this book worth our time? – Why this book matters!  Here are my three answers for this book:

#1 – This book is a practical tutorial on the wisdom found in ancient rhetoric.

#2 – This book is filled with real-word examples of arguments; especially political arguments; especially arguments in modern media settings.

#3 – This book is accessible.  It teaches the basics or communication and argument in a way that is understandable, and connects.

I then include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are quite a few of the best I included in this synopsis:

I’m not arguing, I’m just explaining why I’m right. — Anonymous  

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it “to whom it may concern.” — Ken Haemer, design expert  

The whole point of human rights is that it is the nasty and odious people who need human rights the most, and need the protection of the law the most, because if we don’t extend it to them, there’s no point [in having them].    

French essayist Joseph Joubert, who is said to have remarked: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”  

I grew up appreciating the value of being able to “refute the reasons on the opposite side.” 

To me, there is nothing—nothing!—more important than practice and preparation. 

Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it “to whom it may concern.” — Ken Haemer, design expert 

The whole point of human rights is that it is the nasty and odious people who need human rights the most, and need the protection of the law the most, because if we don’t extend it to them, there’s no point [in having them]. 

Commander Spock, the ultralogical, uber-rational Vulcan; and Captain Kirk, the red-blooded, hotheaded human. …Why pretend we’re Vulcans when we’re not? We’re humans who rely on our gut reactions; on our emotions, our feelings, our instincts.  

A good story “lights up” the emotional regions of our brain in line with the storyteller; if the speaker talks about the fear or inspiration they felt in a moment of struggle, we “mirror” it. We feel it, too.  

It is difficult for me to overstate to you the power of simply sharing stories with your audience.   

“Your language will be appropriate if it expresses emotion and character,” writes Aristotle in Rhetoric. “To express emotion, you will employ the language of anger in speaking of outrage; the language of disgust and discreet reluctance to utter a word when speaking of impiety or foulness; the language of exultation for a tale of glory, and that of humiliation for a tale of pity, and so in all other cases.”   

If you’re in a debate and you believe your opponent is misleading the audience, don’t just describe what they are saying as false or inaccurate—call it a lie! Don’t just describe your own position on an issue as valid or correct—declare it the truth! You want capital-letter nouns, vivid adjectives, bold verbs. You need decisive language if you want to move your listeners.  

Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself. 

For a start, in order to make an argument “to the person,” you need to know everything you can about that person. …You need to be familiar with their past statements and actions, and especially any scandals or controversies they may have been involved in. 

Cicero, for instance, may well have been a master of vitriol and abuse. But that’s not ultimately why we remember him as being great. He was also a debater par excellence, who put in the time and effort to reason, persuade, and convince his audiences. So should you.   

One study of doctors and patients found that eye contact was “significantly related to patient perceptions of clinician empathy.”  …“participants were more likely to believe statements by a speaker looking at them directly, compared to a speaker with averted gaze.” Surprise!   

Trap them with their own words. …using your opponent’s own words against them is a powerful way of discrediting both their claims and their credibility, thereby gaining an upper hand in the argument. 

Steve Bannon, in an interview with journalist Michael Lewis in 2018, summed up the rationale behind the then president’s approach. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon told Lewis. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”  

To borrow a line from the fictional TV anchor Will McAvoy, in the opening episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, “The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”  

There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars. — Mark Twain 

Your words account for just 7 percent of your overall message. Seven percent. That’s it. In contrast, your tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of it, and your body language accounts for a colossal 55 percent. This is the famous 7-38-55 rule.

“Reading a child’s story, out loud, provides you with a fabulous opportunity to explore the range of your voice and bring more variety into it.”

A great argument, like a story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Churchill, the master orator and debater, called this the “accumulation of the argument.”

After sharing my selection of highlighted passages, I then present points and principles from the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis:

  • Prelude
  • Yes, this book is plenty about political arguments. But, ignoring the author’s politics, think about how much “politics” enters into any organization and interaction…… 
  • So, so many stories…
  • (Lack of pathos) – Michael Dukakis, when asked: Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer? — Where was the passion or anger? Where was the heart? Where was Dukakis, the person, beneath all his talking points? — Dukakis’s approval ratings, noted Simon, dropped by 7 percentage points the day after the debate. “It was a question about Dukakis’s values and emotions,” Susan Estrich, his campaign manager, later conceded.
  • George H. W. Bush, looking at his watch during the Town Hall debate with Bill Clinton
  • Churchill; a student of rhetoric — The orator, wrote a young Winston Churchill in his 1897 essay “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,” “is the embodiment of the passions of the multitude.
  • (“Zinger”) — Lloyd Bentsen vs. Dan QuayleSenator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. …The line “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” is widely considered to be, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “the biggest VP debate moment in history.” — And, more than a decade after that debate, even Quayle grudgingly admitted in an interview that the zinger was a “good line.”
  • Keep this in mind:
  • Connect with your audience — {• “Identification” – Kenneth Burke) – Use stories, illustrations, words, that both you and your audience know, respect, and can relate to. – Kind of: “we are alike, you and I.”}.

{R.M. – Six essentials… – adapted by Randy from The Rhetorical Situation by Lloyd Bitzer)

  • The right speaker, speaks – (ethos)
  • The right message, to – (logos; mythos)
  • The right audience
  • Remember: anytime an audience is present, you cannot, cannot, afford to ignore them or take them for granted. The audience is the key.
  • In the right way, at – (pathos)
  • The right time, with
  • The right result}
  • Know your audience:
  • The key benefit of knowing your audience is that it grants you the ability to modify the language you use to make your case.
  • Whether you’re trying to sell an argument or, for that matter, sell a product, you should also change how you present your speech, depending on who is in front of you.
  • Everything from varying tone and volume, to varying content and emphasis, matters. You would adjust your tone—strong or soft, serious or conversational, more passionate or less. …And these strategies speak to the hardest part of public speaking: adapting.
  • To be clear: I don’t want you to change your entire argument, or just tell people what they want to hear. What I’m saying is that you should present your argument in such a way that people feel comfortable getting on board with that argument, because you’ve specifically tailored it to their interests or identities.
  • So remember: cite facts, figures, and quotes that not only bolster your own argument but also appeal to the specific audience in front of you. 
  • the average human loses “concentration after eight seconds.”
  • Start with a strong opening line. — To quote the legendary Dale Carnegie, “Begin with something interesting in your first sentence. Not the second. Not the third. The First! F-I-R-S-T! First!”
  • Start with a question; start with a story
  • Aristotle 101:
  • He called these his three proofs or “modes” of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. An appeal to ethos relies on the “character” and “credibility” of the speaker. — Aristotle writes, “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.”
  • An appeal to pathos relies on our human emotions and feelings: fear, anger, joy, and the rest. The words empathy and sympathy, notes Beqiri, derive from pathos. …“persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions.
  • Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile.”
  • An appeal to logos is founded on logic and reason, on facts and figures. In fact, the word logic itself comes from logos, the Greek word meaning “reason.”
  • When the doctor speaks of studies and statistics, she is rooting her argument in logos:
  • In our speeches, our presentations, and our debates and arguments, we tend to rely on logos above all else. We want our arguments to be based in bedrock truth. But when we’re trying to change people’s minds, that’s not enough. It’s not how our minds work.
  • Aristotle. He tended to give equal treatment to all three of his modes of persuasion. But the reality is that pathos beats logos almost every time. …But even when you have your facts locked down, they won’t have any impact unless you incorporate feelings as well.
  • Study after study shows that if you can tap into your audience’s emotions, you are more likely to win over their minds.


  • Aristotle, who argued that the introduction and the conclusion of a speech are the two most important and memorable junctures to make that emotional appeal to your audience. Start with emotion and end with emotion.
  • Is pathos king? Maybe…
  • When you’re looking to win an argument, you’re trying to guide your listeners to make a decision. You want them to choose you over your opponent. And that choice requires an appeal to feelings and emotions. The heart steers the head. And if it’s heart versus head, I promise you, pure logic is losing nine times out of ten.
  • How do you reach the heart? – (R.M.; have a heart…).
  •  Tell a story…– A story about a single child, with a name and a face, in need of help, has a much bigger and more direct impact on our level of empathy than a story about millions of nameless and faceless people in need. That’s pathos over logos in a nutshell. — “story is up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone.”
  •  Tell them why they should care!
  • Remember ethos—the last of Aristotle’s three “modes of persuasion”? As the great philosopher explained in his Rhetoric, “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible.” He correctly pointed out that we tend to believe “good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided.”
  • This isn’t rocket science. You want your audience to trust and believe you—and not your opponent. …You need to establish your own credibility while challenging your opponent’s.
  • Is it really unreasonable to ask a person to explain why their acts don’t match their words?
  • The best plan, in my view, is to challenge your opponent’s three Cs—their character, their credentials, and their claims. If all three crumble, they’re going down. 
  • Listen!
  • When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen. — Ernest Hemingway
  • Listen critically! — So here are my top three ways to improve your ability to listen critically.
  1. Keep an open mind — Listen for valid points or clever lines that you’ll then need to address or concede in your own remarks. …You should be confident in your own arguments, yes, but also remain open-minded enough to see where an opponent is strong or where you may have fallen short.
  2. Clear your mind — Don’t daydream or, worse, snooze as others around you are speaking and advocating. And…you don’t want to miss out on what’s being said.
  3. Take notes — Critical listening benefits from a sharp mind and a good memory—but both can be bolstered by good old-fashioned note-taking. …Some of the most successful people on the planet are fastidious notetakers.
  • Listen with empathy — Stephen R. Covey called empathetic listening the “highest form” of listening. “In empathic listening,” wrote Covey, “you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart.”
  • The empathetic listener is always “fully present,” says author Melody Wilding. 
  • Deliberately use the Rule of Three:
  • There are plenty of tried-and-tested rules to rhetoric, but one of the most important rules, one that you should never forget, is the Rule of Three. … There is a clarity to it. A neatness, a form, an order, to the number three.
  • Carmine Gallo noted, Steve Jobs wanted to tell them “three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.”
  • There’s an old Latin phrase: Omne trium perfectum. Everything that comes in threes is perfect. …the Rule of Three. It says that ideas or arguments put forward in three words or three parts, in a trio of some shape or form, in the words of speech coach Dave Linehan, are “more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable for your audience.”
  • The tricolon is only one form of triad. There is also the hendiatris, in which three words in a row are used to communicate one main point. Think “liberté, égalité, fraternité”—the French national motto. Or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • Did you catch that? “Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics.” Three groups! Back to Dr. King: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Three times!
  • BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END — three gives you a “stable structure”; it gives you “a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
  • Separate your speech, presentation, or argument into: Introduction; Body; Conclusion. …In the Body, make sure you present three main arguments. In the Conclusion, make sure you summarize and repeat those three main arguments.
  • In fact, tell your audience or interlocutors in advance that you plan to deploy the Rule of Three. Don’t be afraid to say: “I’ve got three reasons why you should listen to me.”
  • The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it. — Alberto Brandolini, computer programmer
  • The Gish Gallop. This is a speaking method that involves, to quote the Urban Dictionary, “spewing so much bullshit in such a short span that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it.”
  • The Gish Galloper, argues Carl Alviani in Quartz, knows full well that it takes more time and energy to “disprove” a “false claim” than to make one—time and energy that you almost certainly don’t have.
  • Confidence is everything.
  • There are the obvious ways to prepare and practice: working on your delivery beforehand, so you have less to worry about on the big night; doing your homework in advance of a debate, so that you know the topic inside and out…
  • FAKING CONFIDENCE — What if you have to go onstage … tomorrow? Amy Cuddy:  “Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”
  • Another way to think of it is the “as if” technique. “If you want a quality,” noted William James, dubbed “the father of American psychology,” “act as if you already had it.” 
  • Keep calm!
  • COOL, CALM, COLLECTED — If you lose your cool during an argument, odds are you’ll lose that argument. 
  • Practice—Practice makes perfect!
  • The more you practice, the better you get, and slowly the fear goes away. Reps, reps, reps. — Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Demosthenes “the perfect orator” said Cicero — By putting pebbles in his mouth while practicing his speeches. Yeah, literal stones!
  • Churchill himself resolved never again to behave like those orators who “before they get up, do not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down, do not know what they have said.”
  • But remember: your goal is to be prepared but not sound prepared. 
  • Do your homework
  • Research — “Research,” according to the Hungarian Nobel Prize–winning biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, “is to see what everybody else has seen and think what nobody has thought.”
  • The Grand Finale
  • Every good speech deserves a grand finale.
  • Once you’ve done your research and structured your argument; once you’ve added one part logic, one part emotion, one part humor, and a healthy sprinkling of judo moves; once you’ve practiced it all until it’s perfect—you still need to have a rousing finish.
  • William Safire, who served as speechwriter for President Richard Nixon, cautioned that “a well-prepared, well-delivered speech without a peroration dribbles off and leaves an audience unsatisfied.”
  • Aristotle (again): For Aristotle, an ideal peroration is “composed of four things”:
  • It seeks to draw the audience in; It drives home the stakes of the argument; It makes one final appeal to pathos, It summarizes the key points of your argument, thereby “awakening [the hearer’s] recollection.”
  • The trick to the peroration is to strike a balance between: (1) restating your main argument so that it sticks, and (2) grabbing your listeners’ emotions and attention, so that they leave on a high! You want to capture both their hearts and their minds, and a great peroration will do both.
  • End with a call to action …Is there something specific you want your audience to do after they’ve absorbed your argument? Something concrete. Something simple. Something singular. Something memorable.
  • Remember the basics; all the basics — In my experience, it works best to start with the basics of public performance: how you look, how you sound, and how you time each moment of your speech.
  • voice
  • eye contact (eyeball to eyeball contact) – when you speak; and especially when you listen…
  • get personal/be personal
  • praise your audience (“suck up”)
  • your overall body language

And I end my synopses with my own Lessons and Takeaways.  Here are my five Lessons and Takeaways from this book:

#1 – Maybe the number one rule:  do your homework; on all aspects!

#2 — Maybe the number two rule:  practice; seriously practice.

#3 – Know your side; know the other side; know both sides!

#4 – Take notes; by hand. Write your speaking notes; by hand…

#5 – In other words, take every communication opportunity seriously.  That moment can make a huge difference in what comes next.

Even if this book cannot truly guarantee that you can win every argument, it can, if you heed its insights, it can help make you a more effective speaker/presenter, and overall communicator.  I think it is worth a spot on your reading stack, and worth a careful read…


You can purchase our synopses presentations from the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  On that page, you can search by book title. And click here for our newest additions.

My synopsis of Win Every Argument will be available soon.

Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation delivered at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

And, please check out some “bundles” of synopses, arranged by key categories, for your own self-paced learning, at my companion site,

Become a Poverty Abolitionist – Poverty, by America by Matthew Desmond – Here are my Six Lessons and Takeaways

Poverty, By AmericaWhy is there so much poverty in America? I wrote this book because I needed an answer to that question.

America’s poverty is not for lack of resources. We lack something else.

Which makes this a book about poverty that is not just about the poor. Instead, it’s a book about how the other other half lives, about how some lives are made small so that others may grow. …But it will also require that each of us, in our own way, become poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.   

I lay out why there is so much poverty in America and make a case for how to eliminate it.

Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty, including among households headed by single mothers.

Poverty is an injury, a taking. Tens of millions of Americans do not end up poor by a mistake of history or personal conduct. Poverty persists because some wish and will it to.

Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty… 

There is so much poverty in this land not in spite of our wealth but because of it. Which is to say, it’s not about them. It’s about us. “It is really so simple,” Tolstoy wrote. “If I want to aid the poor, that is, to help the poor not to be poor, I ought not to make them poor.” 

Becoming a poverty abolitionist, then, entails conducting an audit of our lives, personalizing poverty by examining all the ways we are connected to the problem—and to the solution.

Integration means we all have skin in the game. It not only disrupts poverty; on a spiritual level, over time it can foster empathy and solidarity.

Lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net; empower the poor by reining in exploitation; and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation. That’s how we end poverty in America. 

I’m calling for a return to a time when America made bigger investments in the general welfare. I’m calling for more poor aid and less rich aid.

Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America

What is the point? — America, the richest country on earth, has too many people living in poverty. Too many! We “cause” it; we nurture it; we tolerate it; we don’t end it.  We should end it, and…we can end it! 

We are so blessed to live in the richest country on earth.  Our GDP is miles ahead of any other country. We have so much…so, so much…

And yet, so many of our people live in poverty.  So, so many.  Too many.

Matthew Desmond has a new book, Poverty, By America, where he calls us all to tackle this, and end it…once and for all.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book, Evicted.  (Here is my blog post on that book).  His new book is a good book; a sobering book; a convicting book.

I presented my synopsis of this book at the May Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare. We had a small group in person, and a larger group on Zoom.  After the synopsis, we had a lively, helpful, revealing discussion.

I highly, highly recommend this book.

As always, I began my synopsis with What is the point of the book?  Here is my take on the point for this book:  America, the richest country on earth, has too many people living in poverty. Too many! We “cause” it; we nurture it; we tolerate it; we don’t end it.  We should end it, and…we can end it!

And I ask Why is this book worth our time? – Why this book matters!  Here are my three reason for this book:

#1 – This book is a current, up-to-date look at the reality — the numbers — of poverty in America.

#2 – This book dispels and refutes many of the myths about what causes poverty, and what keeps poor people in America poor.

#3 – This book is a call to end poverty…because, we can; and we should.

I always include key Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  For this book, I included more than usual.  (This was my longest synopsis handout ever, I think…).  Here are quite a few of the best of the best from this book:

This is who we are: the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. If America’s poor founded a country, that country would have a bigger population than Australia or Venezuela. Almost one in nine Americans—including one in eight children—live in poverty. There are more than 38 million people living in the United States who cannot afford basic necessities, and more than 108 million getting by on $55,000 a year or less, many stuck in that space between poverty and security. 

For Crystal and people in similar situations, poverty is about money, of course, but it is also a relentless piling on of problems. Poverty is pain, physical pain. It is in the backaches of home health aides and certified nursing assistants, who bend their bodies to hoist the old and sick out of beds and off toilets; it is in the feet and knees of cashiers made to stand while taking our orders and ringing up our items; it is in the skin rashes and migraines of maids who clean our office buildings, homes, and hotel rooms with products containing ammonia and triclosan. 

Jobs that used to come with some guarantees, even union membership, have been transformed into gigs.  …The manufacturing sector—still widely mistaken as the fount of good, sturdy, hard-hat jobs—now employs more than a million temp workers.

Long-term employment has declined steadily in the private sector, particularly for men… …Income volatility, the extent to which paychecks grow or shrink over short periods of time, has doubled since 1970. 

As a lived reality, there is plenty of poverty above the poverty line. 

In the years following the end of guaranteed cash welfare, the United States has witnessed a shocking rise in extreme poverty, one that tracks with other grim indicators.                          

The overwhelming majority of America’s current and former prisoners are very poor. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, almost seven in ten Black men who didn’t finish high school will have spent a portion of their life in a cage.   

The political scientist Vesla Weaver has shown that those stopped (but not arrested) by the police are less likely to vote. The criminal-legal system, Weaver has written, “trains people for a distinctive and lesser kind of citizenship.”   

When politicians propose antipoverty legislation, they say it will help “the middle class.”   

Have you ever sat in a hospital waiting room, watching the clock and praying for good news? You are there, locked on the present emergency, next to which all other concerns and responsibilities feel (and are) trivial. That experience is something like living in poverty.   

Poverty is often material scarcity piled on chronic pain piled on incarceration piled on depression piled on addiction—on and on it goes.  …Poverty isn’t a line. It’s a tight knot of social maladies. It is connected to every social problem we care about—crime, health, education, housing—and its persistence in American life means that millions of families are denied safety and security and dignity in one of the richest nations in the history of the world. 

In fact, as the cost of items like cell phones and washing machines has fallen, the cost of the most necessary of life’s necessities, such as healthcare and rent, has increased.   

Part of the answer, I learned, lies in the fact that a fair amount of government aid earmarked for the poor never reaches them. To understand why, consider welfare.  …when President Bill Clinton reformed welfare in 1996, replacing the old model with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), he transformed the program into a block grant that gives states considerable leeway in deciding how to distribute the money.   

And then there’s Mississippi. A 389-page audit released in 2020 found that money overseen by the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) and intended for the state’s poorest families was used to hire an evangelical worship singer who performed at rallies and church concerts; to purchase a Nissan Armada, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ford F-250 for the head of a local nonprofit and two of her family members; and even to pay the former NFL quarterback Brett Favre $ 1.1 million for speeches he never gave. (Favre later returned the money.)   

Welfare funds also went to a ministry run by former professional wrestler Ted DiBiase—the Million Dollar Man and the author of the memoir Every Man Has His Price—for speeches and wrestling events. DiBiase’s price was $ 2.1 million. Brett DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man’s son, was serving as deputy administrator for Mississippi’s Department of Human Services at the time. He and five others have been indicted on fraud and embezzlement charges. 

No state had a child poverty rate higher than Mississippi’s, at roughly 28 percent, which is also the child poverty rate of Costa Rica.   

…But I can’t get over the fact that each year, over a billion dollars of Social Security funds are spent not on getting people disability but on getting people lawyers so that they can get disability.  

Our foreign-born population has soared over the past half century. In 1960, one in twenty people in America was born in another country. Today, one in eight is. The United States now has more immigrants than any other nation on earth.  …Almost half of America’s foreign-born population now lives in just three states: California, Texas, and Florida. …Between 1970 and 2019, the share of the immigrant population increased by nearly 18 percent in California, 14 percent in Texas, and 13 percent in Florida. But over that same period, California’s poverty rate increased only marginally (by 0.7 percent), while poverty fell in both Texas and Florida: by 5 and almost 4 percent, respectively. The states that have taken in the most immigrants over the past half century have not grown poorer. In the case of Texas and Florida, they have grown more prosperous.

The best research we have on this question finds that the long-term impact of immigration on wages is quite small, and its impact on employment is even smaller.  

The politicians who wring their hands about “the border crisis” know full well that the undocumented population peaked over fifteen years ago, in 2007.   

(Americans don’t exactly queue up for immigrant jobs). 

Over a typical lifetime, an immigrant will give more to the U.S. government in taxes than he or she will receive in federal welfare benefits. 

There was a time in America when most poor children grew up in a home with both of their biological parents. …most poor children are born to single mothers. Roughly one in three families headed by a single mother is poor, compared to just one in seventeen married families.  …This disparity has led some to conclude that single parenthood is a major cause of poverty in America. But then, why isn’t it a major cause in Ireland or Italy or Sweden? …A study of eighteen rich democracies found that single mothers outside the United States were not poorer than the general population. …Countries that make the deepest investments in their people, particularly through universal programs that benefit all citizens, have the lowest rates of poverty, including among households headed by single mothers. 

In the history of the nation, there has only been one other state-sponsored initiative more antifamily than mass incarceration, and that was slavery. 

Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts. Complexity is the refuge of the powerful. 

…Julio didn’t have to be paid poverty wages for his job to exist. If he manned the grill at a McDonald’s in Denmark, his paycheck would have been double what it was in Emeryville.

…increasing the minimum wage has negligible effects on employment. …The bulk of the evidence suggests that the employment effect of raising the minimum wage is inconsequential.  

Almost all private sector employees (94 percent) are without a union, though roughly half of nonunion workers say they would organize if given the chance. They rarely are.  …Between 2016 and 2017, the National Labor Relations Board charged 42 percent of employers with violating federal law during union campaigns. In nearly a third of cases, this involved illegally firing workers for organizing. 

A 2021 study found that middle-class Black homeowners (with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000) carried higher interest rates on their mortgages than white homeowners… with incomes at or below $30,000. 

The message has been received. Half the country appears to believe that social benefits from the government make people lazy. …First, Americans tend to believe (wrongly) that most welfare recipients are Black. This is true for both liberals and conservatives. Second, many Americans still believe Blacks have a low work ethic. …Anti-Black racism hardens Americans’ antagonism toward social benefits.

Wealth traps breed poverty traps. The concentration of affluence breeds more affluence, and the concentration of poverty, more poverty. To be poor is miserable, but to be poor and surrounded by poverty on all sides is a much deeper cut.  

Even in the darkest moments, we should allow ourselves to imagine, to marvel over, a new social contract, because doing so expresses both our discontent with, and the impermanence of, the current one. …“We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable,” wrote Brueggemann. “We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted” by the established order “that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” 

Just as global warming is not only caused by large industrial polluters and multinational logging companies but also by the cars we choose to drive and the energy we choose to buy, poverty in America is not simply the result of actions taken by Congress and corporate boards but the millions of decisions we make each day when going about our business.  

Alexis de Tocqueville found that nineteenth-century Americans were only casual observers of politics until the town proposed to run a road through their property. Then they started showing up at public forums.

“Any real change,” writes James Baldwin, “implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or thought one knew; to what one possessed or dreamed that one possessed.”  

Ending poverty would not solve all our problems. But since poverty is a catalyst and cause of an untold number of social ills, finally cutting the cancer out would lead to enormous improvements in many aspects of life. 

Whose fight is this? If you are homeless or unemployed, a person with disabilities on a fixed income, if you have been exploited and excluded, incarcerated or evicted, this is your fight. If you are an undocumented immigrant, giving this country your sweat, your very body, but receiving few rights in return, or a worker shortchanged and kicked around by your company, this is your fight. If you are one of the tens of millions of Americans scraping, pinching, living paycheck to paycheck, floating somewhere between poverty and security, this is your fight. If you are a young person fed up not only with impossibly expensive cities and $100,000 college degrees but also with polite excuses and insipid justifications for why things are the way they are, this is your fight. If you have found security and prosperity and wish the same for your neighbors, if you demand a dignified life for all people in America, if you love fairness and justice and want no part in exploitation for personal gain, if all the hardship in your country violates your sense of decency, this is your fight, too.  

The end of poverty is something to stand for, to march for, to sacrifice for. Because poverty is the dream killer, the capability destroyer, the great waster of human potential.  

Friedrich Hayek, decidedly not a socialist, remarked that “nothing makes conditions more unbearable than the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them.” (R.M., Dante — “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”).  

“The most unethical of all means is the non-use of any.”

From Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:  There’s nothing I can do,” the tractor driver replied, explaining that there were dozens of men ready to replace him—and besides, he had orders from his boss, who had orders from the bank, which “gets orders from the East,” and on it went. 

After I share these key excerpts/highlighted passages from the book, I then include what I consider the most important points and principles from the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis. (Note:  italics indicate that it comes directly from the book).

  • What do we mean, “the poor?”
  • In 2022, the poverty line was drawn at $13,590 a year for a single person and $27,750 a year for a family of four.
  • In America’s meatpacking plants, two amputations occur each week. …Pickers in Amazon warehouses have access to vending machines dispensing free Advil and Tylenol. 
  • Roughly one in four children living in poverty have untreated cavities.
  • Thirty million Americans remain completely uninsured a decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Most renting families below the poverty line now spend at least half of their income on housing.
  • Poverty is the constant fear that it will get even worse.
  • The United States allows a much higher proportion of its children—over 5 million of them—to endure deep poverty than any of its peer nations.
  • Using this threshold, the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton reported in 2018 that 5.3 million Americans were “absolutely poor by global standards,” getting by on $4 a day or less.
  • The number of homeless children, as reported by the nation’s public schools, rose from 794,617 in 2007 to 1.3 million in 2018.
  • The United States doesn’t just tuck its poor under overpasses and into mobile home parks far removed from central business districts. It disappears them into jails and prisons, effectively erasing them: The incarcerated are simply not counted in most national surveys, resulting in a falsely rosy statistical picture of American progress. …Poverty measures exclude everyone in prison and jail—not to mention those housed in psych wards, halfway houses, and homeless shelters—which means there are millions more poor Americans than official statistics let on.
  • Poverty is the feeling that your government is against you, not for you.
  • Poverty is embarrassing, shame inducing. …You avoid public places—parks, beaches, shopping districts, sporting arenas—knowing they weren’t built for you.
  • But…but…there is still a racial gap…
  • Still, poverty is no equalizer. It can be intensified by racial disadvantages or eased by racial privileges. …Black poverty, Hispanic poverty, Native American poverty, Asian American poverty, and white poverty are all different.
  • Black and Hispanic Americans are twice as likely to be poor, compared to white Americans, owing not only to the country’s racial legacies but also to present-day discrimination.
  • Black jobseekers are just as likely to face discrimination in the labor market today as they were thirty years ago. There has been no progress in a generation.
  • Poor white families tend to live in communities with lower poverty levels than poor Black and Hispanic families. That means most poor white children attend better-resourced schools, live in safer communities, experience lower rates of police violence, and sleep in more dignified homes than their poor Black and Hispanic peers.
  • Poverty not only resides in people; it lives in neighborhoods, too,
  • This is a big reason why the life expectancy of poor Black men in America is similar to that of men in Pakistan and Mongolia.
  • Today, the wealth gap between Black and white families is as large as it was in the 1960s. …Our legacy of systematically denying Black people access to the nation’s land and riches has been passed from generation to generation.
  • In 2019, the median white household had a net worth of $188,200, compared with $24,100 for the median Black household.
  • The average white household headed by someone with a high school diploma has more wealth than the average Black household headed by someone with a college degree.
  • It’s not that simple:
  • people are commonly told that they can avoid poverty in America by following three simple steps: graduate from high school, obtain a full-time job, and wait until they get married to have children. A report published by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, labeled the three steps “the success sequence.” …(BUT!)… …Black Americans who had stuck to the success sequence were less likely to escape poverty than white Americans who did the same. You also learn that the step in the sequence responsible for nearly all the “success” is not marriage but securing a full-time job. 
  • The stark, harsh reality: People benefit from poverty in all kinds of ways.
  • As a theory of poverty, exploitation elicits a muddled response, causing us to think of course and but, no in the same instant.
  • Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “The history of the world, my sweet—is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” 
  • And…don’t forget, or ignore, the motivation related to hierarchy…
  • Clans, families, tribes, and nation-states collide, and one side is annihilated or enslaved or colonized or dispossessed to enrich the other. …One side ascends to a higher place on the backs of the vanquished. 
  • The decline of unions has not been…good…
  • Honest work delivered a solid paycheck, and a big reason why had to do with union power. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, nearly a third of all U.S. workers carried union cards.
  • In 1970 alone, 2.4 million union members participated in work stoppages, wildcat strikes, and tense standoffs with company heads. Their efforts paid off. Worker pay climbed, CEO compensation was reined in, and the country experienced the most economically equitable period in modern history.
  • But unions were often a white man’s refuge. …In the 1930s, many unions outwardly discriminated against Black workers or segregated them into Jim Crow local chapters. 
  • A major problem is…
  • “It is illegal on 75 percent of the residential land in many American cities to build anything other than a detached single-family home.”
  • If you erect a community of expensive, beautiful homes and prop up the value of those homes by making it illegal to build more housing, which turns your home into a resource so scarce that potential buyers do things like write pleading letters or make cash offers above the asking price or bid sight unseen — behavior that has become commonplace in liberal cities like Austin, Seattle, and Cambridge — then you pretty much want to keep things as they are.


  • One study found that growing up in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood is equivalent to missing a year of school when it comes to verbal ability. Another found that achievement gaps between rich and poor children form and harden before kindergarten.
  • Resources are available for the poor, but not received/obtained…
  • The bulk of the evidence indicates that low-income Americans are not taking full advantage of government programs for a much more banal reason: We’ve made it hard and confusing.
  • One intervention tripled the rate of elderly people enrolled in food stamps by providing information about the program and offering sign-up assistance.
  • Segregation really is bad…harmful…
  • The economist Rucker Johnson did just that, finding that Black children who were enrolled in integrated schools performed better in the classroom, graduated at higher rates, and were more likely to go to college than their peers who experienced a segregated education.
  • This presented researchers with a chance to determine whether poor students fared better in low-poverty schools or in high-poverty schools with more resources. The results were striking. Students from poor families who attended low-poverty schools significantly outperformed those who attended high-poverty schools with “state-of-the-art educational interventions.” … Even when we expand the budgets of poor schools beyond those of rich ones, it does not make those schools anything close to equal. …I feel a little stupid making the case that a child’s environment matters.


{From The AtlanticThe War on Poverty Is Over. Rich People Won (Annie Lowrey interviews Matthew Desmond): You see a homeless person in Los Angeles; an American says, What did that person do? You see a homeless person in France; a French person says, What did the state do? How did the state fail them? …It’s interesting to read the histories of segregation in the 1950s or 1930s. The segregationists used the same exact arguments that we do today. They talk about property values, schools, and crime.} 


And, I conclude my synopses with my own Lessons and Takeaways.  Here are my six Lessons and Takeaways from this book:

#1 – Maybe we could spend more time thinking about the reality of poverty in America. You know; read about it regularly. It is a problem worthy of our continuous attention.

#2 – Though we need great nonprofits serving the poor, helping the poor, this is a government-needed, all hands on deck issue.

#3 – Our decisions to remain separate and apart – including the decision to remain so segregated by race – helps perpetuate the poverty prevalent around us and among us.

#4 – We can all do some things, take actual steps, to make this less of a problem.  And, we should.

#5 – Maybe we should focus on the needs of the poor; not the needs of the not-poor.

#6 – Back to #1 – the issue of poverty needs far, far more of our focus. If we don’t start here, and keep at it, there will be no change for the better.

I deeply believe this:  if we spent more of our thinking and pondering and learning time on the issue of poverty, we might take on the challenge more energetically. But, we are so very busy, thinking and learning and pondering about other concerns.

So, here’s my challenge:  spend the rest of this year with more of your time on the poverty issue.  Because, the poverty issue is not an “issue.”  It is a reality; it is about the real lives of our fellow human beings. It deserves our attention; they deserve our attention, and then our very best efforts.

We have work to do!


I do not normally put my recordings and synopsis handouts from the Urban Engagement Book Club up on our web site. That site is for my synopses from the First Friday Book Synopsis, which focuses on business books.  But this book actually made the New York Times list of best-selling business books.  So I think I will make this available.  Thus, the synopsis, with the audio recording and handout, will be available soon.  Click here for our newest additions.  (Note:  this is a longer synopsis/longer recording that our usual First Friday Book Synopsis synopses).

My synopsis of Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond is Thursday, May 18, 12:30 pm, over Zoom – Come Join Us – And, here is my synopsis handout

Note:  This book, Poverty, By America, is a needed, substantive, convicting book, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted. If you have any interest in issues of social justice, today’s session is a “must”!

You are invited – on Zoom, Thursday!

A special encouragement to attend the Urban Engagement Book Club, 

Thursday, May 18, over Zoom, 12:30 pm

You are invited to attend Thursday’s session, May 18, on Zoom.

Click on book image to download synopsis handout

Click on book image to download synopsis handout

Thursday’s book, 

Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond

Please join us. All details below.


If you have an open lunch time window Thursday, May 18, 12:30 pm (CST), I am presenting my synopsis of:

Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond

I encourage you to download my synopsis handout, print it out, and follow along.

Come join us on Zoom.

click on image to download synopsis handout

click on image to download synopsis handout

Urban Engagement Book Club
Thursday, May 18, 2023 – 12:30 pm (CST)

Synopsis presented by Randy Mayeux
We conclude shortly after 1:30.
(This event is free).

Here is the lineup of upcoming books, and a look back to the books of 2022.  

And, here is the Zoom link to join our gathering. 

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The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy) Admiral by William H. McRaven – Here are my six Lessons and Takeaways

Wisdom of the BullfrogWell, for thousands of years militaries have relied on mottoes, creeds, parables, and stories to inspire, to motivate, and to guide leaders and followers alike. These sayings serve to reinforce certain behaviors. …They also provide a memory prompt…

In this book I have collected eighteen of these sayings that have guided me throughout my career: mottoes, parables, creeds, and stories that have served me well when I was starting a new assignment or had a particularly difficult leadership challenge.

The Army Rangers’ Sua Sponte (Of Your Own Accord); the British Special Air Service motto, Who Dares Wins; and the SEAL mantra, The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday; all these sayings have a storied history that drove leaders at the time to make certain profound decisions. …they are words born of experience, trial by fire, and most written in blood.   

We have never stopped raising the bar and trying to be the best.

Admiral William H. McRaven, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy)


There is no shortage of leadership books.

There are good ones; mediocre ones; a few bad ones.

There are all sorts of leadership “genres.”  I am partial to Servant Leadership, a term coined by Robert Greenleaf decades ago.

I think I am safe in saying that the following is some of the accepted best thinking about leadership:

  • leaders needs to be able to see the future challenges and opportunities and threats…
  • leaders need to rally the people on the team and in the organization to produce the desired results.
  • leaders need to be out and about among his/her people, listening, challenging, with empathy, and concern and care.
  • leaders need to be people of integrity; trustworthy.

Since leaders fail in so many ways, so very often (alas), most good leadership books remind leaders who they should be, what they should be, how they should be…

So, if you ask me, “Randy, what is the one leadership book I need to read?”, my first response is “there is no one book.”  There are many good, needed ones.  Like:  Encouraging the Heart by Kouzes and Poser, Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, Radical Candor by Kim Scott… The list gets long in a hurry.  I would say that the best leaders should always be reading their next leadership book… (I put this list together a while back: A More Comprehensive Reading list for leaders – So many good books; so much to learn.)

But now I have a new book to add to the list, and it may be this new book that I now recommend as my suggestion for “if you have time to read only one leadership book, read this one.”

It is the new book by Admiral William H. McRaven, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog: Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy).  It’s not that he says anything especially new.  But he takes 18 key leadership lessons, and writes them in pretty short chapters, telling good stories illustrating the principles, with great quotes to begin each chapter, calling all leaders to do their job as leaders.  It is a very good, very accessible, book.

And, because he puts integrity and honor front and center, I think that section needs to be read, and re-read, and re-read…

I presented my synopsis of this terrific book at the May, 2023 First Friday Book Synopsis. As I always do in my synopses, I began with What is the point? of this book.  Here is my answer for this book: Good leadership is rare, and hard to come by.  But it can be learned.  This book can be your teacher. 

And I ask Why is this book worth our time?; Why this book matters!  Here are my three reasons for this book:

#1 – This book is a reflection/memoir on the most important leadership lessons learned, written by a seasoned, accomplished leader.

#2 – This book is a gold mine of stories of successful leadership stories; and also some stories of failures worth heeding.

#3 – This book is an illustration of clear and simple communication.  View it as a model for how you can and should communicate.

I always include a few pages of Quotes and Excerpts from the book – the “best of” Randy’s highlighted Passages.  Here are a few of the best of the best from this book:

Carl von Clausewitz, the great nineteenth-century general who wrote the consummate book On War, once said that “everything in war is simple, but the simple things are difficult.”  

The most tragic thing in the world is a man of genius who is not a man of honor. — George Bernard Shaw 

Legend has it that the phrase “Death Before Dishonor” began with the Greek Stoics who were prepared to die rather than compromise their values.  …And in modern times, the United States Marine Corps has unofficially adopted the saying “Death Before Dishonor” after legendary Marine sergeant John Basilone had the motto tattooed on his left arm.   

The Cadet Honor Code…“A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” …Below the Honor Code is the mission of the United States Military Academy. The mission of West Point is not to produce Pattonesque geniuses, four-star generals, or presidents of the United States. The mission is to produce “leaders of character.” And the Honor Code provides the foundation of that character.   

In 2005, the modern SEALs codified that standard of conduct in the Navy SEAL Ethos, which reads in part: I serve with honor on and off the battlefield… Uncompromising integrity is my standard… My word is my bond.

The Army Ranger Creed says, “I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of my Ranger Regiment.”

Similarly, the Green Berets’ creed says “I pledge to uphold the honor and integrity [of the Green Beret] legacy in all that I am—in all that I do.”

But of course, it’s not just the military. The Girl Scout Law says, “I will do my best to be honest and fair…[ and] make the world a better place.” The Boy Scouts’ oath says, “On my honor I will do my best… and [be] morally straight.”

The final paragraph of the Hippocratic Oath says, “So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully… gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.” 

{Note:  I sent my handout for this synopsis to my brothers, and Sid, a retired Air Force Colonel, sent me this: The USAF Code of Conduct reads: We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, (so help me God).}

But more often than not, that lack of integrity, doing wrong instead of right, can manifest itself in a toxic work culture, a failed business, or a personal tragedy.  …If you violate your oath, your code of conduct, the basic decency with which you should live your life and run your business, then eventually you will lose the respect of the men and women you serve, and the opposite becomes your fate.  

In the simplest terms it follows the West Point Honor Code: Don’t lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those that do.  …Be honest with your workforce, your customers, and the public. Be fair in your business dealings. Follow the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have others treat you.   

Being a person of high integrity is what separates the great leaders from the commonplace.   

President Obama had given Leon Panetta the task of capturing or killing bin Laden. …It was the result of years of working together, years of building personal and professional relationships, years of earning each other’s trust. …And even when we had interagency squabbles, of which there were many, the CIA believed they could trust me and they could trust my team.

The day you no longer believe you have something to prove, the day you no longer believe you must give it your all, the day you think you are entitled to special treatment, the day you think all your hard days are behind you, is the day you are no longer the right leader for the job. 

In the three weeks leading up to the bin Laden raid, the Team spent 75 percent of their time planning the mission. …the president remarked that while the confidence level on bin Laden being in the compound was only 50 percent, he had 100 percent confidence in the SEALs, helo crews, and intelligence professionals who were conducting the mission. 

“But I hold you and your SEALs to a higher standard. And I expect you, as their leader, to do the same. Are we clear?” I hold you and your SEALs to a higher standard. Those words resonated in my head for the rest of my career.

Mounted on a large white horse, with full military regalia on his uniform and two immense pistols holstered at his side, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben rode into Valley Forge in February of 1778. One soldier recalled von Steuben’s arrival as though it was “the fabled God of War himself.” …Soon after his arrival, Washington made von Steuben the Continental Army’s inspector general. …corruption and graft were rampant as soldiers received and then sold their muskets and other equipment. …Within days, von Steuben had initiated inspections of the troops, their tents, their rifles, and their combat equipment. …And during the winter of 1778, von Steuben wrote the Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States—a document that has been the foundation for the American military since it was first published.

In their insightful book The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind point out that a number of senior employees within the organization knew that something was wrong, but the company was making millions, so they let it slide. …“The after-the-fact rationalizations [by the accused executives] were strikingly similar to the mind-set that brought about the Enron disaster in the first place. The arguments were narrow and rules-based, legalistic in the hairsplitting sense of the word.”

And then, in my synopses, I include principles, points, key elements of the book.  Here is much of what I included in this synopsis.  (Note:  anything in italics is directly from the book):

  • William McRaven
  • Bullfrog1Thirty-four years after I started BUD/S training, I would be anointed as the Bull Frog1—the longest-serving frogman and Navy SEAL on active duty.
  • An observation – this book delivers! — Simple; not easy, but simple…
  • short chapters; almost a “daily reading” length chapters… Buy this book, and read it a chapter every few days…
  • Definition – What is leadership?
  • In its simplest form, leadership is “accomplishing a task with the people and resources you have while maintaining the integrity of your institution.”
  • But leadership is not just about getting the job done. It is also about maintaining or advancing the reputation of your institution. …If as a leader you fail the institution you are leading, then you have failed—period.
  • As a leader you must take actions to build a plan, communicate its intent, inspect its progress, hold people (and yourself) accountable. Together, qualities and actions are the building blocks of great leaders.
  • But true honor—doing the right thing for the right reasons—is the foundation of great leadership.

I seldom simply follow the chapters, as they are, in my synopses.  But I did in this synopsis.  My synopsis handout includes each chapter, with key insights.  Here are a number of the chapters, with brief insights:

Chapter One: Death Before Dishonor  — (Be a Person of Integrity)

  • Make no mistake about it, if you want to be a great leader you must have a personal code of conduct that provides an anchor for your decisions and your actions. …An anchor that tethers you to a good place of return when you go astray. And most of us will go astray at some point. We are all human. We make poor decisions. We act stupidly. We have regrets. But nevertheless, we should all strive—and strive mightily—to be honorable.
  • Before you can master any of the other axioms of wisdom, you must first strive to be men and women of honor and integrity.

Chapter Two: You Can’t Surge Trust – (Be Trustworthy)

  • “We won’t have to spend time getting to know each other. Because when it hits the fan, we won’t have time to build trust.”

Chapter Three: When in Command, Command – (Be confident in yourself)

  • Commanders are expected to make the tough decision. To act with purpose. To be confident and lead from the front. To accept the challenge and steel yourself for the rough waters ahead. A commander must command. Command the situation. Command the troops. Command your fears. Take command.  

Chapter Four: We All Have Our Frog Floats – (Have a little humility)

  • Sooner or later we all have to do things we don’t want to do. But if you’re going to do it, then do it right. Build the best damn Frog Float you can!” And there it was. “Build the best damn Frog Float you can!”
  • Asked to do those menial tasks that no one else wanted, those tasks that seemed beneath the “dignity of my rank.” …I found, in my career, that if you took pride in the little jobs, people would think you worthy of the bigger jobs.

Chapter Five: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday – (Demonstrate that you have stamina)

  • “If you think the hard part is over, you’re mistaken.”  

Chapter Eight: Who Dares Wins – (Be prepared to take risks)

  • Daring greatly does not mean taking unnecessary risks. Daring greatly does mean having the boldness to push the envelope, to take advantage of an opportunity where others would recoil at the peril.

Chapter Nine: Hope Is Not a Strategy – (Do the detailed planning necessary for success)

  • Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan. – Coach Tom Landry           

Chapter Ten: No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy – (Have a Plan B)

  • Just because you made a good plan doesn’t mean that’s what’s gonna happen. — Taylor Swift

Chapter Thirteen: Troop the Line – (Listen to your employees)

  • All the great generals have at some point trooped the line. …In the Navy, every morning the sailors and Marines would gather on the fantail or the flight deck of the ship to receive the daily word.
  • In all cases, there is a deep understanding that as an officer you need to get out among the troops. You need to confirm that the senior officer’s orders are being followed, but you also need to ensure the troops see their leader as often as possible.

Chapter Fourteen: Expect What You Inspect – (The quality of your work will depend on the quality of your oversight)

  • Every military in the world understands the significance of an inspection. …too often, in the corporate world, we give it less attention than we should.

Chapter Sixteen: When in Doubt, Overload – (Work hard to overcome your shortfalls)

  • Forty years of clearing beaches from Okinawa to Normandy to Inchon to Vietnam had taught the frogmen one very important lesson: Whenever you were in doubt about the amount of explosives to use—always overload. Always put more energy, more force, more power into the solution than seemed necessary.
  • I got up earlier, worked longer, went out on more tactical operations, studied the battlefield incessantly, and slept a lot less, and then, when the next opportunity presented itself, I was ready. …Hard work creates opportunities. It’s that simple.

Chapter Seventeen: Can You Stand Before the Long Green Table? – (Be accountable for your actions)

  • Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses. — George Washington Carver
  • Is it ethical, legal, and moral? Ethical — does it follow the rules? Legal — does it follow the law? And moral — does it follow what you know to be right? 

Chapter Eighteen: Always Have a Swim Buddy – (Have a partner in your leadership journey)

  • When parachuting, it is your swim buddy who checks your parachute before you jump. …You learned it early in SEAL training, that you never did anything, at any time, without a swim buddy, someone who could bail you out of a tough situation. …your swim buddy was your protection, your conscience, your friend, and frequently your salvation.
  • While I have often said that a leader “is not allowed to have a bad day,” that pertains only to their demeanor in public. However, every leader does have bad days. Every leader does need someone to talk to. Every leader must find someone they can trust. …Call them wingmen, copilots, first mates, shotgun riders, Skipper and Gilligan, Thelma and Louise, Barney and Fred, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, partners—call them whatever you like, but without a good swim buddy you will be destined to make bad decisions, you will be confronted with the difficulties of life alone, you will sometimes wallow in self-pity, and nothing you do will be as fulfilling.

And, in the book, Admiral McRaven includes his own “It’s Simple” recap of each chapter.  Here are just a few of his own recaps:

Chapter One: Death Before Dishonor

  • It’s Simple: 1. Be fair and honorable in your business dealings. It’s the only way that you and your employees can leave a legacy to be proud of. 2. Never lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do. The culture of your organization starts with you. 3. Own your lapses in judgment. It happens to everyone. Correct the problem and return to being a person of good character. 

Chapter Four: We All Have Our Frog Floats  

  • It’s Simple: 1. Be humble in your demeanor and your expectations. 2. Accept the fact that you will be asked to do jobs that are beneath your status. Do them to the best of your ability. 3. Measure the strength of your employees by their willingness to do the little tasks and do them well

Chapter Seven: Sua Sponte

  • It’s Simple: 1. Foster a culture of action, allowing the rank and file to take the initiative and fix problems that need addressing. 2. Accept the fact that this will lead to zealousness and the occasional screwup. This overenthusiasm is better than a culture of inaction. 3. Praise those who attempt to solve problems on their own, even if the results are not as expected. 

Chapter Ten: No Plan Survives First Contact with the Enemy    

  • It’s Simple: 1. Always consider the worst-case scenario and plan accordingly. 2. Test the plan to ensure everyone in the organization knows how to react when things go poorly. 3. Be prepared. Murphy was an optimist.

Chapter Twelve: A Shepherd Should Smell Like His Sheep         

  • It’s Simple: 1. Share the hardships with your employees. You will gain their respect and learn about yourself as a leader. 2. Share the camaraderie. Let the employees see you having fun (within reason). They want to know that their leader is human as well. 3. Listen to the rank and file. They have solutions to most of the problems you struggle with.

Chapter Thirteen: Troop the Line

  • It’s Simple: 1. Get out of your office and talk to the employees at the far end of the chain of command. 2. Find an opportunity to solve small but seemingly intractable problems. 3. Ensure your senior staff know that these “little problems” can have major effects on morale.

Chapter Eighteen: Always Have a Swim Buddy

  • It’s Simple: 1. Find a person you can trust implicitly. Be prepared to lean on them in times of great stress. 2. Accept both their support and criticism with equal grace. 3. Be a swim buddy to others. Someone out there needs you!

And here are my six Lessons and Takeaways:

#1 – Lead and manage by walking around, by showing up, even fully sharing the “grunt” work…

#2 – Morale really, really matters — Every leader understands that nothing is more important to the success of a mission than the morale of the troops. But leaders often misunderstand the nature of morale. Morale is not just about the employees feeling good, it is about the employees feeling valued. …It is about the troops believing that their leader is listening to their concerns.

#3 – Something will go wrong. Plan for something to grow wrong.  Have a Plan B; and a Plan C; and…

#4 – Always pay attention to the need to be a person of integrity.

#5 – Learn to listen to everybody on the team; people in every position on the team. And, then, do listen…

#6 – Work hard! On every menial task, to every grand vision and plan.

This is an exceptionable book. If we read it, heed it, follow it…if all leaders did the same…we would have more people of integrity, and more successful organizations throughout the land.


You can purchase our synopses presentations from the buy synopses tab at the top of this page.  On that page, you can search by book title. And click here for our newest additions.

My synopsis of The Wisdom of the Bullfrog will be available soon.

Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page synopsis handout, plus the audio recording of my presentation delivered at the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

And, please check out some “bundles” of synopses, arranged by key categories, for your own self-paced learning, at my companion site,

Read a Book! – There is always the near-perfect book to read, whatever you are dealing with

Read a book.

so many books; so little time

so many books; so little time

Seriously, read a book.

Read a book slowly; thoughtfully; carefully.  With an open mind.  With a hunger to learn.

My blog, and my book events the First Friday Book Synopsis and the Urban Engagement Book Club, are events where I present synopses of good, useful, best-selling books on business issues, and issues of social justice.  My synopses are thorough; they provide many of the key lessons and principles from the books I present.

But, of course, nothing is as useful as reading a book for yourself.

I am often asked “what is the best book to read on the issue of _________?”  Most of the time, I have a good, solid, useful recommendation; not always, but most of the time…

And, on issues that may matter even more deeply to people in the midst of special challenges, seemingly every week, I recommend a book to people to read to help them in the circumstances they face.

Noonday DemonIn recent weeks, I have recommended:

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon to someone who has a family member dealing with depression.

How To Survive the Loss of a Love by Peter McWilliams, Harold Bloomfield, and Melba Colgrove, to someone going through a painful divorce.  (Note:  I have given away many, many copies of this book to people in moment of loss).

Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, to someone going through a difficult (and unexpected) career transition.How to Survive Loss of a Love

Yes, a listening, empathetic ear is really good to offer.  And, yes, coaching and advice are good to offer in the midst of conversation, or “official” coaching sessions.

But when the conversation or session is over, and the person is left with their own thoughts and challenges and struggles, maybe a good book is exactly what they need.  They open it, read a few paragraphs, stop and think and ponder, and work through their issues for themselves.

Now, admittedly, I am partial to the “read a book” approach.  Because, throughout my life, books have helped me in so many ways.  I learned to speak better by reading books; actually, books on homiletics during my preaching days.  I learned to manage my time better by reading a few good books. I learned to understand life, and cope with life a little better, by reading books like Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck.  (Peck helped me with more than one of his books).  I could keep going in this paragraph…

So, my default is to say to others “read this book.” 

What are you reading to help you in your life pursuits, and issues, and struggles?

Read a book!

And then, read more books!


Here are a number of my blog posts with lists of books dealing with specific issues.

Five+ Categories – 28 Books – A Whole Lot of Learning | First Friday Book Synopsis

The Essential Baker’s Dozen – 12 (OK – 13) Books to Read to set yourself up for more success in business and in life, in 2021; and beyond | First Friday Book Synopsis

A More Comprehensive Reading list for leaders – So many good books; so much to learn | First Friday Book Synopsis

Seven Books that Might be Helpful in Your Moments of Difficulty – (Plus, an eighth recommendation, just because…) | First Friday Book Synopsis

Big Picture Books; Narrow Focus Books – Maybe we need both | First Friday Book Synopsis

The Future is Coming, and We Are Not Ready – a reading list: here are some books that might help us get ready | First Friday Book Synopsis

You should read these 30 books – Book Suggestions from Randy Mayeux of the First Friday Book Synopsis (ok – 30, + a few) | First Friday Book Synopsis