Book Review: The Hopkins Touch by David Roll


Facilitators are often faceless people who work behind the scenes to help teams and individuals work through their choices and come to agreement. Big biographies are usually about the famous players in the more visible positions. Americans always pay more attention to the quarterback than the offensive linemen who make it possible for the quarterback to rack up the yards.

This unfortunate situation will be somewhat remedied in early 2013, when a new biography about one of history’s great facilitators hits the shelves (or e-shelves).

I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of The Hopkins Touch by David Roll, an outstanding biography of a unique and exceptional person whose existence has been forgotten by many Americans. Harry Hopkins was considered the “man behind the throne” during the FDR years, wielding enormous power and influence in both established and undefined roles, in both domestic and foreign policy. The sources of his success were his crystal clear insight into reality (Churchill called him “Mr. Root of the Matter”), an unusually strong drive and superb facilitation skills. When Hopkins was given an assignment, whether that assignment was getting needed relief into the hands and mouths of the needy or negotiating agreements with men as complex and distrustful as Stalin, he got the thing done. While his education and early experience in social work accounted for some of his loftier ideals, his powerful sense of commitment to the task drove him to his great achievements.

David Roll proves to be an excellent biographer, balancing admiration for the man’s truly great accomplishments with fair criticism of his mistakes. As is appropriate for a biography about a man who worked more behind the scenes than in the public eye, The Hopkins Touch tells the larger story of the major players on whose behalf Hopkins toiled, particularly the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin). While Hopkins is never far away from the narrative, Mr. Roll never allowed himself to be constrained solely to his subject. The stories and background information he provides concerning the titanic personalities of the time are both appropriate and well-researched. Best of all, Mr. Roll managed to write a very readable narrative about a complicated character working in a complex period in world history; the book never feels too heavy or too light.

The relevance of this book to our current period in human history cannot be understated. We live in a time when the political atmosphere is so poisonous and polarized that it seems impossible to get anything accomplished. We could definitely use a skilled facilitator like Harry Hopkins—someone with the skills, dedication and insight to build trust between enemies and guide them to worthy accomplishments.

There are many lessons in the book for those of you who, like me, spend a great deal of our time engaged in the art of facilitation. Here are the lessons I found most relevant:

1. It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s always about helping them reach the solutions they want to reach.

2. All successful facilitators have an unyielding commitment to discovering the truth. The skill of a facilitator lies in helping others discover the truth, and to do that, a facilitator can never impose his or her perception of truth on a client.

3. There are times when a facilitator must shift out of neutral to move people out of their stuckness. The key to a successful shift is to remember that it’s not an opportunity for you to vent your frustrations on the stubborn asses you’re dealing with. Remember: it’s not about you.

4. A great facilitator prepares for all possibilities but must remember that the best solutions are invented on the spot through honest dialogue that makes it safe for people to change their minds.

The Hopkins Touch is available for pre-order on Amazon.

"Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England ...

“Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England vis Lisbon today” / World-Telegram photo by Palumbo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)