Where's a Good Book on Leadership When You Need One?

I’ve decided that great books on leadership are like unicorns: a beautiful idea, but — nope, nada, ain’t gonna happen, they just don’t exist. And this is an interesting confession because nothing will make me more likely to pick up a book than the word leadership in the title. (Just to put it in perspective, my daughter gave me the college texts she couldn’t sell back so I could take them to the used book store. I snapped up the two leadership books before they even hit the stack.) 

So, why is it I keep searching for the Holy Grail when I’m convinced it is nothing more than a grail-shaped beacon on the Castle Anthrax? No good answer. But in trying to come to grips with this obsession, it makes a good excuse to think about all the words that get written about leadership. Toward that end, the first thing to realize is that there are three kinds of leadership books out there. Here’s the list:

Worst type: The “How to Supervise” book disguised as a leadership book. These are the books that provide you good (or bad) information on the basics of supervision. No doubt, every good leader has to understand things such as delegation, performance review, communication, interviewing, and the myriad other skills every person who is responsible for other people needs to know to succeed. And the fact that people are hungry for this type of training shows there is a real need for it. However, that ain’t leadership.

Next worst type: The book that is merely a collection of things other people have said or selected studies or any snippets the author can find to help prove the point he has already decided he wants to make. These are often seen in the guise of “The Four or Five or Six Things You Have to Know or Do or Remember to be a Really Nifty Leader.” I recently read a book of this type (the reason I started thinking about books on leadership) and noted it had numerous quotes from civil war histories, biographies of famous people, news sources on recent disasters, psychological studies, and other learned sources. These, of course, supported everything the authors wanted to say (what are the odds?) But, at the end of the day, there were only a few dollops of common sense swimming in verbiage — some of which happened to be a little interesting.

The least bad: The motivational book hiding as a leadership book. These are the ones that are as full of “You can do it” chants as real practical knowledge. Much like the prior type, they are heavy on examples and light on content. And, like the prior type, they may have some good points to remember, but the insights and true value are few and far between.

It should be obvious by this point that the ranking shows my own prejudices. No one is really better or worse than the other. And, now that I think about it, I completely forgot the absolute worst kind of leadership book — the “Airport Book.” This kind of book is 50 pages long with 10 words per page that tries to use a parable or story to prove a profound point. Example: Who Moved My Cheese? It moved many people. It moved me to sell my copy to the used book store. 

So if those are all the bad kinds of leadership books, what are the good ones? We'll explore that, as well as some basic thoughts about leadership training in the next day or so. Y'all come back now, y'hear?


Posted on Oct 12, 2009 by Mike Jacka

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