Books on Leadership - Part II
As you may recall, we left off with the following question, "So those are all the bad kinds of leadership books, what are the good ones?"
Bad news on that one. There isn’t necessarily a “good” type of leadership book. You see, the make or break for any leadership book is really the reader. That means the best kind of leadership book is the one that actually gives one individual reader insights on how to lead: that helps that individual understand how to change, that motivates that individual to change, and that makes an impact on the way that individual works with people. Put it another way: Every person is going to have a different “best” leadership book. For me, the Tom Peters’ books fill that bill (which you probably guessed if you’ve read any previous posts; and I quickly acknowledge that many people put these firmly in the third type — least bad — listed in my previous blog.) For others, it is a discussion of what to do with all that moving cheese.
And this is the trap one falls into when trying to define a “good” leadership book — I already have a fundamental belief in the soap that Peters is selling, so does reading his book create a real change in the way I lead or just re-emphasize the leader I already am? As an executive at our company once said (paraphrase), “No one wants to change their leadership style. It got them to where they are today, so why change it?” In other words, while people may go into leadership books with the best of intentions, most only want reinforcement that what they are already doing is the correct leadership approach. Each reader comes in pretending to want seismic change, but actually is just looking to reinforce pre-existing attitudes. And each reader then defines a “good” leadership book through the lens of his or her own myopia.
It becomes quickly obvious that one person’s successful leadership book is another person’s door stop. The previously mentioned Cheese book is a great case in point. A executive in one company read this book and it resonated so completely with him it became required reading throughout the company. For some it worked, for some it didn’t, and for some it was just another chance to suck up.
This all finally leads us (no pun intended) to the realization that a successful leadership book is the one that leads readers to an epiphany about themselves or about leadership in general. For the Cheese leader, the epiphany came from reading the Cheese book. Just because it did not resonate with me does not mean his understanding and realizations were any less profound. All he was trying to do was share that epiphany and make everyone a better leader. And leadership training (which is what leadership books are all about) is really just about trying to share an epiphany. For me, my epiphanies have come from Tom Peters and training with the Disney Institute. And much of the leadership training I’ve provided is my attempt to have others experience those same epiphanies. To some people, my training is successful, to others … well … maybe not so much.
But that is the curse of leadership training, the fact that the whole concept of trying to train leaders is really crazy. As much as we want to believe that everyone has the ability to be a leader, it is not true. There is such a thing as a natural-born leader. And there are people who have the basic abilities of leadership. And for those people, the training and reading and studying about how to be a leader will make them better. But there are also people who couldn’t lead their way to sand while on the beach. And all the training and reading and studying in the world is wasted on those who do not have the skills. It’s like the old joke about teaching a pig to sing — all you do is annoy the pig. I know this is not a popular attitude, I know we are supposed to believe that everyone can do everything, but I ask you to be honest. (Not about yourself, but about others.) We all know people who, no matter how much “leadership” training they are subjected to, will only become irate pigs.
Which leads to the final point — there really is no such thing as leadership training. There is only the task of reminding people what the appropriate skills are, of helping them come to grips with the way they lead, and (few and far between) providing true insight into different ways to approach leadership.
And that is why there is no such thing as a “good” leadership book, and why leadership books are seldom of value. But that won’t stop me. I’ll keep reading them — looking for the one point that will make a difference, hoping to gain that one insight that will help others, and searching for that Holy Grail.
And, at the risk of setting yourself up for ridicule, what do you consider the really good leadership books out there?
Posted on Oct 14, 2009 by Mike Jacka
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