Thursday, February 11, 2010

How Leadership Books Kill People

It’s 9AM at 35,000 feet. The captain requests that we fasten our seat belts as we fly over the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I’m flying to Atlanta to teach another five-day leadership class with my colleagues from Emory University. As I gaze at the endless snow-capped mountains stretching toward the heavens, I am struck at how brief my small life is on this planet.

Oh my God, I think! Tears well up as suddenly I feel the weight of the mountains on my slumped shoulders. The leaders I teach this week are going to actually use their brief time on this planet applying my ideas. What an enormous responsibility! Dear Lord, please help me make sure that what I teach this week improves their lives when they get back to work.

As I write these words, tears well up once again. The sands of time are slipping through your hourglass. You have chosen to spend them reading this article and, if I do my job well, use these ideas with others. I feel a huge responsibility to share only those leadership tools, tips, and techniques that will actually work for you.

ShootingLincolnj0149884jpgMost leadership books and articles do not take this approach. They are written opinions of coaches, consultants, or former executives. Of course, there is nothing wrong with reading their opinions if you want to spend your brief time on this planet trying untested ideas.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely how most leadership books and blogs kill people, and put organizations out of business.

How Leadership Books Kill
Imagine your boss invites you into her office and asks you to find a great book on leadership. She tells you that she is going to use ideas from them to teach a new leadership class on “how leaders conquer today's tough challenges and reach their goals.” She explains that just as a physician must find the best treatment to cure a sick patient, you need to find the best resource to help her leaders.

Where would you look? If you searched books on, the word “leadership” would yield 381,556 titles. How would you decide which one to recommend to your boss? More importantly, what criteria would you use to select a great book?

If we stay with your boss’s medical analogy for a second we might ask ourselves, how does a physician decide which treatment is best? Having conducted medical research for several years and been a healthcare executive, I can tell you that the best physicians base the majority of their decision on ‘evidence’ - what research says really works. Why? Because the essence of science is prediction. When an excellent physician recommends a treatment or writes a prescription, he is predicting that the patient will get better based on the evidence from years of scientific research, filtered by experience. Spending your precious time and money on leadership books or articles that are not fact-based is like going to a doctor who prescribes medication that he cooks up in the back room. The medication may help, but it also may kill.

It’s the same with most leadership books. They are usually based on the experiences of the author. They lack the facts to predict that you and your organization will get better if you take their “prescription.” Of course, you can read books that don't have the research to back up their prediction and see if what the author recommends produces results for you. That's called experimentation (via trial and error). Yet that’s how leadership books and blogs kill! How much time, energy, and resources do you and your people have to conduct experiments? What if your competitors are applying proven, fact-based ideas with high predictive value while you spend time trying the next ‘flavor-of-the-month’ fad?

There are in fact two things, science and opinion;
the former begets knowledge, the later ignorance.


A Fact-based Blog That Gets Results
In their excellent book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, Professors Pfeffer and Sutton cite numerous examples of the high cost of not using research as you lead others. They recommend that you base your leadership practices on the best evidence (i.e., facts), not what is in vogue. (1)

I’ve taken their advice in order to make the best use of the grains of sand slipping through your hourglass. My articles are a summary of hundreds of scientific studies and well-researched books on leadership that gets results. I’ve combined these academic findings with stories about my successes and failures as a leader (I’m a former chief administrative officer) and educator (I’ve taught and/or coached about 10,000 global leaders over the past 15 years). Reading these articles is like embarking on a journey where only predictive and practical leadership tools that have been studied under the microscope of science and confirmed in the corridors of the corporation are revealed.

Have you seen anyone killed by leadership books or articles?

Keep eXpanding,

1. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton; Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts, 2006, page 41.

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