How to Find Real Value in Leadership Books

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A common year-end tradition is lists of books experts recommend for the coming year. The lists I see invariably include a number of tomes on ways to be a successful business leader. There are plenty of those lists out there so I won’t bore you with yet another one. Instead, here are some thoughts on how you should read those books that purport to make you a better leader and your team so much more successful in the coming year.

It’s not a good idea to just accept the book at face value. Many books available have great content, but some ideas might not be a good fit for you and your team. Here’s an approach that will help you get the most value from what you read.

1. Consider the author’s experience. Do they approach the subject from an academic background or from practical experience? Neither is bad, but you need to understand the author’s bias. The academic approach provides scholarly insight into the subject and probably a broader overall view. Conversely, most academics have precious little, if any practical experience in the subject they research. So, they are primarily relating the work of others. That’s not all bad, just keep it in mind. On the other hand, some books are written by authors who have a history of leadership experience, but no real academic background in the subject. Their books usually offer actionable advice based on situations they personally experienced. However, their treatment of the subject may be narrower as they are primarily looking at the matter only from their point of view.

2. Read to discover how the author’s hypothesis or idea can work for your team, not how your team can be fit into the author’s idea. Let me explain.

During my service in the Air Force, we embraced the concept of Total Quality Management or TQM, created by W. Edwards Deming. While I’m not a fan of Deming or TQM, I do admit there were good features in the TQM approach. The problem is that Deming’s success occurred in post-war Japan, a very different culture than the late 20th century U.S. military. In trying to implement TQM we ignored deeply ingrained military cultural norms. The result was senior leaders who became frustrated and discarded the whole program.

Of course experts don’t want you to pick only parts of their suggestions. They’ll tell you their idea must be implemented in its entirety, but that’s seldom the case. Instead of trying to fit your team into the author’s mold, take useful information and apply it to your team’s situation.

3. Understand that the concepts don’t always work, but that often is not the fault of the concept. In Good to Great, Jim Collins presented substantial research demonstrating how certain leadership principles resulted in very successful companies. Unfortunately, several of those great companies went bankrupt or disappeared entirely after the book was published. That doesn’t mean the concepts presented in the book were bad. Rather situations and/or leaders changed. Collins addresses the issue in a sequel, How the Mighty Fall. This shouldn’t be a problem if you follow suggestion number two.

4. Remember, there is very little, if anything that is new in the realm of leadership. I often cite Cyrus the Great as depicted in Xenophon’s biography, written in the 5th century BC, as an example. Cyrus was the leader who united the Persian Empire and conquered an area from India to the Mediterranean. He was an enlightened leader for the day and his leadership style, as depicted by Xenophon, is still applicable today, though without the bloodshed. Leadership principles are not new, and authors who suggest they are should be read cautiously. But ways to apply leadership technique may be new.

I hope you’ll find some good books to read. Happy New Year!

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