I have a confession to make. Even though leadership is my passion, I really don’t enjoy reading new books on leadership for one simple reason – most of them are garbage. I believe it's my responsibility to try to stay current on what's being written, but it’s rare for me to read a leadership book that teaches me something radically new. The titles are provocative and they come impressively packaged, but most of what’s written inside is either anecdotal fluffy crapola or repackaged evidence that’s been around for a long time.
Two of my favorite no-nonsense authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, point this out in their 2006 book entitled Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-truths, & Total Nonsense. They quote the great James March “Most claims of originality are testimony to ignorance and most claims of magic are testimony to hubris” (p. 45). Alas, rumors of the death of the thriving market for ignorance and hubris are greatly exaggerated.
I strongly concur with Pfeffer and Sutton’s assertion that “those of us that hawk business knowledge need to come clean” (p. 46). And those of us that review these business books need to hold the authors to a higher standard.
I reviewed a book yesterday and recommended it because I loved the message, but it was hardly novel, and I took the author to task for not acknowledging that others like Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner had written similar stuff long ago. I got an e-mail from a reader that respectfully suggested that it was unfair and unrealistic to expect the author to be familiar with the work of Kouzes and Posner.
Excuse me? The book The Leadership Challenge was originally published in 1987 and is now in its 4th edition. It is the gold standard of an evidence-based approach to contemporary leadership philosophy. Anyone that endeavors to write a book on leadership that is not familiar with this book and a few other classics betrays even the most basic principles of professionalism.
We don’t need any more leadership gurus. We need more folks that will hold themselves accountable for raising the bar out of passion for the subject and respect for the reader. Pfeffer and Sutton quote Russell Ackoff:
Gurus provide ready-made solutions, but educators provide ways that one can find solutions for oneself…The output of a guru is a closed system of thought, closed to external influences and not subject to change; the output of an educator is an open system of thought, open to external influences and subject to change. (p. 46).
We need more leaders educated in leadership. Not meaning that they have a certificate or advanced degree, but that they love the discipline so much that they have devoted the time and effort to learn about and better appreciate its heritage. Guruship creates dependency; leadership liberates.