Leadership Guru Reality Check

May 29, 2011

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.

Related Posts:

Everything Old Is New Again…And Again…And Again

Good Boss, Bad Boss: My Interview With Bob Sutton

Book Review: Power By Jeffrey Pfeffer

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Comments (14)

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  1. Jesse Stoner says:

    Well said, Bret! For myself, if a book is not presenting something new or explaining it in a new way, I’d rather read the original. When building on someone else’s work, citing the original source is more than just a courtesy. Imitation is supposed to be a source of flattery, but I am not flattered when I see my material presented by someone else as if it were their own. I am dismayed.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Jesse! So many of these new books are really disingenuous. It seems authors have stopped even trying to live up to standards of professional courtesy by knowing where others have gone before them and giving credit. It reeks of hubris. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  2. Jim Taggart says:

    I’m totally with you on this subject, Bret. One measure of a good leadership or management book is its shelf life. Too many end up in the recyling bin. The Leadership Challenge is one of my favorites. Amazing (perhaps bizarre is a better word) comment from one of your readers.

    One point I’ll make with respect to the noteworthy writers on leadership is their propensity to produce new editions on essentially the same stuff. Even Kouzes and Posner (as well as such luminaries as Kotter, Drucker and even Mintzberg) have done this).

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    You bring up a fair point, Jim, about reproducing old material. I think that’s driven by publishers and a drive to make money. I find it very interesting that Peter Senge never followed up his remarkable book with a river of publications. He had a few, but they are good and certainly will stand the test of time. Deming too only published a few, but they are classics. Thanks! Bret

    Jim Taggart Reply:

    While writing my reply, I had Senge in the back of my mind. Thanks for noting this.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Senge’s work had an profoundly important impact on my thinking, but even I would not call him a guru. Thanks, Jim.

  3. Beth says:

    Hi Bret,

    I agree with your condemnation of authors who use recycled material without attribution. I just wonder whether those who seem to do so are always consciously guilty of it.

    After all, evidence-based means based on observable behavior. And people have been observing each other for a very long time.

    On subjects that involve human nature, I suspect that there probably hasn’t been an actual original uncovering of new truth since the times of the ancients. There’s merely been a lot of re-expressing it and reformatting it to suit the current culture (and to refute the same bad observations and incorrect conclusions which constantly seem to pop up in every age, too, but that’s another subject).

    On the topics of leadership and influence, many of us develop strategic concepts through our own personal observation, sparked by the exigencies of life, and proven through dogged trial and error. Our resulting breakthroughs help us craft life road maps for problem-solving, some of which have broad application and predictably good results. We may then feel like sharing them in print. These hard-won concepts will probably mirror others’ similar conclusions just because truth is truth, however it is first identified, and whatever experiential wrapper it comes in.

    Still, when writing a book that purports to supply others with a road map for solutions, it seems like one of the first steps should be to find out who else has also mapped that same stretch of road, if only to compare their cartography with yours.

    If I ever do write any one of the dozen or so books that I’m constantly threatening to write, I plan to devote many a Google search to making sure I’m advancing a valuable thought pathway for my readers, not just shadowing someone else.

    Part of the fun of patrolling your site, Bret, is the frequency with which I get the bemused shock of discovering that I’m not the first person who has noticed some crazy thing about humans and developed a way to respond to it productively. We are all prone to spontaneous brilliance that way, and we owe ourselves (and as authors we owe our readers) that endearing acknowledgment. In fact, I believe that those of us who are further along in understanding how the dots connect have an obligation to the youngsters to discourage the conclusion that any one human can have a monopoly on ultimately universal principles.

    So I agree that authors would do well to acknowledge where, and from whom, their building-block ideas come from. This will work much better for them in the end than nurturing the lie that they are the inventors of truth.

    One more oxymoronic thought; If two hallmarks of great leadership are trust and humility, wouldn’t we conclude that authors who appropriate time-honored leadership wisdom and present it in leadership books as their own leadership strategy are actually demonstrating lack of trust and lack of humility — meaning that they not such great leaders after all?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Well I’m very glad you visit here and comment with frequency, Beth! I don’t think these authors fail to cite the work of others with malice, I just think its sloppy professionalism and a bit of hubris to think you could write a book without bothering to listen to what others have already said. That’s how we move knowledge forward, to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, we are just selling books and consulting services. Thanks! Bret

  4. Wally Bock says:

    Thanks for this post, Bret. I think there are two parts to it that deserve separate comment

    You make a point that there’s not enough recognition of the work that’s gone before. Sometimes that’s accidental and non-malicious, as you suggest. Sometimes it’s not. I’ve seen authors inadvertently include the works of others and I always assume that’s the case, unless there’s substantial evidence to the contrary. But I’ve also had my own material lifted in a block from a blog post or book and republished under someone else’s name. There are people who steal ideas, presentation and credit, just as there are those who steal candy and wristwatches.

    There’s also the issue of a leadership canon, the books and other writings you should expect a writer to be familiar with. The Leadership Challenge is surely one of those. I’d add Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive and Jim Collins’ Good to Great. There are others, too. They’re easy to recognize because other writers quote them or allude to them. Those writers deserve recognition and thanks. No less an intellect than Sir Isaac Newton said: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent points, Wally. I also think some authors truly believe all the thoughts they have are original, strokes of enlightened genius from “years working with top executives of global companies.” That’s hubris. But for some reason folks love that stuff, as if it is too much work to immerse oneself in at least some of the heritage of the field. Ugh. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Bruce Lynn says:

    I hear you. I think the weakness in all these leadership guru books are that they are just taking old concepts they were taught in school and dressing them in new, gimmicky clothes. Sometimes I think they just phone it in.

    This BNET piece (by one of my favourite business bloggers Geoffrey James) is a bit harsh but cheekily underscores your point – http://www.bnet.com/blog/salesmachine/the-10-worst-business-books-of-all-time/11814.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I just wish they would come clean and admit where they are building on the work of others. But if you don’t know the work of others, I suppose that is impossible! Thanks, Bret

  6. What I wrote for my network: Must read. Anyone who can write “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…” has a vote from me. There are enough ideas. Can we now just start holding our leaders and ourselves accountable for actually executing what we KNOW to be effective best practices? How many more flavours of the month can there possibly be?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Clemens. Bob Sutton points out that the gap between knowing and doing is larger than the gap between ignorance and knowledge. I concur. Thanks! Bret