First Read Your Textbooks

2 May

The idea of reading a book on leadership has always seemed ironic to me. It seems that following someone else’s ideas on what makes other people good leaders would make you a follower, not a leader, and effectively be exercising the opposite skills you need to focus on in becoming a good leader.  Despite my own initial bias against books of this nature, I decided to attempt objectively reading a few leadership/management books to analyze their arguments in the context of developing leadership skills and characteristics.  In addition a myriad of clichés and attempts to differentiate their conclusions from conventional thought, there are some very curious similarities between leadership books and the teachings of classical psychology.  The differentiating characteristic of former is a notable lack of sound, empirical evidence which led me to the conclusion that leadership books serve little utility that cannot be achieved through study of interpersonal relationships through the lens of social science.

In some common leadership literature, there are many shared themes dealing with what type of characteristics are associated with good leadership and how these characteristics are presented to the reader. For those of you who are unfamiliar with how leadership books are written, here is the gist of it; a leadership book will:

  1. Explain how much research has been done for the book, how there has never been a more extensive survey of such unique professionals, and how the findings of the book are counter to conventional wisdom which oversimplifies the complexities of the professional world
  2. Go on to say how the data was used, sometimes mistaking correlation for causation, not controlling for extraneous variables, and showing other common symptoms of pseudoscience
  3. Come to the same conclusion as you would through conventional wisdom and convey it in an even number of steps using the same oversimplified manner as was previously opposed

Though I am being somewhat facetious, many of these books generally follow this format, and the characteristics they say are important for leadership a have significant overlap between different books and authors. These characteristics are also obvious and similar to characteristics mentioned in various forms of conventional psychology, which author Warren Bennis openly mentions in On Becoming a Leader, presumably to legitimize that the leadership characteristics mentioned in the book as being backed up by science (2003, p. 113).

In the book, Bennis compares the development of leadership skills with Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. For instance, one of Erikson’s steps in development is “identity vs. role confusion” which is stated in a professional context to be a struggle that is reconcilable by means of integrity, or aligning ones actions with his or her publicly stated opinions. “Integrity” is mentioned in every leadership book I have read as an important factor in becoming a leader.

Other recurring themes from leadership books that appear in psychological works include “desire / drive” and “autonomy”, which are mentioned to varying degrees Maslow’s theory of self-actualization. With the parallels between commonly agreed upon leadership characteristics and characteristics used to described a self-actualized individual in the psychological sense, it is conceivable that the best advice on becoming a great leader may be to first develop your sense of self in a professional context, the very way that you developed your sense of self in a more general way earlier in life (assuming you did so in way that enables self-actualization).

Let’s test this out; here are Maslow’s characteristics of self-actualized individuals (pulled from Wikipedia), do they apply to good leaders?:

  • They embrace reality and facts rather than denying truth.
  • They are spontaneous.
  • They are “focused on problems outside themselves.”
  • They “can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings,” are similarly acceptant of others, and generally lack prejudice.


Based on my limited survey of this information, studying psychological theories may be more effective in guiding the development of leadership skills than the conjecture in books on management or leadership. Since the basis for psychology has been long studied and measured, where as much of popular leadership literature is not scientifically derived.

Another piece of seemingly misinformation from leadership literature was in the popular, and best selling book First Break All the Rules. Despite the title First Break All the Rules, the only real, controversial claim in the book is that when guiding professional development, you should not focus on improving weaknesses, while the rest of the book reiterates conventional wisdom in a series of enumerated steps. Unfortunately, of all of the research that was done for the book, none of it did anything to support with this particular claim. I do not doubt that the approach of focusing on ones strengths has worked in some cases for some period of time, but when giving advice to others on what to focus on in professional development, I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to support the claim that one should solely focus on strengths and not improving weaknesses. Quite to the contrary, would you really want to embed in individuals the habit of not wanting to improve their weaknesses?

Following that logic, the author may argue that dogs are talented at destroying furniture and should focus on that natural aptitude. Dogs don’t naturally help the blind walk across crosswalks, identify explosives, or pull sleds; it takes a lot of training and discipline to overcome their natural tendencies. Humanity should be thankful that dogs don’t read self-help books of this nature. Dogs do possess certain physical characteristics that enable them to do these certain jobs better than humans, but they cannot achieve these capabilities without first being trained out of their weaknesses and impulses. It may not even be apparent that dogs would be good at these activities without training first them out of their habits given the complications with human perception.

If there is one thing I learned throughout taking psychology classes, it is that humans notoriously have biased and incomplete perception. Though the analogy is not perfect between dogs and people, taking the parallels into the context of acting as a leader to guide personal development, it is particularly dangerous to presume that you know what people are inherently wired to do, and provide advice based on your own biased perceptions. Focusing on just your strengths alone is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to personal or professional development especially when it relies on subjective, human perception.

The underlying premise of First Break All the Rules, as I see it, is that people have certain tendencies, dispositions, and weaknesses (which the author refers to collectively as “talents”), and the best way to guide them forward is to focus on their strengths, and without an emphasis on improving their weaknesses.

In making the case that some people are innately good at certain things, the author talks about Michael Jordan and how he had a natural talent for basketball almost has he was predestined for playing basketball. “We look at Michael Jordan, swaying and knifing his way to the basket and we know that neither his training nor his dogged determination is the prime source of his brilliance” (1999, p. 71). However, the truth about Michael Jordan is that he was not allowed to play varsity basketball as a sophomore because he was too short at the time, and this motivated him to be better at basketball; seemingly indicated he was not pre-destined to be great at basketball.

This anecdote exposes why the author’s superficial view of these characteristics doesn’t always work. If Michael Jordan were to follow the advice of the author, he would likely make the determination that his characteristics were not a good fit for basketball. One may argue, that the exact inverse is true; and the fact that he didn’t initially fit the mold, and was told that he couldn’t play, was a contributing reason for why he became so good. I’m sure you can look to history to find many cases where adversity has been a primary motivator for accomplishment.

What is good leadership advice then? In the context of defining leadership characteristics, or any type of social development, scientifically sound empiricism trumps anecdotal advice given by so-called experts. My own personal advice is to not buy into what you read (including this blog post) if there is no supporting evidence for the stated opinions, and to act off of a combination of objective data and your own instincts. There is a large body of psychological research that is based on data and is directly applicable to occupational situations; so if you are looking to broaden your view of occupational leadership, it may be more worthwhile to look at leadership through the lens of social science. I would start here:

Bennis, Warren (2003). On becoming a leader.

Buckingham, M., Coffman, C. (1999). First break all the rules.

Self-actualization. In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 15, 2012, from:


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