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The lie of most leadership books

COMMENTARY Leadership books sell. That might explain why most books with "leadership" in the title have nothing to do with leadership. The writers of them delude others, and sometimes themselves, by developing "Leadership Tourette Syndrome" -- dropping the word "leader" or "leadership" in a riff about something completely unrelated to actual leading.

Here's where Leadership Tourette Syndrome, or LTS, goes from being annoying to dangerous. Most companies, as John Kotter observed, are over-managed and under-led. Organizations need real leadership interventions or their problems will get worse fast. See Corporate Culture and Performance by John Kotter and James Heskett for more on the problems of too much management and not enough leadership.

Leadership Tourette Syndrome should not be confused with Tourette Syndrome (TS). TS sufferers have uncontrollable tics, and in extreme cases, verbalize words including phrases that would be offensive in any other setting. TS is a disease and those who suffer from it deserve compassion and understanding. LTS, on the other hand, turns readers and audiences into victims of fraud by selling leadership and delivering something else.

I've come across dozens of companies that have the same symptoms: Lack of a unifying and inspiring direction, a vision that's unclear and/or out of sync with the market, employees who feel they don't know where the company is going, and a general feeling of malaise. This is a malady that can only be solved with leadership. In most cases, they hire a consulting firm that has LTS. The consultants add more systems, processes, tasks, and checklists to the ailing company, while saying it's "leadership." Then employees complain the same problems exist, except now they have more bureaucracy to deal with. The company's death spiral accelerates, even as the consultants promise, "This leadership program will turn things around." The example highlights "management LTS": Offering more management solutions -- probably communicated in lots of binders, PowerPoint files in little, tiny type with lots of bullets, and milestones and implementation plans.

The easiest to spot form of LTS comes from the New Age movement. While enlightened people are talking about interconnection and beauty of all life, and joys of meditation, they pepper in "leaders" and "leadership" as though they were saying "umm" in a conversation. Deepak Chopra, a thoughtful writer in most cases, suffered from LTS when he wrote The Soul of Leadership, which is a wonderful book about meditation and inner wisdom that has almost nothing to do with leadership. A choice line from the book is: "...great leaders are those who can respond to their own needs and the needs of others from the higher levels of spirit with vision, creativity, and a sense of unity with the people they lead." Imagine counseling a CEO with revenue shortfall that the solution could be made better by responding with a higher level of spirit.

Besides New Age Leadership Tourette Syndrome, there are two other common types of LTS:

1. Religious Leadership Tourette Syndrome. John Maxwell's 21 Most Important Minutes in a Leader's Day says: "The same should be true of the people you select. A potential leader who obeys God is in a much better position to succeed than one who ignores God's will for his life." Or hear the LTS in this passage from Stephen Covey's Principle-Centered Leadership: "The ethic of the principle-centered leader is expressed well in the following plea: '...from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth, O God of Truth deliver us.'" Marshall Goldsmith often mixes Buddhism with leadership, just as some mix leadership with Judaism. Religious messages are wonderful. And so is leadership. As long they're not confused -- doing so lessens both.

2. Self-Help Leadership Tourette Syndrome. Brian Tracy's How the Best Leaders Lead proclaims: "The more of a leader you become on the inside, the more effective you will become in all your leadership activities on the outside. You become more of a leader by thinking the same way that top leaders think." This borderline nonsensical phrase is a derivation of the great American success formula: Change your thinking, change your life. Aside from the problem of having the intellectual rigor of a comic book, self-help books do real damage when they are called "leadership."

The problem with each of these is that they often (not always) present their model of leadership as new, all encompassing, and the best possible path. Oh, and they have nothing -- or next to nothing -- to do with real leadership.

Actual leadership doesn't have formulas, checklists, or a step-by-step solution. It does, however, have actions that leaders take after careful consideration.

Leadership readers are prone to LTS because leadership itself is a young field, and doesn't yet have a centuries-tested body of knowledge in the way that medicine or logic does. For that reason, there's the tendency to call all sorts of things leadership that aren't.

Leadership, like most fields, is made richer by people bringing their life lessons from religion, self-help, personal transformation, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience, to the discussion. But when these from-the-fringes insights become the main event, we all have a big problem.

What can you to stop the spread of LTS? First, read great books that lay the groundwork. Good to Great has an exceptional chapter on leadership. The Essential Bennis is my personal favorite, followed closely by John Kotter's Leading Change and Kouzes and Posner's Leadership Challenge.

Second, be a smart consumer and read the biography of the writer. If he or she spent early life in a monastery, read his or her books on religion instead. If they mostly author books on sales, or relationships, you're probably not looking at a leadership book. If their background highlights how many people have come to their courses and doesn't reveal any serious study into leadership, you're probably holding a book whose author suffers from LTS.

Third, look to see if the writer, or the speaker, builds on the past thinking and application of leadership. Would you trust a doctor who ignored centuries of theory, research, and data? We have a name for people who do: "Snake oil salesmen." Use the same care in choosing people to build your leadership capability. I offer a list of specific actions leaders take that is drawn from both scholarship and experience, none of which involve systems or processes, meditating, praying, or changing how you think.

Fourth, post a comment about when you have been exposed to someone with LTS, in the comments section below.

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