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The End of Leadership Development?

28 Feb

I have a radical hypothesis. I think it’s possible that the real reason leadership development (LD) programs fail is because we don’t actually need them. Now, experts would have us believe that there are tactical reasons why our LD efforts fail (see here), but I suspect that a small problem got worse when we created an industry around it. For someone like me, who makes a living on being a LD expert, this isn’t easy to admit. But, like any addiction, the first step to recovery is accepting that we have a problem. Let me explain.

Leadership development is a $170 billion dollar industry with organizations spending about $14 billion annually (see here and here). This investment isn’t surprising given our need for new forms of leadership to cope with the increasing globalization and technological change (here). In fact, going back to the 1940’s, LD has always been about teaching individuals how to adapt to their environment (here). Fast forward to today, 70 years later, and we are starting to realize that our billions might not be buying us very much.

Recent studies found that only about 25% of organizations think their leadership development programs are effective (here). Additionally, leadership quality ratings, which have never been very high, have not improved since 2006. In fact, only 18% of HR professionals feel their companies have the quality of leaders needed to run their companies three years out (here). It gets worse because organizations with the worst LD programs spent 60% more money on them (here). Even if you are highly skeptical of these statistics and you exclude any single report, the collective data tells a compelling story: the quality of leaders isn’t great and leadership development isn’t helping.

What is happening? Well, I think the problem starts with our assumptions about leadership. Our management model comes directly from the industrial revolution. Despite all of the technological innovations that have occurred in the last 100 years, management technology, if we can think of it as a technology, is out of date. Like the combustion engine, it’s a technology that has largely stopped evolving. Our command-and-control management is being radically challenged by decentralization, free agency, and mobile technologies (read this, this, this, this, and maybe this too). These changes require us to radically rethink LD itself. In short, I think we should do four things:

  • Focus on performance support. Performance support tools that give access to internal databases and reports might not be as sexy as a three-day retreat, but putting the most relevant information in employee’s hands at the right time will do a lot for leadership performance…even if it means we are less involved. In fact, my research on mobile leadership development (see here) shows that performance support currently makes up about 96% of all mobile leadership apps. I would expect that trend to extend beyond mobile applications.
  • Maximize traditional approaches. Despite the hype about e-learning and mobile learning, traditional face-to-face programs won’t go away (see here). Programs are more than just gaining information. They provide access to new networks, structured learning environments, and career-advancing credentials. All of which are inherent advantages over e-learning platforms. And if performance support tools replace some skill-based training, in-person programs can leverage their natural advantages.
  • Teach new leadership models. The nature of leadership is changing and we to tell people. The rise of the “network leader” shifts power to the person who is most relevant not the person with the most formal authority (see here). Everyone will need personal branding, knowledge management, and iterative project management skills. These new competencies can support the development of others. Just like an evolutionary algorithm, they are self-perpetuating practices that get us out of trying to predict what employees need to know.
  • Embed developmental processes. Take a play from the iterative approaches like Design Thinking, Agile development, and Lean Start-up and focus on adaptation. This shift from programs to processes means less reliance on LD programs, because individuals and teams have embedded learning processes. Examples of these include GE’s Workout process, the Army’s After Action Reviews, and Integrative Decision Making. By embedding learning processes into the DNA of the organization or team, leadership development becomes an implicit part of the work itself.

Globalization and technology are radically changing the nature of leadership and learning. We need to make some big adjustments and I think it’s possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is not just to create new programs, but to change our assumptions about LD itself.

The End of Leadership Development: From the Factory to the Greenhouse

22 Jan

I have a radical hypothesis. Is it possible that the real reason why leadership development programs fail is because we don’t actually need them? Is it possible that we’ve inserted ourselves into a process that we have no business in? Traditional experts would like you to believe that there are all sorts of tactical reasons why our efforts to create better leaders fails (see here), but I’m starting to suspect that was once a small problem got a lot worse when the leadership development industry got created. Let me explain.


Organizational boundaries are like glass. Employees can see right through them. They will stay only if its a good place to grow.

The best metaphor I can come up with for the future workplace is a greenhouse. Our current management model comes from the industrial revolution in which managers focused on improving the factory’s efficiency. Even today, many companies still focus on efficiency and logistics. They measure, measure, measure, and write reports and we analyze and predict. People are getting really excited about Big Data in HR and the truth is….it’s all bullshit (well it may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient). OK, maybe it’s not ALL bullshit, but it’s mostly bullshit. It’s rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure that chair might be out of place and sure we might be about to measure the exact layout of the deck and the size of the chairs and come up with an optimum layout, but we would be missing the big problem…our ship is sinking.

The big problem for us is simply that human beings (and even more so social systems) are inherently chaotic and non-linear. Therefore, we simply cannot accurately predict or control how they will behave. No doubt you’ve heard, “a butterfly flaps its wings in New York and there is a hurricane in Japan,” or some variation. The point is simply that we shouldn’t blame the butterfly for the hurricane. In fact, there would be absolutely no way of ever making that connection empirically (see Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, 2006). And yet, people seem to have a real problem with acknowledging this in our work (known in philosophy as the problem of induction). Now, on a psychological level, we are all prone to make these inductive errors in judgment, but for precisely this reason we should be very careful about assuming the precision of our models. What does all of this mean for our work? Well, a few things.

Evolution of a young plant

We can do lots of things, but we can’t make a plant grow. Only the right conditions and time can do that.

We don’t MAKE the plants grow. We simply set the conditions for them to grow and hopefully they grow. As Woody Allen said, “’Only God can make a tree,’ probably because it’s so hard to figure out how to get the bark on.” People are organic. Social systems are chaotic. Why in the world would we perpetuate the myth that we have any control over the learning or leadership process? It happens or it doesn’t happen, but we don’t micromanage it. All we can do is set the conditions for it to happen. We already know that most learning is informal and yet we keep pretending as if it wasn’t. Or if our little bit of formal learning (maybe 10%?) is actually really, really, really important. Managers, HR professionals, and learning “experts,” have been trying to interject themselves into the organic process because they want to get credit. If more people thought about this, then we could tackle the whole notion of corporate training and development in a completely new and more effective (and empowering way).

Think in terms of effectiveness not efficiency. I have come to hate the word “efficiency.” I used to think that effectiveness came first (you got something done) and then you worked on being efficient (you got the same thing done with less resources). It seems that most people still think this way (or at least the good ones, the bad ones don’t even realize the difference or the necessary sequence). The problem is that reality doesn’t work like that. At least not outside of highly structured mechanical systems (efficiency is important when you are talking about engineering problems, but organic systems are so focused on survival that they don’t have much time left over for discussions about efficiency). So, given this, I’d like to ban the word from our vocabulary. Certainly there is a lot of talk from the innovation and start-up community about “lean” approaches. I actually love these approaches, but by how I define the terms, they are actually focused on effectiveness not efficiency. In the real world, if you are playing the game to win, you never actually get a chance to move past effectiveness; the rules and the structures of social systems are never static or consistent.


Individuals want exactly what they want. Can’t provide that kind of learning customization? We know. Instead focus on what you can provide.

There is a move towards extreme personalization. I’ve been noticing this trend for years, but this really jumped out at me when I was doing my mobile leadership development research. As organizations integrate more and more information and more and more users they risk becoming more and more depersonalized. If the employees are now in the driver seat, then it isn’t enough to say, “Hey 90% of employees liked this,” because the other 10% are going to feel left out. This means that we need to focus more on building conditions that allow a variety of different individuals to flourish. One of the biggest problems with competencies is that they aren’t personalized. We err on the side of the organization rather than the employee. We need to create learning platforms that allow for the greatest personalization not the greatest “efficiency” (which I shall henceforth call, “the E word”). The greenhouse will allow the greatest number of employee to flourish. They will still need pruning and some won’t make it, but that’s the whole point. We’ll have more energy to focus on the gardening and less on trying to make the plants grow (which only the Universe can do). This also has big implications for technology, but I won’t get into that here.

The problem of induction can be moderated by approaching learning and leadership from the greenhouse, not the factory. I’m seeing more and more talk about Big Data in HR and I think this is a good example of where I think we are going wrong. Fundamentally, we can’t predict or control people, but that doesn’t mean that we should double-down on the “mechanical, linear, conventional, positivist, quantification, measurement-obsessed” approach. I think we need to realize that the solution requires a new type of thinking (other than the one that got us into this mess). A type of thinking that not only recognizes that we don’t know, but that we CAN’T know.


Big data is fascinating, but Moneyball approaches don’t apply to non-game systems. Even if they did, it’s not like baseball got rid of all their scouts.

Our models are always going to be hilariously inaccurate and yet we keep making predictions about hiring and performance (and almost everything in politics, finance, etc.) and we keep being wrong. I don’t think the solution is to keep coming up with new ways of predicting, but to take a sober look at our deep (and faulty) epistemological assumptions and move forward from there. We can make the situation better, but not by furthering the illusion that we have control (we don’t want that kind of responsibility anyway). This belief in turn actually makes us and our clients more vulnerable. In our lust for efficiency we seek out and destroy the types of redundancy and chaos that all organic systems need to survive and grow. The “Moneyball” approach might help with some small issues, but baseball still finds itself in the same situation it did before (Sabermetrics introduced a new tool, but didn’t solve the real problem). So, we can look at Big Data in HR and I’m sure we will learn some things. Awesome. There is no doubt that these analytics will become new standards, but while they may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Like the deckchairs, analytics isn’t going to solve the real problem. When we recognize that we can’t predict, we actually liberate ourselves. We have more energy and focus on the things that we can control.

We don’t make the plants grow and we don’t make someone a better leader. All we can do is set the conditions. Just because something can be learned doesn’t mean that it can be taught. Individuals have to figure things out for themselves. We should focus on providing the requisite structure and tools…and then leave well enough alone. I’m not advocating for nihilism, but a radical shift in how we think about our role in the change process.


The world’s medical experts used to believe in bloodletting.

Did you know that the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, is iatrogenesis? What is this horrible word? It means the preventable harm caused by medical treatment. Think about that for a second. That means that we are killing roughly 220,000 people a year in our attempts to make them better. In fact, some medical historians have claimed that our medical treatments have only recently starting saving more people than they were killing. And it makes me wonder if this kind of arrogance comes from a discipline whose first principle is “do no harm,” then what kind of harm can we perpetuate in leadership development when we don’t even have that Hippocratic foundation? Is it possible that we are actually making leadership problems worse? Is it possible that the solution to our leadership challenges is actually to get rid of leadership development?

The Rise of the Informational Democracy

11 Jan

image (3)

Knowledge is power.
Collectively, employees have more knowledge than leadership. 
Employees have the power.

Last year I wrote a blog post about 25 growing trends in learning technology and in that post I mentioned “democratization.” I’ve come to believe that the democratization of the workplace is the single most important trend to understand. I am calling this trend the rise of the “informational democracy” and it radically shifts the power away from traditional experts and traditional authority. The trend is building so much steam that you can’t throw a rock anywhere and not hit it, so I’ll just say a few things briefly.

First, employees no longer rely on experts and leaders for information. Employees will include them, but they don’t need them. “Information is power,” and employees’ access to information and communication means that they can organize and adapt outside of a traditional organizational structure. Moreover, modern history has shown us that information lends itself towards democratization (Kellerman, 2012), which is why rigid power structures always seek to control information above all else. I see this trend impacted our work in several immediate ways.

  • Management will become more like an administrative function. Today, we see managers as leaders and admin professionals as lowly support staff. In reality, managers have worked for their employees for a while now, they just didn’t realize it. The informational democracy will force their eyes open. Most of our leadership theory is based on history, but these need to make way for truly modern adaptations. As Gary Hamill (2007) says, despite how the world has changed in the last few decades, there haven’t been any “management innovations” to keep up. Barbara Kellerman (2012) calls this, “the end of leadership.” I agree and I think there are some things that we can do to get ahead of the curve.
  • Relevance will replace status. In a networked democracy, influence will be bestowed upon those with the most relevance. The free market of ideas and opinions means that managers no longer have a monopoly on information. In the free market, influence goes to the person with the most connections (ala Google’s Page Rank, social media analytics, etc.), not the person with the most “expertise” or “authority.” This means that the myth of the individual leader will likely start to break down as it makes way for systems approaches, which treat every individual as nodes in a large system of influence. Given this, we can start helping people “nodify” themselves.
  • The nature of corporate learning is changing. We need to start producing content that serves the employees rather than content that is just convenient to make. We keep making the same courses again and again, when we all know that most of these courses are cobbled together scraps of things some ISD grabbed from the internet. Using mobile technology as a metaphor, we need to think about the user’s consumption. Small. Bite-sized. Easy to access. There will still be a place for formal trainings (see “Consider the Spandrels” in my next post), but it’s not necessarily because of the learning benefits. If more people were to really understand what is going on with the informational democracy (and that it might be over-hyped in the short term….but it is definitely under-hyped in the long term…) we could get ahead of the biggest change in organizations we’ve ever seen.

To be clear, I am not rosy-eyed about distributed leadership as a way to avoid any sense of hierarchy. In fact, my opinion is that we likely need more unilateral decision making and far LESS consensus. But we can distribute that unilateral decision making in a much more appropriate and effective way. This is one of the reasons why I am pursing a certification in Holacracy, which is just a new type of “social technology,” which seems to be working well (it’s been getting more attention lately because Zappos just adopted it). I’m not saying that Holacracy is THE answer; I’m just saying that it represents one way of adapting leadership and learning to the informational democracy.

Hopefully, there will be many others. The informational democracy actually changes so many things about the way we do our work that I struggle to put everything into a linear story. The essence is that we should all be prepared to keep our bourgeois sensibilities in check. When everyone has our information, then it isn’t nearly as valuable. And we can fight the waves of change for only so long. Far better to prepare ourselves to ride the wave as it comes in.

Leadership and Vulnerability

6 Dec

I read a lot of books. Most of them are good. Some are crap. Some are amazing. When I read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown I marked it down in a new category; “life changing.” Among the many great insights she provides about the power of vulnerability, I wanted to share this nugget because it is specifically about leadership.



The Courage to be Vulnerable

I recently game a talk at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. The program, which pairs thirty-five to forty elite undergraduate students with mentors and offers comprehensive business training, is ranked as the leading undergrad entrepreneurship program in the United States. I was asked to talk to the students about vulnerability and the power of story.

During the Q&A session after my talk, one of the students asked me a question that I’m sure is often on the minds of people when I talk about vulnerability. He said, “I can see how vulnerability is important, but I’m in sales and I don’t get what that looks like. Does being vulnerable mean that if a customer asks me a question about a product and I don’t know the answer, I just say what I’m thinking: ‘I’m new and I really don’t know what I’m doing?'”

The students, who were all turned around listening to him, turned back in their chairs and looked at me as if to say, “Yeah, that seems lame. Are we really suppose to do that?”

My answer was no. And yes. In that scenario vulnerability is recognizing and owning that you don’t know something; it’s looking the customer in the eye and saying, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out. I want to make sure you have the correct information.” I explained that the unwillingness to engage with the vulnerability of not knowing often leads to making excuses, dodging the question, or – worst-case scenario- bullshitting. That’s the deathblow in any relationship, and the one thing I’ve learned from talking to people who sell for a living is that sales is all about relationships…

…In business school, faith communities – any system, even families – we can tell a lot about how people engage with vulnerability by observing how often and how openly you hear people saying:

I don’t know

I need help

I’d like to give it a shot

It’s important to me

I disagree – can we talk about it?

It didn’t work, but I learned a lot

Yes, I did it

Here’s what I need

Here’s how I feel

I played a part in that

I accept responsibility for that

I’m here for you

I want to help

Let’s move on

I’m sorry

That means a lot to me

Thank you

For leaders, vulnerability often looks and feels like discomfort. In his book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin writes, “Leadership is scarce because few people are willing to go through the discomfort required to lead. This scarcity makes leadership valuable…It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. Its uncomfortable to resit the urge to settle. When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.”

As I looked over the data and read through my notes from the interviews I’ve done with leaders, I wondered what students would say to teachers and what teachers would say to their principals if they had the opportunity to ask for the leadership they needed. I wondered what the customer service representative would say to his boss and what she might ask of her boss. What do we want people to know about us and what do we need from them?

As I started writing down the answers to these questions, I realized that they sounded like a mandate; a manifesto. Here’s what emerged from these questions:

The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto

To the CEOS and teachers. To the principals and the managers. To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:

We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire. We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement. We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute. We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous. When learning and working are dehumanized – when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform – we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.

What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us. Feedback is a function of respect; when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunities for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.

Above all else, we ask that you show up, let yourself be seen, and be courageous. Dare greatly with us.

-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly (pages 206-207, 210-212)

As leaders too often we lead with our head and not our hearts. We come off as rational and cold. We say all the right things, but somehow just don’t seem to connect or inspire people. We keep our guard up, we deflect, we rationalize, and we bullshit. We scheme the politics and our relationships. We don’t want to be seen trying. We manage our image and our reputation. And the whole time we think we’re being clever. The truth is we are scared to death. We are scared of being judged. We are scared of showing up and just being ourselves. We’re scared of being seen. Fearless on the outside and scared to death on the inside. Why would others trust us when we don’t even trust ourselves?

To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.


This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.


Getting Back to the Basics of Instructional Design

20 Nov

When I’m asked to consult on program design, I bring with me a set of basic assumptions about how people learn. In this video I describe four ways to get back to the basics of instructional design by remembering that…

1) Role modeling is the most powerful way to teach people how to do something.

2) The medium is the message. The content and the way you teach the content must be aligned.

3) You must create a safe and supportive learning environment.

4) Be honest and address reality head-on.

10 Awful Leadership Models

25 Mar

I love crappy ideas and apparently other people do to. Leadership in particular is an area that seems to get a lot of attention. Maybe these hucksters think they can make a quick buck by selling a few books. Maybe they just think so little of leadership that they’re willing to brand it on anything. Whatever the reason, I find this leadership models disturbing and hilarious. Here are my top ten.

The author is given credit for admitting that the approach is “light-hearted” and for putting a graphic description right up front. As Novak explains, there are five elements to the model; the captain, the crew, the mission, the strategy, and the treasure. What I love most is that the entire book is filled with mysterious numbered lists. Lists like, “the four characteristics of an effective captain,” or, “the three principles of pirate strategy.” None of which seem to be connected to any larger conceptual framework (other than numerology). The whole thing reads like a series of leadership platitudes interspersed with lines from Pirates of the Caribbean. Favorite quote: “Do you know what is more powerful than cannon, cutlass, or pistol? Reputation. Aye, reputation.” (page 34). Read this if your ideal manager wears an eye patch and expects you to sit on his shoulder and repeat everything he says.

Part self-help fluff and part personality theory, Watkins capitalizes on our obsession with seeing human qualities in animals (and vice versa). His four “power animals” the bear, the wolf, the eagle, and the horse, comprehensively catalog and summarize the wide diversity of human traits, personality, behaviors, beliefs, skills, perspectives, contexts, and motivations. I won’t get into some of the more technical problems with these descriptions since it clearly isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. Favorite line: “The bear does not have the capabilities that allow it to communicate clearly. It is making decisions on the fly as to whether or not it needs to leave a situation, threaten severe consequences, or actually bring down the hammer. In the bear’s defense, even when they do maul people they rarely kill.” (page 13-14). There is little value here especially if one has successfully graduated from the 7th grade (or equivalent). Read this if you want to make the author’s grandmother feel like his career decisions weren’t “a delusional mistake.”

Jessamyn West once said, “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures,” and it when it comes to leadership theory it seems that some people would prefer to study imaginary people rather than real leaders. As with all of these models, there is some wisdom – some old wine in new HBO-branded wine skins, but the question then comes to mind: what was wrong with the old wine skins? Is the study of interpersonal and group dynamics just too boring? More than anything, this book is clearly an interpretive exercise for the author rather than a guide for questions about leadership. Favorite line: “I’m sure I would react skeptically if I heard about a book called Bart Simpson on Leadership or The Leadership Secrets of Ally McBeal.” (page xxvii). *please note the irony. Read this is you want something to plagiarize for your high school essay that you can be sure no one else will have read.

To be honest, this one isn’t a surprise. Star Trek fans are famously obsessive about their show. What I did find surprising was that the entire book was written as if it were Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s personal journal. This entry for example; “Captain’s personal journal: Observations on “Communication.” Stardate 45071.3 En route to Solarion IV.” (page 115). The entire book is written as a series of journal entries covering various missions and escapes in which the Captain was able to demonstrate his leadership skills. Not once does the book deviate from this style. The Captain even conveniently summarizes each journal entry with his own highlights about leadership (with the bold assumption that someone would actually make it to the end of a chapter). It contains almost no theory, very little practical advice, and even it’s title adage “Make it So” is never explained or expounded upon. All in all, this is one of the worst books on leadership you could hope to gag gift. Under no circumstance should you read this.

In general, I shied away from leadership models based on religious or historical figures. They typically fall into the “great man” theories of leadership which bestow almost supernatural powers to very mortal men (and they were always men). Not only do these theories typically ignore the complexities of historical context, but they place so much emphasis on innate character that leadership seems hardly worth developing. The Galbraiths eschew the second, but not the first by offering up the Rule of Saint Benedict, written for the administration of monastic living in southern Italy in 540 C.E. The problem is that running a monastery and running a modern organization have very little in common. Like the other authors, the Galbraiths spend so much time spinning straw into gold that they might have well just have written a book about their ideas of leadership rather than use a cover story.  Favorite line: “When, therefore, a guest is announced, let him be met by the Superior and the brethern  with every mark of charity. And let them first pray together, and then let them associate with one another in peace. This kiss of peace should not be given before a prayer hath first been said, on account of satanic deception.” (page 168). Read this if you’re the kind of person who understands what the hell that last sentence meant.


This is actually Wes Roberts second appearance on the list (he also wrote Make it So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek) and following the Sopranos before it, the subject of this book is infamous for his ruthlessness. Strange nominations for models of leadership, these gangsters and tyrants prove that the power to lead doesn’t require good intentions. But that’s not my biggest problem with this book. I tried to avoid books on historical figures because they at least provide a little history lesson, but this book warrants its place on my list simply because of its historical inaccuracy.  It reminds me of the great line by Moses Hadas, “This book fills a much needed gap.” There is nothing here but a series of leadership platitudes that are (thankfully) only loosely connected to Attila’s story. Read this if you are planning on becoming an author but fear that your ideas are far too stupid to ever get published.

The book opens with this sentence, “ Wouldn’t it be more than a little strange if the bestselling children’s books in modern times contained some of the deepest wisdom that contemporary  business people  need for successful careers,  great relationships, and flourishing lives?” My answer is, “No, it’s not strange if you go looking for it.” I give this book some credit though, because using Harry Potter as a frame of reference is a smart choice. It’s an extremely popular story meaning that more people will be able to resonate with the leadership lessons. However, as with all of these models, the author has tried to bridge the gap between theory and story-telling, by writing a book that doesn’t do either very well. It’s equivalent to the old saying, “you can’t jump halfway across a hole.”  Either gives us logical insights for leaders or tell us a story that shows us leadership (as in the original Harry Potter). Trying to explain it all is like trying to explain the punchline of a joke. Favorite fact: Amazon’s shows that people who bought this also bought, “Trees of the Northern United States and Canada.” Read this if you’re the kind of person who would prefer to get cooking advice from Chef Smurf and tax advice from Scrooge McDuck.

Toy Box Leadership mines children’s toys for leadership metaphors. It covers popular past times like the Slinky, Play-Doh, the yo-yo, the Rubik’s Cube, and even army men. I can’t help but think that time would be better spent watching the Toy Story trilogy. There are some great examples, like the connection between Light Brite as a way to demonstrate the ratio of signal to noise in a leader’s communication, but there is no fundamental leadership theory that supports it all. It’s just a la carte insights, which makes me wonder why you’d order from this menu of choices rather than a more conceptually robust meal that may actually connect to a large leadership development program. If you were looking for physical objects to supplement a workshop, then sure, this could be a useful book to help you identify some games. Favorite line: “You’ve probably seen it on a T-shirt or a bumper sticker: ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ It’s cute but false. The real truth about toys is this: when you live out the lessons these toys teach, you can win today.” It’s platitudes like this that make me question whether human evolution really exists or are we just running around in circles. Read this if you want to set up a coworker for a bet that you can get the boss to buy 100 Slinkies for the next corporate retreat.

Sex, Leadership, and Rock & Roll certainly has a provocative title, but fails to fulfill that curiosity. The essential argument of this book is that we no longer live in the “orchestral age,” but rather a “rock-and-roll age,” in which our ideas of leadership should evolve accordingly. As a metaphor this is weak enough, but considering that the book was published in 2006 (rather than 1955) it makes me wonder just how many years the author had been working on it. Judging from passages like, “Leaders make and engage others with strategic decisions under conditions of high uncertainty of means, ends or both means and ends, (pg. 111)” I think he didn’t work quite long enough.  There are some unique gems including a list of “Rock tips for high performance,” which state without any further explanation  “get hair – in business this is called ‘grooming,'” “Build a massive wall in Berlin, a la Pink Floyd,” and ” Burn guitars after making love to them.” Of course it also includes the usual bromides about motivation, teamwork, decision-making, and vision presumably to help librarians decide where to shelve it. All in all, the whole thing reads like a bad acid trip, which is precisely as bizarre and as unsatisfying as it sounds. Read this if you run a methadone clinic for CEOs.

This is probably the best bad book on leadership I’ve ever read. For starters, the book is written in first person. As in, Santa Claus is speaking directly to the reader. “Another year, I had two reindeer come down with the flu right after Prancer pulled the plug, retired, and took off for Florida. That left me with a thirty-three percent delivery staff reduction (if you count Rudolph) with no immediate replacements (pg. 7).” Second, the book is filled with more empty aphorisms like “Make a list and check it twice,” and “listen to the elves.” There is not a single original thought in all of its 85 pages (the last 10 of which advertise the different “Santa Claus Leadership” courses and tools. There is truly nothing of value here, but I’m left wondering to whom were they marketing this book. Kids? Executives? I just don’t get it. Books like this lessen the credibility of leadership studies and frankly, they even lessen the credibility of Santa Claus. Read this if all other books have been burned up in an apocalyptic elf revolt and your gingerbread optometrist requires that you read something, anything, to maintain your vision.

So there you have it. 10 awful leadership models. What is it that compels us to see leadership lessons in everything that we do? Could it be that our need for true leadership has gotten so bad that we’d look to anything to find it? A horse, a make-believe wizard… Play-Doh? Is this really the best we can do?


My Little Pony and Leadership

Viking Leadership

Five Leadership Lessons from Batman

Leadership Lessons of Indiana Jones

4 Leadership Lessons from the Lord of the Rings

Leadership Lessons from the Toilet Seat

Muppet Leadership

Superhero Leadership

Leadership Lessons of Kung FU Panda

Shrek: Leadership Lessons

Pee Wee Herman and Leadership

Leadership Lessons from Moby Dick

Six Leadership Lessons from Deadliest Catch

Leadership Lessons from the Godfather

Star Wars Leadership Lessons