Read any good leadership books lately? Me either. It seems like popular books about leadership are getting drier, less interesting, and more expensive. The worst are the celebrity CEO autobiographies. Must we?
Here’s the reality: For most people, leadership books, especially those of the mainstream, commercial variety, just don’t make much of a lasting impact. An ongoing stream of research conducted by my employer, The Center for Creative Leadership, shows that the vast majority of the key lessons that leaders learn result from on-the-job experience. Enduring hardships, tackling challenging assignments, and being exposed to effective coaches and mentors make much more of a difference than reading leadership books. This is often referred to as the 70-20-10 rule—70% of learning comes from direct experience, 20% from the influence of others, and 10% from classes and reading.
The executives I work with sometimes take heroic measures to keep up with popular leadership literature. They feel like they have to keep current; I can’t blame them. When a client asks if I have read the leadership book of the moment, I have to be able to say yes. I just wish the vast majority of them weren’t so poorly written and boring.
In the interests of self-disclosure, I’ve contributed my share of this junk—and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that something I wrote about leadership changed their life. I came close a couple of months ago. A participant in one of CCL’s leadership programs said it was nice to meet me in person. He knew me through a book chapter I’d written for a thick leadership handbook! Then came the truth: He said he’d just finished translating my chapter into Chinese for a publisher who owns the rights in Asia. So, in other words, he read my chapter because someone paid him.
But this isn’t to say you can’t gain valuable leadership lessons from reading. You just need to pick the right genres. For my part, I’ll choose novels any day. I remember reading One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in high school, totally absorbed by the ruthless, authoritarian leadership of Nurse Ratched and the populist appeal of the rebellious Randle McMurphy and his ability to influence the other inmates.
That’s why I was so grateful when a client asked if I had read Replay by Ken Grimwood. Assuming it was a leadership book—and bracing for the worst—I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fiction. The story is about a guy who, at age 43, picks up his office phone to call his wife. He never completes the call because he has a heart attack and dies on page 3. The rest of the book explores his efforts to relive his life over and over again (don’t ask me to explain how that works in this piece). It’s not an exaggeration to say this novel changed the way I look at leadership. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it helped me understand three crucial leadership lessons in a new way:
1. Make a decision.
Today. Use the information you have at your disposal and decide. There is always one more study, one more web search, one more opinion you can collect. Don’t be seduced by the promise that more information equals better decisions.
2. Don’t second-guess.
If you had a chance to do something over again, even knowing what you know now, you very well might do worse. That’s not to say you shouldn’t review or consider the impact of your actions. Just don’t wallow in the past, wishing you could do it over again.
3. Take the lead on making connections with other people.
I viewed this as a bigger message from the book. By accelerating the story time span, the author forced me to think about how short life really is. Tomorrow is not a promise, and we have today to act. If you have something to say to somebody, say it.
I carry these lessons with me every day as a part of my approach to developing better leaders—not to mention the way I interact with my family and friends.
What about you? What non-leadership books influenced you as a leader, and what were the lessons you took from them? I’ll bet we can generate a pretty good list.
[Image: Flickr user Casey Muir-Taylor]