Don't Be the Book
Dick Scott was my boss at Eli Lilly and Company from 2003 to 2007 and had a disproportionately large and positive impact on my career. He challenged me by expanding the breadth and depth of my job responsibility. At the same time, he pushed me to use my strengths. He would always kick off the beginning of a week-long, Global Leadership Development Program with a piece of advice to the emerging leaders in the audience, ”Don’t be the book.” This phrase has stuck in my mind ever since. It is simple and profound. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books,articles, videos, and podcasts are published about leadership every year. Leadership is described with words like “primal”, “magnetic” ,”fusion”,”tribal”, “transforming”, “authentic”, “Level 3, “Level 5”, and on and on. An internet search of the phrase “leadership model” yielded 508,000 results. Can leadership really be so many different things? How can anyone make sense of all of this information?
We can take some solace from eminent British statistician George E.P. Box, “All models are wrong, some are useful”. In the case of leadership models, one wonders, “Why is a model wrong?” It’s wrong because it doesn’t completely ﬁt the psychology, experience, and context of any one person. However, it might be useful to any one person. To make the model useful requires what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would call a growth mindset: the willingness to sift through these diverse ideas and models, select the pieces and parts that ﬁt, and put them into practice. In order leaders to assess "fit’ they must have some grasp of their identity as a leader. Maybe a person has already reﬂected about things like values, strengths, experiences, weaknesses, personality, and style. Having done this one is now in a better position to answer the question: “How does this book apply to me”? The habits of reading these sources, reflecting upon challenging experiences, and getting feedback from others will help leaders clarify and refine their own leadership model. This is challenging and takes study, discernment, and time. Many people, especially those in management positions, have a hard time taking time. I know. I’ve been in management, and I’ve coached managers. We want our own growth to be easy and fast; there's work to get done!
Several times a year I receive requests from people asking me about the hot new leadership book, or recommending one that is a ‘must-read’. Once in awhile, they ask me to build a workshop from this must-read so that they can roll out it out across their organization. I call this book-driven training the “one-hit wonder” approach to leadership development. It’s good that leaders are reading leadership books, and that they have the best of intentions for their employees. However, if it stops here the event loses power for all involved. A few times, I confess, I’ve developed those workshops. We rolled them out, and people had an insightful day away from the grind. Then they went back to work...and nothing changed. The leader, and the group did not improve their behaviors, and I was an ineffective consultant.
Becoming a good leader, as in anything else in life, requires hard work, perseverance, and time. There is nothing new or novel here. We all know this. So keep reading those books, extracting the pearls of wisdom that help you clarify your own leadership model, and then put it into practice. And whatever you do, Don't’ Be the Book!