I recently asked readers to submit their burning leadership development questions. Those that get picked for a post will receive a free copy of my eBook.This question from Kathy L.:
“Why, with Ken Blanchard, John C. Maxwell, and Warren Bennis books in abundance, do most people in leadership positions have no clue what to do?”
I love this question! It’s simple, to the point, and really makes you think.
I think there are a number of possible reasons:
1. Most managers (people in leadership positions) really don’t read books about leadership. Even if there was a way to find out how many managers there were in the world at any time, I’m sure that number would be way bigger than the number of leadership books sold. I ask new and current managers all the time how many leadership books they have read in the past year, and most of them, if they are being honest, haven’t read a single one. A lot of them may have actually purchased a book or two, and display it in their bookcase, but the pages don’t look like they’ve been turned.
2. They are reading the wrong books.
Many of the bestselling books in the leadership & management section in Amazon are written by successful business leaders, like Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg, but being a very successful business person doesn’t qualify you to be an expert in leadership. For all of his visionary genius and contributions to society, many believe that Steve Jobs was a horrible role model for leadership. That’s not the book I’d want to hand out to my management team to teach them how to lead, but I know of a few CEOs who have.
3. The books are all wrong (not!)
This one’s actually wrong, but it doesn’t stop people from coming up with new models and theories of leadership every year, each one claiming to be better than the other guy’s. This is where the expression “leadership by flavor of the month” comes from.
4. Reading doesn’t always translate into behavior change.
There’s a lot more to leadership development than reading a good book or two. Yes, understanding the “what” and “how” are a good start, but it takes years and years of training, continuous practice, feedback, and more practice to get really good at it.
5. Most managers (and people) have no idea how they come across to others.Yes, we truly are clueless when it comes to the impact of our behavior on others. We tend to assess ourselves based on our intentions, while others assess us by what they see and hear. That’s why absolutely critical for leaders to find ways to get continuous feedback,
6. Many managers are promoted because they are really good at something other than leadership.It’s the same old story – organizations promote the top sales person to a sales manager, even though the behavioral profiles for a successful sales person are almost the opposite of a successful sales manager. Then, instead of approaching their new role like a new profession, they just keep doing what they have always done that’s made them successful.
7. Because leadership is really hard!Really, it’s not as easy as it looks, or as easy as the books tell you it is. Leadership roles are chock full of dilemmas with no clear cut answers. These are highly visible positions, which magnify every mistake. I also think managers are often held to an unrealistic standard when it comes to leadership, standards set by all of those leadership books out there that describe the 72 things a leader has to be great at.
8. Different criteria.Ask a group of 20 people what “leadership” means, and you’ll get 20 different answers. So if there is no universal, consensus definition of what leadership is, how the heck can we assess if someone is good at it or not?
9. Mixed messages.Managers will often read a good leadership book, or attend a training program, and get all excited about trying out some new leadership behaviors. However, when they do, they are directly or indirectly punished for going against the norms of an organization’s culture. Culture eats books for a snack.
10. Useful doesn’t always mean used.I recently attended a fascinating webinar by MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning that explained why proven capability building processes and tools like LEAN and Six-Sigma often go unused. I think it may help explain why when a manager learns a new leadership skill – then tries to use it, expecting immediate improvement and doesn’t get it, they give up and go back to what they are comfortable doing. It’s not just that leadership is hard and takes a lot of practice – it’s that we need to set the expectation that anytime we try something new, our performance will actually drop in the short term, but improve in the long term. People and organizations are psychologically biased towards short-term results, and don’t have the patience or tolerance to do what it takes to build long term capability.
I’m sure there are other reasons – please leave a comment with your thoughts.
Note to Kathy L. – if you’d like a free eBook, please get me your email address.