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 / Winter 2006 / Issue 45(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Leadership

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones’s Why Should Anyone Be Led by YOU? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader is another offering with an off-putting graphic element in its title. Fortunately, the finger-pointing on the cover doesn’t carry over to the text, which is a useful, if uninspired, summary of the currently hot topic of leadership authenticity. In the prescribed mode of how-to books, the authors dutifully serve up the requisite seven chapters, each with a separate useful lesson (“Take Personal Risks,” “Communicate — with Care”). Who could disagree?

Mark Gerzon’s Leading through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities is a practical, authoritative text on another important subject garnering increasing attention: mediation. The human relations skills of the mediator are clearly useful in many, if not most, managerial situations, and consequently this book is useful. But the applicability of mediation to many aspects of leadership is limited: Neither Franklin Roosevelt nor Henry Ford could have met the great challenges they overcame behaving like mediators.

Unfortunately, the most useful conventional how-to leadership book of the year is technically ineligible for the honor: Reinventing Leadership: Strategies to Empower the Organization, by Warren Bennis and Robert Townsend, is a new edition of a book largely overlooked when it was originally published in 1995. OK, I admit that Mr. Bennis is my mentor and occasional coauthor, and the late Bob Townsend (the CEO who famously made Avis “Try Harder”) was my drinking buddy and fellow corporate board member, but I don’t think I’m entirely biased in saying that the two of them seasoned their practical advice about “what leaders do to empower the organization” with more than a modicum of wit and profundity. What distinguishes this book from the literally thousands of how-to manuals now available is the disciplined interplay of two creative minds noodling through the layered complexities of leadership. And at 17 bucks, this paperback edition is cheap, too!

It is unfortunate for the business reader that most publishers attempt to reduce their risk by churning out formulaic leadership books, much as Hollywood studios love to produce cookie-cutter derivatives of last year’s blockbuster films. Even Henry Ford would have been appalled by the thought of business book assembly lines cranking out me-too leadership books, all with lists of “proven, bite-sized, easy-to-use techniques that really work.” Actually, in the real world of organizations, leadership defies categorization into handy rules and guidelines. That’s why truly useful leadership books are those that document the efforts of unheroic men and women struggling, often with insufficient power, to resolve ambiguous issues against recalcitrant forces of resistance.

Well, you get my drift: Businesspeople can learn more profound lessons about leadership from intellectually demanding books that are not practical, per se, than they can from the lightweight, easy-to-read, how-to textbooks that are staples of the leadership book genre. As a footnote, in July, the New York Times reported that the nation’s most famous MBA, George W. Bush, had this to say in reference to the new Iraqi prime minister’s plan to pacify that country: “That’s what leaders do,” he explained. “They see problems, they address problems, and they lay out a plan to solve the problems.” It’s as simple as one, two, three. Isn’t it?

Author Profile:

James O’Toole ([email protected]) is research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. He has written 15 books, including Creating the Good Life: Applying Aristotle’s Wisdom to Find Meaning and Happiness (Rodale Press, 2005), and, with Edward Lawler, The New American Workplace (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
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