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 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2010: Leadership

As is the case with most collections of pieces that were previously published separately, the individual essays assembled here don’t always fit obviously into the three buckets into which Kets de Vries sorts them: the origins of leadership, leadership and personality, and leadership and career development. My advice would be to forget the organizing architecture — the book is more mosaic than unfolding argument — and just plunge into the chapters whose titles catch your eye, whether it’s “Leadership Archetypes: A New Organizational Constellation,” “The CEO Life Cycle,” or “Listening with the Third Ear.”

You will be rewarded with sharp-edged observations couched in pithy phrases that open up explanations of how particular, recognizable types of executives behave. Backing these up are sketches of the inner forces that shape behavior and descriptions of how these often trace back to childhood. This is the beauty of the psychoanalytic school: More than any other approach, it attempts to get at the “why” of leadership. What makes some individuals more inspiring than others? What wishes, hopes, and fears, maybe not all of them available to our consciousness, propel us into the role of leader, or of follower?

Consider, for example, Kets de Vries’s first chapter, “Narcissism and Leadership.” His starting point that “Narcissists live with the assumption that they cannot reliably depend on anyone’s love or loyalty” may be the single best one-sentence summary of what you need to know about such characters. After a quick march through the clinically recognized symptoms of narcissistic behavior, he takes us on a quick exposition of three varieties and their family backgrounds. The “reactives” work so hard and so anxiously to maintain their inflated sense of themselves that they’ll distort reality before admitting anything is wrong. The unending quest of the “self-deceptives” to live up to exaggerated parental expectations leaves them with little emotional energy to share with others. And the “constructives” remind us that we can all use a touch of narcissism if we’re to be bold, thoughtful, and even introspective.

Such analysis isn’t mere theory-spinning. For me, the careful diagnosis and the etiology make the advice Kets de Vries offers all the more credible. For instance, don’t expect to change a narcissistic personality — boy, has that proved true in my managerial experience — but know that devices like 360-degree feedback may let subordinates alert the organization to one gathering steam. And whatever you do, don’t assign credulous, insecure, and inexperienced people to work for El Loco Grande; they’ll only feed a disaster in the making.

The delights and rewards of Reflections on Leadership and Career Development extend beyond putting particular types on the couch. You’ll encounter an elegant model of how your “inner theater” — your needs, temperament, even place in the birth order — shape the competencies you develop and your leadership style. There’s also a full measure of the cool, reflective wisdom that a reader would hope for from an author who has spent years counseling executives. Learn why no CEO should spend more than 10 years in the post (and why Kets de Vries thinks eight an even better limit). The author’s thoughts on retirement are in themselves worth a few long walks on the beach: “It has often been said that as we grow old, we have to give up certain things. I prefer to reframe the statement and say we grow old if we fail to give up certain things.”

Getting Out There

No one would use the word ruminative to describe Charlene Li’s Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead. Her book is perky, buzzy, and full of action recommendations and self-audits that leaders can use to gauge how their organizations are doing on various dimensions of openness. You can tell that the author has been doing a lot of presentations since she coauthored Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (with Josh Bernoff; Harvard Business Press, 2008), which discussed the rise of social technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. That volume was called out as a best business book in our 2008 roundup.

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