The last time I checked, there were 393 current books with the words leader or leadership in their titles. Although that’s evidence of an almost insatiable appetite for information on the subject, it doesn’t tell us what, if anything, can be gained from reading about leadership.
Indeed, a scan of the hundreds of leadership titles listed on the Internet is more amusing than edifying: Some are laughably over-prescriptive (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership) and many promise the world (How You Can Create Growth and High Performance in Your Company). When one peeks between the covers of such texts, disappointment soon sets in. The sad fact is that leadership manuals deliver mainly truisms, pap, and gross generalizations. There are exceptions, of course, and the reader’s challenge is to find the few grains of true sustenance among the tons of dispensable roughage. But where to start?
Several years ago, when my colleagues and I at Booz Allen Hamilton formed the firm’s Organization and Strategic Leadership Competency Center, we began by reviewing the extensive literature on leadership — both current books and classics. Being practical sorts, we wanted to know if there was data that explained why some leaders succeed and others fail; why some leaders move successfully between organizations and others don’t; and why a few organizations enjoy a seamless succession of great leaders, in contrast to the majority of companies, where selection and succession processes are uneven at best.
Over a two-year period, my partners and I read and discussed hundreds of cases, articles, and books on leadership. Putting each to the test of experience, we asked, “Does the theory advanced square with what we observe in real organizations?” Only a smattering of the books we reviewed withstood the tough-minded scrutiny of the few hundred professionals who spend their careers observing and counseling leaders in business and government. The few books that resonated with our collective experience also improved our understanding of why some leaders we observed were more effective than others. We distilled these lessons into a practical framework that we have shared with global leaders at the last two World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, as well as readers of strategy+business (see “Beyond the Cult of the CEO: Building Institutional Leadership,” by Bruce A. Pasternack, Thomas D. Willams, and Paul F. Anderson, s+b, First Quarter 2001).
Here’s what we learned from all our reading and analysis: Organizational performance is the result of individual actions and behaviors. That is, in successful companies, people up and down the line do the “right things.” Those companies have effective leaders who create conditions under which their people have the information, authority, and incentives to make the right decisions. When leadership is effective, behavior at all levels of the organization is both aligned and adaptable, and, thus, the organization performs to its potential. We call this an institutional capacity for leadership.
What Leaders Do
Obviously, the trick is for leaders to learn to create the conditions under which this behavior can occur. In our extensive survey of the leadership literature, we found a few good books that helped to define precisely what leaders do to create those conditions. Here are some of my favorites from Booz Allen Hamilton’s list of useful books on leadership, together with a few of the important lessons we’ve taken from each.
Many leadership books focus on the characteristics of individual leaders, and to my mind the best in this category is Warren Bennis’s On Becoming a Leader (1989). Bennis writes that leaders “dream with a deadline.” By focusing on what’s important, they help their followers to realize goals that they couldn’t achieve on their own. In the process, leaders and followers become “intimate allies.” In Bennis’s view, leaders have a guiding vision, a passion that allows them to communicate a sense of hope to followers. The key to this communication is not charisma (as many experts have maintained); what is required is integrity. Leaders with integrity have a heightened sense of self-awareness and an unshakable understanding of what they believe in and what they stand for. According to Bennis, leaders with integrity are palpably at ease with themselves, and this self-confidence, sensed by their followers, forms the basis of a bond of trust between them.