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Best Business Books 2010: Leadership

Highlights in a Low Year

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries
Reflections on Leadership and Career Development: On the Couch with Manfred Kets de Vries
(Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Charlene Li
Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead
(Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem, eds.,
Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response
(Wharton School Publishing, 2010)

Robert I. Sutton
Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst
(Business Plus, 2010)

It hasn’t been a good year for leaders, or for books on leadership. Can you think of a political honcho, with the possible exception of Brazilian president Lula da Silva, who hasn’t been battered by anti-incumbent anger? Corporate chiefs fared little better, the heads of BP and Goldman Sachs being only the most brightly painted targets.

Although most of the leadership books published this year were not whipped up in a few months’ time — to be sure, some read as though they might have been — the sourness of this low, mean year seems to have infected even those that took a long time to create. Don’t look to the current crop for a paradigm-shifting new way to think about what leaders do or who they are. Expect to be trotted through lots of overly familiar ideas and precepts: Self-awareness is critical to a good leader, for example (who knew?), and the right kind of leadership can make a whopping difference to the productivity of the team.

The books that break through the prevailing torpor do so mostly by confronting traditional notions of leadership with new circumstances, slap-in-the-face challenges almost “ripped from the headlines” (though by now even that phrase seems pretty old). How do you lead in a world where everyone under 40 appears to be Facebooking and tweeting? What can you do to prepare yourself and your organization for those supposedly once-in-a-generation disasters that seem to be occurring every other month — a market-freezing global financial crisis today, a region-crippling oil spill tomorrow? And instead of wasting time debating the finer points of leader versus manager, what if we should just be thinking about “bosses”?

Head Shrinking

With a twist appropriate to this topsy-turvy year, the very best book on leadership represents a return to, or maybe a retreat into, a form of classicism. Reflections on Leadership and Career Development, by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, collects and updates articles written over the past three decades by one of the foremost proponents of what might be termed — though probably not by its practitioners — the psychoanalytic school of leadership. It’s the second in a trilogy whose not completely felicitous subtitle gives away the author’s bias: “On the Couch with Manfred Kets de Vries.”

The psychoanalytic school fielded some intellectual powerhouses in its time: Elliott Jaques, who first identified and labeled the “midlife crisis,” as well as Abraham Zaleznik at Harvard Business School and Harry Levinson at Harvard Medical School. But of late, it hasn’t been heard from much. Indeed, Kets de Vries, at age 68, strikes me as the only big name still in the fray. Dutch by birth and educated in Amsterdam, at Harvard (he was a doctoral student of Zaleznik), and in Montreal, today he operates from multiple bases, including a professorship at INSEAD, a leadership coaching center he established there, and his own consulting firm. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of some 30 books. (See “Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries: The Thought Leader Interview,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Summer 2010.)

As a mode of therapy, psychoanalysis has been overshadowed by the rise of new treatments (cognitive behavioral therapy, for one), new drugs (Prozac and other serotonin-manipulating antidepressants), and skepticism about the scientific underpinnings of Freud’s theories. But if you’re prepared to accede to a few seemingly commonsense generalizations — that our past shapes the kind of individuals we become, that our behavior often unfolds in repetitive patterns — you can still find in the psychoanalytic viewpoint a trove of insights that are helpful or at least provocative. Kets de Vries mines this vein for all it’s worth. To be sure, he’d probably say his work is rooted in psychology rather than in a narrow Freudianism, but it’s squarely in the tradition of the (arguably) good doctor and his intellectual heirs.

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.

With lots of real-world examples, some better digested than others, Li explores the effect of these new connective technologies on leadership. She considers them in two not always carefully distinguished senses: What does it take to be a leading company in this emerging era of hyper-openness? And what’s required of a leader in the face of these demanding new realities? One executive she quotes, Ron Ricci of Cisco Systems, provides an elegant summary of the underlying challenge: “Shared goals require trust. Trust requires behavior. And guess what technology does? It exposes behavior.”

To her credit, Li tackles head-on the biggest fear that companies register at the prospect of their people blogging, tweeting, or responding to those who do: “Aren’t we going to” — sharp intake of breath here — “lose control of what is said about us, on our behalf, or of what we let our customers or competitors know?” Li sensibly points out that embracing social technology doesn’t automatically mean “letting it all hang out,” as a pre-Facebook generation used to put it. No, a company still gets to make choices, as for example Apple does in being open about a few things, such as its platform, but mostly clammed-up about everything else. (The author does allow that you may have to be as successful as Apple to get away with clamming up in the brave new world.)

As for what the new transparency means to individual executives, Li builds on the work of others, such as Warren Bennis’s observation that to be a leader you have to display qualities that cause people to trust you. “You may be comfortable being authentic and transparent with people within physical shouting distance, but that’s not sufficient in this new environment,” Li argues. “To develop new open relationships, you’ll have to scale your authenticity and transparency.” A necessary first step is learning to use the technologies yourself. If you find your skin crawling at the prospect of sharing a few inner thoughts with anonymous legions out there in the electronic ether, you may need to look for a different line of work.

For decades now, firebrands like Tom Peters and Henry Mintzberg have been preaching that leadership should be demystified and parceled out within organizations. With the rise of the celebrity CEO, not to mention the installation of employee relationship management software, it has sometimes seemed that they were getting nowhere. Li’s book inspired me with the happy thought that the likes of Facebook and Twitter just might end up forcing the change that some of us have been waiting for all these years. To survive the transition, high-ranking corporate types will have to pick up the subtlety ascribed to one of Li’s heroes, Om Bhatt, who as chairman helped revolutionize the State Bank of India, in part through online communication. “Bhatt did not give up control,” an admirer observed. “He let go of control.”

Contemplating Catastrophe

As recent events have made clear, there may be one area in which you will want to ratchet up the control level. This would be in anticipating and if possible averting disaster. For any executive worried that his or her organization might be overtaken by low-probability, high-consequence events, like a credit default swap implosion or a deepwater drilling fiasco, Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response could be the first step toward sleeping better at night.

This book is hardly beach reading (unless perhaps you’re standing on a beach wondering what to do about a huge oil spill). It’s a collection of 15 scholarly monographs bearing titles such as “Acting in Time against Disasters: A Comprehensive Risk-Management Framework” and “Dealing with Pandemics: Global Security, Risk Analysis, and Science Policy.” The tome’s editors, Wharton professors Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem, contribute essays at the beginning and end to frame the discussion and bring it squarely into the province of leadership studies.

Thinking about risk isn’t as much fun as, say, forging strategy or concocting a vision of the corporate future for everyone to rally around. But trying to imagine the almost unimaginable and provide against it may be the highest form of leaderly stewardship. And who would say that most corporate leaders have been doing a good job on this front of late?

Don’t read Learning from Catastrophes as you would most other business books — at a brisk clip, looking for the argument to build, expecting to be handed ready-packaged takeaways. (You’d be driven insane trying.) Experience it instead as the occasion for a series of executive meditations, thought exercises whose benefits will come at you obliquely. You’re probably not that interested for its own sake in how the Chinese rebuilt their emergency management system, but in reading about the process you’ll likely find thoughts bubbling up about your own organization’s preparation — or lack thereof — for coping with the unforeseen.

Not that there aren’t plenty of straightforward prescriptions, models, and checklists in Learning from Catastrophes. The book’s lessons include how to balance prevention and mitigation, and how to understand the difference between crisis response and true recovery. A behavioral economics monograph on the cognitive biases that distort our perception of risk, causing us to underrate the direst possibilities, should leave you both a little scared and a lot more vigilant. The variety of the contributors and the disasters they treat, from global warming to the financial crisis of 2008–09, mean that when you finish the book you’ll have a gratifying sense that you’ve looked at a tough subject from more angles than you thought possible.

Better Bossiness

Finally, for a head-clearing blast of sauciness, pick up a copy of Robert I. Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst. In a year when too many leadership books combined solemn with vapid, Sutton’s decision to focus on the figure of “the boss” comes across as thoroughly refreshing. Even after decades of study, we may not agree on what constitutes a leader or all the proper functions of a manager, but everybody knows who the boss is.

If it’s you, however long you’ve been at it, you can probably benefit from Sutton’s breezy tour of the wisdom he has distilled from scholarly studies, his own experience, and the thousands of responses he received to his last book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (Business Plus, 2007). To say that Sutton, a Stanford professor, wears his learning lightly is to understate the case. At times he wears it like a vaudeville comedian’s gonzo-striped blazer with accompanying plastic boutonniere shooting water. This is a weirdly merry book, perfect for a down year — but not an unserious book.

Consider, for example, Sutton on the imperative to take control. Yes, you as a leader have to, he counsels, in the sense that “you have to convince people that your words and deeds pack a punch.” And he offers up a series of fairly familiar gambits to that end: “Talk more than others — but not too much.” “Interrupt people occasionally — and don’t let them interrupt you much.” “Try a little flash of anger now and then.” What redeems this from being mere Machiavellian gamesmanship is Sutton’s admission that any control you pretend to is probably largely an illusion — there’s a lot of play-acting in any executive role, he wants us to know. He makes the case that pushing too hard in the wrong way is a lot more dangerous than not pushing hard enough. Given the danger of the “toxic tandem” — your people are always scrutinizing you, at the same time that power invites you to become self-absorbed — leaders are always on the edge of becoming bad bosses, or even worse, bossholes. So he also advises you to blame yourself for the big mistakes, serves you up a seven-part recipe for an effective executive apology, reminds you to ask the troops what they need, and finishes with the injunction, “Give away some power or status, but make sure everyone knows it was your choice.”

Another chapter title captures the overall aspiration Sutton advocates: “Strive to Be Wise.” His is a street-smart, been-around-the-block-but-still-a-happy-warrior brand of wisdom, rooted in a boss’s understanding of himself or herself coupled with an appreciation that bosses have to take action and make decisions, including doing lots of what Sutton labels “dirty work.” As a boss “it is your job to issue reprimands, fire people, deny budget requests, transfer employees to jobs they don’t want, and implement mergers, layoffs, and shutdowns.” Wise bosses understand that although they may not be able to avoid such unpleasantness, how they go about the dirty work makes an enormous difference. Empathy and compassion are good places to start, says Sutton. Layer on constant communication with the affected, including feedback from them you really listen to, however painful it is. Finally, you’ll probably need to cultivate a measure of emotional detachment, beginning with forgiveness for the people who lash out at you. And maybe reserving some forgiveness for yourself.

Indeed, Good Boss, Bad Boss is in its entirety a page-by-page guide to better bossly self-awareness. The variety of sources cited can be dizzying. On one page you may get a summary of two academic studies, a quote from Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda, a recollection of Sutton’s parents, and three examples of bad bosses sent in to Sutton’s website. (At times, the book seems almost crowdsourced and puts one in mind of Charlene Li on the power of social technology to expose behavior.) What gives all this consistency and makes for an enjoyable read is Sutton’s voice throughout — at times yammering, on rare occasions bordering on the bumptious, but in general so “can you believe this?” ready to laugh at the author’s own pratfalls, and so eager to help, that the net effect is sneakily endearing. Rather a comfort in a low, mean year.

Author profile:

  • Walter Kiechel III has served as the managing editor of Fortune and the editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing. He is the author of The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World (Harvard Business Press, 2010).
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