Put not your trust in leadership books: but don’t ignore them either

Here’s how to deal with a dilemma of trust and authority

You are about to take a flight on a business assignment. You are enticed in to the book store in the Departure Lounge where you are confronted with a multitude of brightly-coloured books on leadership.

Some are shiny new reprints of classics still selling by the zillion, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People or the granddaddy of self-improvement books How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Others are the hot hits of the year, placed for maximum impact. Among them are those books positioned as impulse buys, alongside the other last-minute hi-calorie temptations as you approach the check-out.

How do you decide which book to buy?

It is a question I have put to several thousand business executives over the last few years. The Airport Departure Lounge provides a highly specific situation. It is one which encourages intuitive judgement over careful analysis. The decision is arguably a trivial one from a strictly economic perspective. What’s important is that the purchase puts the author in a powerful position of owning your undivided attention for several hours. It may take you half a chapter to decide you are better off with the in-flight magazine or video choice, but by then it’s too late.

A suggestion

One approach is to examine the books for the claims made. The more the author asserts without a lot of evidence, the more the book needs approaching in a spirit of testing the assertions. With practice it becomes easier to avoid buying a real dog.

New ideas as retreads

It is difficult to come across a really new and useful business idea. In general, the ‘new idea’ tends to be a re-tread of older ideas. That does not of itself make the book useless. But the more you can see the connections with other authors you have read, the easier it is to assess its contribution. I prefer books which indicate which earlier writers influenced the authors, and how.

Don’t start from here

Another suggestion comes from the old Irish saying that “if you want to get there, I wouldn’t be starting from here.”

You pre-planned a lot of other aspects of your business journey. It only takes a few moments to pre-plan your reading. You will find ‘business books of the month’ and ‘business books of the year’ published on a regular basis in various print and on-line journals. The criterion of ‘best-sellers of the month’ may appear a rather rough guide to quality, but the additional information easily obtainable at least provides you with a few to put on your short-list before you reach the departure lounge.

The Financial Times shortlist

So, for example the six books on The Financial Times shortlist for Business Book of the Year in 2014 were:

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration  by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace

Hack Attack: How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch by Nick Davies

House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It From Happening Again by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by Julia Angwin

The list shows the wealth of interesting and well-researched business books published every year. Unsurprisingly, the six are the sort of books most available to purchase in that airport departure lounge.

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