Why the Bull Market in Leadership Books?

by James Heskett

Summing Up

There is no shortage of explanations for what seems to be a current bull market in writings about leadership, according to respondents to this column.

Charles Cullinane attributes it to the economic and national insecurity that "has the free world searching for 'leaders' who will show us a way of regaining what we have lost." Another reason for such insecurity, Reinhold Gerbsch proposes, is "the increasing rate of change in the marketplace." Citing an old Buddhist saying, "When the pupil is ready, the master appears," Daniel Harrara suggests that "People need something that gives them safety and answers to their questions."

On another note, Roseanne Landay attributes the current supply of writing on leadership to the fact that during a slow economy, "many companies ask themselves 'how can we do more with less' ... through better ... leadership of (especially people) assets." The timing of this "bull market," Chris Wolfington writes, may be accounted for by "the wave of managers who were hired at fast growing startups into leadership positions they were not qualified to occupy."

Larry Hulsmans concludes that the phenomenon "continues to be driven ... by our natural tendency to look outside us for a 'silver bullet' solution ... Part of the problem lies with us and our fast-paced world where reflection, connection making, and dialogue rarely occur."

What about the future? Tammy Doty takes the somewhat pessimistic view that "There has always been and will always be a dearth of quality leadership ... because self-interest continues to drive human conduct." But Mark Horstman suggests that this doesn't insure a continuation of the current deluge of writing. He says, "Will the bull market last? No. Will it create a market for new ideas, some of which will stick ...? Absolutely."

These comments provoke several questions. As leaders, do we need to plan more time for reflection on what we do? Are we better off spending more time in self-reflection and less time searching for answers from others? Or are there "best practices" of which we need constantly to remind ourselves through reading and dialogue? Is this especially true now? What do you think?

Original Article

Leadership has fascinated us from the times of the Chinese philosophers to the musings of Machiavelli to the present day. Academic interest in it seems to ebb and flow. But judging from the stack of leadership books and articles on my desk, it is positively gushing at the moment. By implication, most of these authors seem to subscribe to the nurture vs. nature thesis-that leaders are made more often than they are born, otherwise they probably wouldn't be so attracted to the subject. (Of them, only Melvin Sorcher and James Bryant, writing in the February issue of the Harvard Business Review, assume that leadership qualities are largely "baked in" by a person's early 20s, suggesting that the primary task is picking the right ones.)

Part of the problem lies with us and our fast-paced world where reflection, connection making, and dialogue rarely occur.
— Larry Hulsmans, Leadership Programs

Several writings on the subject have caught my attention. First is the treatment of what Jim Collins calls "Level 5 Leadership" in perhaps the most systematically researched of the current offerings, Good to Great. The Level 5 Leader who is capable of leading an upward change in the direction of an organization's performance possesses both professional will and personal humility. Think of how many so-called leaders possess one or the other of these but not both.

Primal Leadership, by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, maintains that the primal job of leadership is to create resonance, a "reservoir of positive feelings" through either resonant leadership styles (emphasizing visionary, coaching, affiliative, and democratic tendencies) or dissonant styles (focused on pacesetting and commanding)-and the ability to know when each is most applicable.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, in their book, Leadership on the Line, offer a more sober view of the task of leading adaptive change (driven by the people with the problem) as opposed to technical change (driven by authority). They address, for example, the "faces of danger" (marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction) and ways of dealing with them. In the end, they conclude, "Exercising leadership is a way of giving meaning to your life by contributing to the lives of others."

Jay Lorsch and Thomas Tierney focus on the special challenge of leading professionals in their book, Aligning the Stars. Here the emphasis is on the limits to leadership in settings where those being led are highly independent. The task is to achieve alignment between the strategic requirements of the business and the needs (very special, in this case) of its key employees. A "survival guide" is needed and provided by the authors.

Why this "killer wave" of new material on leadership at this time, one that threatens to overwhelm the manager who tries to absorb and, heaven forbid, apply it all? Is it a natural result of a downturn in the economy, uncertainties in the environment, or a perceived leadership gap in both the business and the broader world? Will it ebb with an increasing demand for products, services, and jobs? Or is there something more basic happening? If so, what is it? What do you think?

    • Larry Hulsmans
    • Executive Director, Leadership Programs

    The Bull Market in leadership books continues to be driven, I believe, by our natural tendency to look outside us for the "silver bullet" solution. I continue to be amazed by senior managers attending leadership programs who quickly discover that they already know many of the key models, principles, concepts, required for good leadership, yet they had never taken the time to reflect upon it themselves. Participants in programs will invariably generate a list of key leadership principles for leading change, coaching, building an effective culture, etc. that are often just as comprehensive as the latest leadership book.

    Part of the problem lies with us and our fast-paced world where reflection, connection making, and dialogue rarely occur. Philosopher Mark Kingwells' book The World We Want is a great work on this and suggests that as a society we really have lost our sense of dialogue, connection, and ability to collectively make meaning of the things around us.

    • Reinhold Gerbsch
    • Principal, Gerbsch Consulting, LLC

    Leadership has risen to the forefront because of the increasing rate of change in the marketplace as customers demand "less and less of more and more." Traditional management techniques cannot survive in this volatile and uncertain environment. One cannot manage the change, only align with it or be overcome by it. Hence, leadership is being emphasized, not management.

    • Robert Martin
    • Post graduate student, Moscow State University, Department of Sociology of Organizations

    The leadership wave is part of the trend in America for people to want more from work than a paycheck. They want personal meaning and satisfaction. As the baby boomers move up the corporate ladder, they don't want to think of themselves as technocrats making solely economic decisions. Computers help solve financial and logistical decisions and provide statistical control. Managers need a more human role to play to add meaning and value to their careers and lives. Most leaders want to improve their lives and the lives of others, the organization just happens to be a convenient way to do this. We are learning that productivity just happens to be a byproduct when we reach for something more.

    • Anonymous

    Why the "leadership" publications wave? (1) Better publishing techniques; (2) better understanding of the impact of effective leadership; (3) leaders' desire for success; (4) market economics.

    (1) Firstly the publishing perspective: The capacity to observe, analyze, interpret, understand, and clearly explain the behavior and motivation of leaders has progressed greatly over the years. In contrast to decades before, one observes that, with the experience of productive research and observation methodologies, authors are far more able to espouse a comprehensive and robust theory, rooted in sound analysis. More importantly, with the support of effective editors, writing styles are much more accessible for leaders seeking a ready reference on the leadership practice. This is a trend evident inmost contemporary business books.

    (2) The organizational perspective: At about the same pace, progress has been made in understanding the extent to which effective leadership brings about growth in profits:

    1. Profits come from sales to customers;

    2. Profitable sales flow from efficient, productive business systems;

    3. Business systems are no more than the people who perform and conduct them;

    4. Those people are guided by their leaders.

    5. Growth in profitabilitythe demand of the marketthus relies on the continuous improvement in business systems achieved through the improvement efforts of the organization's people, empowered and guided by effective leadership direction and support. The more leaders who realize the connections, the more they want to learn how to make it work well for them.

    (3) The human perspective: Leaders are merely people, with all the neuroses that entails: the desire to be perfect, to be successful in their field, the fear of failure. Leaders want to keep learning and keep achieving more. As long as there are books to feed our neuroses, we will buy them.

    (4) Finally a simple market-economics perspective: A market exists; there's a buck to be made; the books are written; they sell, proving that a market exists, so more books are written.

    • Adrian Gooden
    • Business Analyst, Open Training and Education Network, TAFE NSW, Sydney, Australia

    There has definitely been a shift in thinking about how leadership can yield results and shape the future of organizations. It is no longer just an issue for chief executives and military generalsleadership can be observed in everyday situations and at all levels of management in a company. This is a theme of Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.'s recent book, Leading Quietly, which demonstrates how quiet leaders can achieve sometimes-remarkable results. I am also impressed with Daniel Goleman's superb book, Primal Leadership, largely because it reflects my experience where creating and fostering a positive work environment can make all the difference to employee performance and job satisfaction. As for the bull market in leadership books, then, I say it is a highly positive development. It brings leadership out into the open for all of us who aspire to lead and manage people.

    • Gulshan Longani
    • Director, Software Development, PRI Automation, Inc.

    I think that with the changing times we went from a boom to a severe business recession so quickly, our problem focus changed as well. The shifting nature of our problems and the urgency to solve them leads us to believe that someone out there already has solutions that we can emulate in our own environment. Therefore, we yearn to learn from such examples of leadership.

    • Robert Witte
    • Engineering Manager

    My first thought regarding the "Bull Market in Leadership Books" was that the success of any organization is based on leadership! People are trying to improve their leadership ability. I look at my desk and see a row of nineteen books, eleven of those dealing with leadership. But I agree also with the response by Larry Hulsman, since I fell into this habit of reading, but not taking the time to incorporate the knowledge into my work. "Just read another new book": Looking for the silver bullet took priority over implementing the great ideas from the last-read book.

    There are many great leadership books. I suggest that anyone interested in improving read one or two books and then take several months to integrate the new knowledge into their life!

    • Tammy Doty
    • Business Development Manager, Poelmann Chan Group (Hong Kong)

    Leadership is the flavor of the month because there aren't any other sexier topics alive and kicking in the intellectual-business circles.

    There has always been and will always be a dearth of quality leadership, in both the governmental and private sectors, because self-interest continues to drive human conduct.

    All the scholarly works on leadership in the world won't make this fact unravel.

    • Mark Horstman
    • Managing Partner, Horstman & Company

    The bull market in leadership is due to the natural ebb and flow that exists in nearly all market-related systems, such as hiring, finance, healthcare, imports, etc. We've simply had a long run where analytics, metrics, financials, managing, and objective vs. subjective factors have ruled common thinking. In ten to twenty years (maybe five years, I don't know), we'll be back to management and objectivity, certainty over risk, etc.

    I think the attack of last year might have helped somewhat, but I have seen a growth in my business since long before. I think we'll keep doing this forever: oscillating between the two poles, with the change always making us slightly more effective because we have in the interim "forgotten" the "last bull market" in that given arena.

    Pretty soon you'll see more companies saying out loud that they won't be meeting quarterly targets just to make Wall Street happy, and there'll be a gradual pulling away from short term management. We'll probably see—for awhile—more rigorous accounting practices, and in ten years, some new senior leaders will start to get more creative.

    Will the bull market last? No. Will it create a market for new ideas, some of which will stick and become fairly common practice, leaving us better off until the next bull market does the same? Absolutely. It's the nature of human systems.

    • Lina
    • WVU student

    I believe leadership skills can be developed at any age if you start thinking rationally with common sense (in terms of what is practically feasible).

    • Roseanne Landay
    • Vice President, Strategic Planning, City National Bank

    I think that during a slow economy, many companies ask themselves "how can we do more with less?" Given that the inputs of service-based companies are people, one's attention focuses on how to improve performance through better management and leadership of these assets.

    Another trend that might be contributing to this onslaught of leadership literature is the natural development of companies founded during a burst of entrepreneurship. Those that have survived tough times might be reaching that point in their development where they must transition from an entrepreneurship to a professionally managed firm, as described in Eric Flamholtz & Yvonne Randle's book, Growing Pains. Successful progression to this next stage of development hinges on enhancing management systems.

    • Charles Cullinane
    • VP/GM, Everbrite

    Economic and national insecurity has the free world searching for 'leaders' who will show us a way of regaining what we have lost. September 11, the burst dot.com bubble, and the very close presidential election have us all looking for the leader who can return us to the safety and prosperity we so recently lost. The writers are filling our need for direction.

    • Daniel Herrera
    • New Business Manager, Mass Media

    When the pupil is ready, the master appears. This famous Buddhist sentence is an example of what I think is happening today. People need something that gives them safety and answers to their questions. A leader has to connect with the audience, has to tell them what they want to hear, but with a real conviction. But our "managers" are more concerned with what others will say than saying what they think. (No leaders at the end.)

    Jim Collins talks about professional skills and personal humility. Humility is the capacity of being a human. Why is so difficult to be in others' skin? Why is so difficult to be a human being? The answer must be "fear." Fear that our feelings flow and fear of being ourselves.

    • Chris Wolfington
    • SVP, Ecount

    I think the wave of leadership material may be in part generated by the wave of managers who were hired at fast growing startups into leadership positions they were not qualified to occupy. Functionally, they may have had adequate knowledge, but too many were ill-prepared for the leadership challenges. I think this was recognized by these managers, their superiors, and subordinates, and has put special emphasis on the importance of good leadership.

    • Anonymous

    I think that the business world is evolving as a result of the information age and the technological advances that have been made. I also believe that the general consciousness of the public is also evolving—less company loyalty, more attempts to find balance between work and life, etc.

    The general business leadership principles are out-dated and don't work in this new paradigm effectively. Many of the books you listed were either written by psychologists in the self-help world (i.e. Daniel Goleman) or by folks who have been writing about leadership for many years and are attempting to update their information (i.e. Jim Collins). I believe we are seeing the convergence of the two worlds—both in information and business styles. The self-help world meets leadership. Why not? You have a captive audience and if all around you your business is failing or your employees are disgruntled with your archaic leadership style, why not turn to someone to "help?"

    The bottom line is that all around us our culture is changing and businesses, leaders, and people are changing with it. This is fertile ground for many willing "helpers." A real added value would be some kind of "index" that would help you find the right books for when you need them.