Management By Best-Selling Leadership Book – They’re Laughing at You.

Kris Dunn Books, Culture, Employee Coaching, Employee Engagement, HR, Kris Dunn, Leadership, Learning and Development, Managing People, Robots 7 Comments

Let me start this post by making a disclaimer – I’m not anti-leadership book, nor am I anti-personal development. There’s a real need for all of us to look for ways to get better at what we do professionally. I believe enough in leadership/management skills that I actually created a training series for managers of people called the BOSS Series.

The BOSS Series consists of 7 modules that help managers navigate the most important conversations they have with their direct reports – in their own, authentic voice.

So I’m a believer in the need to get better as a leader/manager of people, but it’s the word that I’ve bolded/italicized above that is key and the subject of this rant.


As it turns out the appetite of leaders/managers to get better at their craft can be broken down into the following groups:

Laggards: Not naturals, not super interested in putting the time and effort forward to become better leaders.

Fast Followers: Good people who want to do good things. They’re too busy to chase it on their own, but if you provide the right training and development environment, you’ll get ROI on your investment because they’ll try, internalize the program and attempt to put new skills to use in the field.

Naturals: You don’t even have to do anything. These leaders have the natural DNA, and they’re already soaking things up from the world around them to become better leaders – they’re reading, tweaking their approach and learning as they go.  This accounts for 5% of your manager population, btw.

Enthusiastic Robots: The subject of this post. This leader doesn’t have the innate leadership gene of the natural, but they see the need and want to do great things – which is where the problem begins.

That last group often deploys what I’ll call Management By Best-Selling Leadership Book. The Robot wants to be a top-tier leader, so much so, that they consume many best sellers on their leadership bookshelf and then the following happens:

1–They try to install techniques they read about in the aforementioned books without consideration to their personal style, the needs of their team or the existing culture.

2–They reference the technique in the book, which has the unfortunate outcome of telling their team they’re doing a hard install of the technique in question.

3–They do multiple installs in a given year, which gives the team they manage the sense that – you guessed it – the ideas aren’t their own, and they install techniques without much consideration of what actually works best for the team.

4–At times, they love what they read so much that they actually order copies of the book for their team, especially if that team consists of other managers of people. Hey, look – The five dysfunctions of teams! That means I’m dysfunctional, right?  If you order a book a year for your team without much discussion with them of what they actually want or need, you might be The Robot (said in Jeff Foxworthy voice).

The Robot isn’t a bad person. He or she has simply taken a mechanical approach to the topic of leadership and failed to customize the technique they first hear of in a book to their personal management style.

Over time, their direct reports grow weary of the approach, which can cause the leaders to look unauthentic and worse yet, have the team snickering behind their back because of it.

The irony is that at least half of the “Robots” in question don’t need the crutch. They’re good enough to survive and thrive on their own merits.

If you’ve recently read a best seller on leadership and you’re thinking about doing an install of some of the things you’ve learned, let me give you some great advice. Talk to the team about what you’ve read, but take a balanced feedback approach. Tell them what you loved, but contrast what you thought was BS in the method.

Then install what you want to install (new 1-1 format, etc.), but make sure you go back to the team and get feedback about what they think. From there, adjust accordingly and make tweaks quickly.

Install leadership techniques with a healthy dose of pragmatic management, and you’ll never be accused of being a Robot.

Or just give your team the book you just read with the quote, “I loved this and can’t wait for us to do this,” and watch them break into the following dance when they think you aren’t watching.

Kris Dunn
Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He's also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.

Comments 7

  1. I’ve got my own term for this: Airport Management. Exec kills time at the airport by browsing Hudson’s or the equivalent, picks up a copy of the current best-selling management book, and *poof* “let’s change everything!” Been there, suffered that, still have a fleece scarf commemorating a quality initiative that fizzled like a soggy firework.

    On the other hand, that experience produced a great term paper for one of my master’s classes, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. Nice scarf, too.

    1. did the scarf have a logo of the initiative? That would seem to limit the places you could wear it…

      Like Airport Management! Maybe the “Hudson’s Method”…


      1. Luckily it just had the company logo and some generic statement about quality. I have no idea why they selected a scarf as the ideal way to remind employees about the initiative; that would have made sense in my current location (Pacific Northwest) but not in D.C.

        The initiative was built around Collins’s “From Good to Great” concept, so I read the book after the initial announcement. Somewhere in the first few pages, Collins noted that the worst way to focus on quality was to make a big announcement that you were going to focus on quality. That was hint #1 that this was going to be an entertaining mess.

        To give full credit, they learned from their failure and turned the effort over to org development professionals who actually knew what they were doing. I was long gone by that time, though.

  2. This blog hits the mark. Years ago I was in at a company where everyone on the management team got a subscription to Soundview Executive Book Summaries so that we could keep one step ahead of our SVP who really liked to manage by best sellers.

    It was definitely a defensive move on our part because we were all getting whiplash from one day being a blue ocean strategy followed immediately by some sort of flywheel thing to wrapping up the month a deep dive on where we are most prone to disruption.

    It was fun for a while but it eventually exhausted everyone.

  3. Everyone wants the magic pill. If only we could do x+y+z all of our problems will go away. (Nevermind, just x becuase y and z will take too much energy – we want easy, not effective)

    The passive aggressive intervention – just wait, duck and cover, and they’ll eventually go away. I did this when I was on the “dark side” of HR (a term used by my colleagues in training and development to describe those of us who were on the “other side” of HR. I was in comp and tech).

    The nice intervention – suggest that the leadership team use it as a book club vs. a new program. Use the classic – start, stop, continue discussion framework to see how the ideas in the book could help improve organizational performance. Have someone wear the cynic hat and play it out. (More fun if you do this in a bar over drinks and aps for about 2 hours)

    The OD intervention – ask the diagnostic questions – What do we hope will change? How does this fit into our other organizational priorities? What are we trying to solve? What are we trying to optimize? How does this compliment or oppose current work? What is the relationship of the topic to company vision, mission, and values (lots of books on that!). Can we define/map our current system – let’s start there first? Do a classic SWOT or SOAR and see if the books fits. Either this will resonate, or people will tire of the question asking.

  4. Pingback: Management By Best-Selling Leadership Book – They’re Laughing at You. - TAtech

  5. This “by-the-book-because-I bought-the-book” approach certainly lacks authenticity. The lack of a gap analysis to identify what really needs to be addressed and customized solutions will lead to a rather resentful staff. Your solution of bringing new ideas to the team via what you have learned and allowing their input is key to not only building a stronger team but a team that respects you – even when you are not in the room.

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