The Leadership Framework: Do Management Bestsellers provide Applicable Insights for CEOs?

By Steven Dunne

The output of books on leadership is enormous. Combined with a backlog of must-read classics, the new learning opportunities for business leaders are incredibly diverse.

But how can you get relevant insight into leadership that you can use in your own business to drive organisational success?

The starting assessment must be based on what it is about leadership that you are trying to uncover.  The personal stories in business books can be inspiring but are often light on detail, lacking theoretical underpinning, with no externally verifiable evidence or any critique of the conclusions drawn. They provide great after-dinner anecdotes, but do they really provide insight that is relevant and repeatable?

Leadership – all in the personality?

Leadership theory started with trait theory (the search to identify “great man” characteristics) in the beginning of the 20th century and this was dominant until the 1960s when it fell out of favour, replaced initially by behavioural theory (differentiating between task-orientated and relationship orientated) and then contingency theory (situation-based behaviour).  Trait theory is now back, sliced up and repackaged as new theories.  Emotional Intelligence, for example, is a modern trait theory focusing on a few personality traits know to have some, although weak, correlations with leadership success, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy.

The business sages of the 1980s were the ones who really set the template for management books. Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and John Kotter, created compelling stories and easy-to-follow recipes such as:

Drucker’s eight simple rules – start with what needs to be done

Kotter’s eight-step change model – start by creating a sense of urgency

Peters’ eight common themes for success – the first is “getting on with it”

All three are based on retrofitting their theory to known and often anonymised examples of performance (and the number eight). They all equally highlight the importance of good execution, which is hard to argue with, but the methodology and failure to be predictive means they have no credibility in academic circles.

Personality for Success

A huge number of academic studies on leadership have pinpointed a variety of leader personality traits in different situations. The most common characteristics are:

  • Cognitive ability/Intelligence
  • Self-confidence
  • Sociability/Openness
  • Resilience
  • Extroversion

The correlation of traits to success is also complicated by the lack of linear relationships between the traits and outcomes; intelligence is necessary to a degree, but it doesn’t correlate that the most intelligent are the most successful.  Self-confidence can spill over into arrogance or excessive risk taking and excessive openness can lead to being overly concerned with popularity over driving better performance.

How applicable are leadership theories?

The framework is a core selling point of many management books and having a structured is undoubtedly useful. However, the issue remains that there is no strong evidence proving causation between use of the methods proposed and success – despite the certainty that the authors imply.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has made the point in his books on randomness that the enormous inequality in outcome seen amongst entrepreneurs can only be explained by luck not skill. You should therefore be wary of only taking lessons from the most successful.

You can, however, improve your odds of making the most of the good or bad fortune that comes your way by being prepared and learning from others. Don’t take management books as gospel. Instead, take the academic approach and read with a critical eye. Are the claims substantiated? Is it causation or just coincidence?

What is the best way to learn to lead successfully?

Drucker and Kotter effectively debunked the idea that leadership was innate and that particular traits can predict a leader’s success. Some traits may improve your chances of success, but no single trait or combination is essential. An ingredient that does appear to consistently improve your chances, though, is the experience of the journey combined with a self-reflective willingness to learn about what works and what does not in a real-world context.

The one author who sits comfortably in both the best seller lists and academic esteem is Warren Bennis. He extols the virtue of learning through transformative events he refers to as “crucibles”.  Finding meaning in adversity and learning the lessons it teaches is what Warren claims sets future inspiring leaders apart. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses and being self-aware enough to see when something that was working before now needs to change, is essential.

Empirical evidence does point to experienced leaders with a broader perspective having the best chance of success. Noam Wasserman, author of The Founder’s Dilemmas, has further demonstrated an empirical link between attracting resources (human, social and capital) to an organisation and improving outcomes. Loosening founder control to attract these resources has a big impact on chances of success.

You cannot choose your level of personal experience but sharing the journey with people with relevant experience can accelerate your development and improve your chances. Adding to this by absorbing lessons from the successful case studies in many good leadership books can help – as long as they are consumed from a critical perspective.

Steven Dunne

Article by Steven Dunne, Senior Partner

Steven has over 15 years of private equity experience gained both within private equity firms and as a senior executive of private equity backed companies. He joined Frog as CFO and Partner in charge of Portfolio in 2015. He represents Frog on the boards of Mediatonic, Scoota and Edited.