The Truth About Leadership: A Review

The other day, I received a nice little surprise in the mail. I had entered a Twitter contest and won a free book. The best part? It was a copy of The Truth About Leadership, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, and it was already on my list to purchase as it is in my area of research and education.

After reading the book, I’m quite enthused about it and I thought I would share a little of why. This isn’t a formal book review, but I will review some parts of the book that I think are most helpful and important.

I found it a breath of fresh air on the topic of Leadership. Have you been in a Chapters or Barnes & Noble bookstore recently and seen the myriad books on Leadership ? It can be vertigo-inducing and cause you to spill your $4.50 latte (gasp!). The Truth About Leadership stands out for two reasons: it’s bright red (!); and it has the best sub-title: The no-fads, heart-of-the-matter facts you need to know. Thank you for no fads, heart, and facts. We don’t need more leadership fads, thank-you-very-much. We need more leadership heart. And I’m sick of the fluff of leadership – it’s time for more facts.

As for the no-fads part? I laughed out loud as I read how this book wasn’t about irrefutable laws. Thank you for saying that, Kouzes & Posner! I’m sorry, Mr. Maxwell, but almost every single one of your 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership can be refuted. It’s about time someone with an ounce of humility spoke up.

Yet the authors are bold enough to call something that’s been the same for 25 years “the truth” (see the story on page xviii).  I agree with them – over 1 million points of data that have remained consistent over 25 years constitutes a high degree of truth that most other leadership books can’t claim.

Kouzes & Posner list 10 truths of leadership, everything from “You Can Make a Difference” to “Trust Rules” (yes, it does), to “Challenge is the Crucible for Greatness”, to my personal favourite, “Leadership Is an Affair of the Heart”. These are foundational truths, or to use a phrase that has less of a fundamentalist ring to it, these are the place to start. For example, “Leadership begins when you believe you can make a difference” is the basis of chapter one  and is a very suitable place to begin.

Now for my favourite and not-so-favourite parts of the book. Let’s start with the not-so-favourites: I found the beginning of the book to be boring. Yes, there are personal stories of real people that illustrate the truths. Yes, the truths are basic, foundational things. But I must admit to skimming a fair chunk of the early chapters. This probably says more about me than the book, but I was bored. That didn’t last long, though.

I skidded to a stop on the fourth truth of Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart. This has been a pet peeve of mine for a while. Too much of leadership writing describes this in mythical, religious terms such as “vision,” or “dreams,” or a “mountain-top experience.” Hogwash! Kouzes & Posner are dead-on: this is very unhelpful for young aspiring leaders and only sets them up for failure. Even worse, I believe it is a self-centered, egotistical approach to leadership. What is helpful is to watch your life trajectory (Where have you been? What preparatory steps have you taken?) and immerse yourself in the future by looking for possibilities, reading about new developments, and getting to know the world. For example, once you know document scanners are cheap enough for almost anyone in North America to own, you know that you’ll be asked to send records electronically and you might need to look into the requirements to make that possible.

My next favourite chapter is Trust Rules. “Trust rules your personal credibility. Trust rules your ability to get things done. Trust rules your team’s cohesiveness. Trust rules…” (p. 76). Amen! But there’s more and better: “Even so, you have to be the first to trust. You have to go first because people who demonstrate trust in others are seen as more trustworthy themselves” (p. 80). Someone has to get it started and that’s what leaders do. I’ve seen the demand for trust in literature before, but never the charge to go first. I can’t think of anything more beneficial in relationships and leadership than that truth.

Chapter nine: The Best Leaders are the Best Learners is another way of saying one aspect of leadership is being an expert. In the operating room, there is only one leader – the surgeon. In the mechanics shop, it’s the mechanic who leads. On the river, it’s the canoe guide who leads. They’ve been there before, they have more training and knowledge than you or I. But being the best learner means you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to keep learning to keep seeing the future, to keep growing and daily earn and re-earn the trust and respect of your followers. And it’s absolutely critical to the final chapter.

Chapter Ten: Leadership is an Affair of the Heart touched me deeply. I’m sure you know people who are in love with the idea of leadership. They’re dangerous people. They are like people who are in love with the idea of being in love, and that’s a recipe for throwing yourself at the first person who pays attention to you. Yikes!

True love, like true leadership, places others at the centre. It is not about me seeking love or leadership; it’s about giving it to others.

My favourite three words in the entire book are, “Love enlarges lives” (p. 139). When someone says, “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” I know that person is a people-shrinker, a trust-thief, a self-centered person. Instead, leadership is like farming: promoting growth, nurture, service and care for others. Leadership is all about what’s possible, especially for the people who follow. Love makes more possible than we can ask or imagine.

Finally, I enjoyed the Epilogue. Kouzes and Posner tell the riddle of twelve frogs (p. 162-163):

Twelve frogs are sitting on a log. Twelve frogs decide to jump into the pond. How many frogs remain on the log?

The answer? Twelve. Twelve frogs remain on the log because there is a clear difference between deciding to jump and jumping. If you’re going to lead, you not only have to decide, but you also have to make the leap.

Leadership is decisions in action. Deciding to say yes to do things and following through to actually doing them makes you a leader.

The Truth About Leadership is well worth reading. I found it simple, yet profound, truthful, and a breath of fresh air. It was not the slightest bit pretentious, but written with humility and a foundation of research. I quite enjoyed it.

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7 thoughts on “The Truth About Leadership: A Review

  1. This book sounds like CWC manuals on leadership. Good stuff. I’m still learning that kind of leadership, and it IS effective. Betty C. has modeled it for me.

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    1. You’re right, Sharon, the church (I’m including CWC, camps, and other para-church organizations) has been way ahead of business on some parts of leadership – particularly in mentoring and love. The ability of the church to train young leaders by giving them opportunities to grow in a safe environment is amazing.

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