Leadership, the literary critique

29/10/2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve been reading The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. It’s another one of these management/leadership books, the ones that crowd shelves in airports and chain bookshops.

Its writing style is quite formulaic.* I assume that someone has studied this sort of thing and told writers of these types of books the correct formula to connect with readers. That got me thinking about one of my favourite classes at university. In the middle of my literature degree, we had a paper on what they call ‘paraliterature‘. This is all those romance novels and police novels that also crowd bookshop shelves. At the time, they accounted for something like 80% of fiction book sales while all that literature we were studying accounted for only 20%.

I was fascinated by the romance novel formula. About every 40 pages, there’s a love scene. Check it out — open up a Harlequin novel, turn to page 40 or 80 or 120, and you’ll be within a page or two of strong hands and teasing lips.

But another thing about the novels is the character development. The novels are about true love, about a woman finding the one person who completes her, who fits. You know how the novel will end — the gal and the guy figure out that they were meant for each other. A consequence of this pre-determined trajectory is that every setback is temporary, every obstacle will be overcome. They exist in the book only to prove the true-ness of the love.

It is the same with The Leadership Challenge. The book is filled with anecdotes about this sales manager or that CEO who applied the lessons of the book and turned things around. The team might have been dysfunctional, the process might have been desperately behind schedule, the leader might have been completely unprepared. But, you know already that the person is going to overcome the obstacles, which only exist in the anecdote to prove the validity of the leadership techniques.

The lessons, therefore, are hollow. They are no more substantial than a romance novel. The ‘characters’ are cardboard cut-outs who don’t have to deal with the real issues of actual workplaces. The situations are contrived and don’t represent real challenges that could actually sink a project or a career. It’s a world without Dilbert, the Peter Principle, or any of Parkinson’s Laws. In the book, success is pre-ordained. This may be the way to increase sales, but it’s hard to see how it reflects the challenges of leadership.

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* I would be remiss if I didn’t refer to Orwell’s novel-writing machine in 1984. I do wonder if they aren’t in more widespread use than we care to recognise.

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§ 3 Responses to Leadership, the literary critique

  • Andrew says:

    I teach a post-grad leadership and change course, we would call this book ’1st conversation’ as it purports to have figured out ‘the key’! We then go on a teach a ’2nd conversation’ centred primarily around the politics of organisations, from the murky to the ridiculous and everything in between. But our primary work is on a ’3rd conversation’, a way of explaining why Kouzes & Pozner and all of the other formulaic texts are, in essence, just as likely to produce worse outcomes as they are to produce better ones. This 3rd conversation uses Marx, Freud and Foucault – challenging but necessary.

    My biggest worry is that texts like this one represent the ‘voice’ of modern pop-management. All the short courses use them or something like them… I need to develop a short course on how Lacan would answer this 1st conversation. Perhaps with an invitation to his couch?

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