Updated: Feb 17, 2021
This article is part of the Writing to Mary and Jack series.
Dear Mary and Jack,
Every so often a client of mine, usually a beginning or aspiring manager asks me for advice about what book to read. The question usually goes like this: “I’m due to take responsibility of a team in a few months, and it will be the first time I manage people, what book would you recommend me to read?”
I love this question. It often comes charged with the anticipation of the challenge ahead, the anxiety to do well, the hope to succeed, whatever success means.
I love the question because at this point, I can give a provocative answer, not for the pleasure of provocation, but with the hope that there would be some wisdom in it. Let me explain.
Western civilization is predicated on two things: time and science.
About time …
In all countries in the world where Christianity or Islam have shaped culture and spirituality (At least half of mankind declares being affiliated with one or the other. See Pew, 2015 [i]), the common denominator of our lives is the number one.
We have only one life.
From birth we learn that it is incumbent on us to make it count. We live under the imperative that each minute can either contribute to making something out of our life or be wasted. So, we endeavour to spend it as best we can, or at the very least, feel bad when we have the feeling that we do not. Procrastination is a sin (And being the number one, the ultimate achievement).
Time pressure is not only ubiquitous in the business world, it is the basis of everything. Capitalism is predicated on the time-value of money. Some of its economic mechanisms may seem complicated, but their common foundation is the notion that there exists a correspondence between time that passes, and financial value. A million Euro is worth more today than next year, because of the value that could be created with it in the meantime. Unused (non-invested) money depreciates with time.
There is usefulness in this concept for managing money. But the minute the quest for more money becomes the centre of our preoccupations, the moment we collectively switch from having a market economy, to having a market society, as Michael Sandel would say, the idea that time has value, and that this value is wasted if it is not invested, pervades all areas of our life.
We are thus permanently in a race against the clock. From back-to-back calls, to engineering seamless experiences that take less and less time, through hitting the ground running, accelerating the business, or executing at scale, all our vocabulary is infused with this imperative of going faster.
As they see a first management experience coming up, some will wonder how they can accelerate their learning curve, how they can “get ahead”. Leading people however has a time of its own. How long do you need to feel comfortable and in a state of flow in conversation with someone you had never met before? For me, it can be anywhere from roughly 30 to 50 minutes, there is just no shortening it. Ok. Now think about the last time you met someone for the first time. How long exactly did you spend just getting acquainted, before getting down to business? See my point?
When it comes to leading people, the first (the only?) book to read is the one you write together with your team, moment after moment. How is the feeling? How do you react? How do they react? What do you need? Does it feel fluid or stuck? Does it feel like hard work, or are you left wanting for more?
I think observation of human interaction is the best and the only leadership teaching there is.
If you can experience this observation with your candour unbiased by any prior reading, so much the better.
About science …
In the age of enlightenment, we learned that humans do not need the intervention of God to manage their business. We do not need God for example, to intervene for us to put a man on the moon, we can do this all by ourselves with the help of science [ii]. Science is great to make rockets, no question about it.
The way science works is by describing nature as driven by immutable laws that can be derived from observation, intuition and experimentation, then used predictively. Over time, science has explored all realms of human knowledge, and wherever possible, evolved our ways to apprehend the world toward scientific exactitude.
All in all, what science boils down to, is producing knowledge about the world.
We all take what has been demonstrated scientifically to be true, why should we not? Great effort and methodology goes into scientific discovery. The least of all is not the necessary peer review process. Science thus teaches us that the world around us is host to hidden truths, and that scientific discovery is what separates us from the next breakthrough.
Scientific thinking has had a huge impact on the world, and how we live in it. It also has derailed some of our thinking about people. Many of my clients think that the more knowledge they have about leadership, the better they can lead. But leadership is not a knowledge question. Some knowledge about how humans work can be very helpful indeed, but mostly, the young manager asking for a book will be looking for knowledge about how to be a leader, and this is where it all goes wrong.
Any Internet search for leadership books will yield an incredible amount of references. Many of these are very useful, some are truly marvelous. But I content that they all are incredibly detrimental to inexperienced managers for two reasons:
First they may reinforce the idea that knowledge about leadership through reading is likely to increase management effectiveness. I do not believe that to be true for beginning leaders. Knowing the people you lead on the other hand, will. When management principles designed by someone else, for another group, another culture and in another time, come and cloud our capability to candidly observe what is happening in our own team and time, I believe we have done ourselves a disservice.
Second, many management books explain what leaders should do. Most articles published nowadays on the theme of leadership are shopping lists like "The 10 things great leaders do before brekfast". This reinforces the idea that there are immutable laws, scientifically proven and held truths about leadership, and that discovering them is the path to greatness. Again, I contend that this is not true. If a book tells you what to do and you do it, are you a leader? Or are you the follower of someone else's idea of what good leadership looks like?
I dispute the notion that leadership greatness truly exists. I believe that there are only people, normal people all, whatever normal means. I believe that sometimes, effective leadership unites them in such a way that they accomplish great things. What is great is the achievement of the team, and the team itself. Leaders... not so much.
To make it short... For first time managers, reading a book is running the risk of accumulating knowledge that will detract from knowing your people, and propose you cooking recipes created for another situation...
People are not machines. They are organisms. They are much more than the sum of their parts, and they cannot be analysed scientifically, nor can their character. Not at all. A scientific outlook is just not helpful with people. Nor is haste.
And I would know, because I have read a lot of books, and spent a large part of my life rushing from one thing to the next... And it did not help. So dear Mary and Jack, my answer to you will be same I gave them:
Read NO book.
And by the same logic, you should also not read this post... But if you have made it so far, I guess it's too late. Oh well, I hope I have done none of the things I accuse all the others of, and if I did, at least I told you what I am doing...
[i] Pew Research Center: Wormald B., April 2nd, 2015, The Future of World religions: Population Growth Projections 2010 - 2050. Link.
[ii] Today the third largest religious group in the world are people declaring themselves unaffiliated (Pew, 2015). It does not mean that they do not believe in anything or have no spirituality, but they do not declare any religious affiliation. Indeed, in a world where science endeavours to explain everything, why should we bother having a God?