April 2, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 11:57 am
BIZ BOOKS

Two new books explore approaches to leadership

"The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership" by Gary Burnison (McGraw-Hill, $28).

Burnison, CEO of the talent management firm Korn/Ferry International, uses his conversations with business leaders to explore and define leadership focus. Effective leadership turns the 12 intertwined absolutes — Lead, Purpose, Strategy, People, Measure, Empower, Reward, Anticipate, Navigate, Communicate, Listen and Learn — into sustainable action. While the book targets executives, there's much aspiring leaders can learn and apply as they climb the organizational lattice.

Let's look at a few of the absolutes:

Purpose — This is what we do and why we do it. Leaders remember that thousands of decisions are made each day by employees far from the executive office. Employees aligned with organizational purpose create profit; without alignment, they create chaos.

Strategy — The plans always look great on paper. Execution is another matter. Leaders "establish a culture of learning" because execution today and tomorrow depends on doing "something new and different on the individual and organizational levels."

Navigate — "Failure to choose is a choice." Course correction requires paying attention to what's happening outside the company. The key question: "How is innovation changing products and services that our customers have come to rely on?" Finding the answers depends on the ability of the leader and the followers to "separate signals from noise."

The key takeaway: "Words motivate; actions inspire." "Leadership is not a unilateral action; it requires others. People vote with their feet. If they do not like what the leader is doing, they won't follow." When your best people leave, you're left with mediocrity — which can't build a business.

• • •

"The End of Leadership" by Barbara Kellerman (Harper Business, $27.99).

Numerous studies cite that poor management as the #1 reason for employee turnover. Given the millions of dollars and hours spent by companies on leadership development, the corporate rhetoric about people being a firm's #1 asset and the proliferation of books on leadership, it's apparent that preach hasn't turned into practice.

Kellerman calls into question the wisdom of current thinking about leadership education because there's scant evidence to show it works. "The fundamental model based on the leader at the center is wrong." Business school curriculum, particularly executive education, follows the money — there's more to be made on leadership development and little to be made in developing followers. The schools forgot that outcomes result from the productivity, creativity and ingenuity of ready, willing and followers.

Corporate leadership programs fare no better. Most of their success measurements involve feedback from participants. What manager and executive would say the program was of no benefit? They should be measuring how-have-things-changed results through feedback from the followers.

Still following the money trail, leadership education on all fronts deals with good leadership while ignoring what happens when you have bad leaders. It's like teaching everything they should know about maintaining corporate health "while teaching them nothing about eliminating bad health."

It also assumes leadership can be taught — despite the lack of empirical evidence that confirms or disproves the assumption. Additionally, despite that fact that business can be local, regional, national, global and viral simultaneously, virtually all leadership development programs couple short-timeframe training with a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Followership and leadership are kindred spirits. Without a good team, even the best leader can fail.

Jim Pawlak is a nationally syndicated book reviewer.

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