A guide for wannabe leadership gurus

How aspiring management writers can stand out in a crowded field


THE SHEER amount of guff written about leadership, management and careers is staggering. Publishers spew out new business titles, some good, most not. Research papers proliferate, exploring everything from the impact of covid-19 on leadership in dental practices in England to the prevalence of psychopathy among sustainability managers. Blogs, newsletters, podcasts, social-media posts and columns (oh my God, the columns) add to the torrent of advice. It is hard for any would-be business guru to stand out in this ocean of effluent. That leaves a striking gap in the market—for a book on how to write a bestseller about leadership.

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A publication of this sort could start by noting that the most useful writing about business leadership focuses on people who run actual companies and take actual decisions. But usefulness is a terribly old-fashioned path to success. This how-to guide would quickly move on, and point to three other approaches that can help budding authors grab the attention of readers.

The first is striking the right note of unreality. Two things are likely to be true of people searching for leadership advice: they have not made it, and they would like a shortcut to success. These readers do not want to hear that the route to the top is a Darwinian struggle that takes place over many years and that demands highly unusual attributes. They are after something that can be bought on Amazon and delivered the next day. They definitely do not want to be told that, by definition, only a few can succeed. If you are working on a book called “Loser: Why You Are Doomed to Disappointment”, stop. (Actually, don’t.)

The job of the wannabe guru is to make their readers think that unimaginable success is within their reach. If only they believed in themselves a bit more or picked up a few new habits—waking up stupidly early, say, or keeping a journal—wealth will surely follow.

This, incidentally, is why management mavens should embrace numbered lists (the fact that this is a numbered list is purely coincidental). Research done in 2011 found that drawing up plans to achieve goals can reduce the cognitive stress caused by unfinished tasks. By the same token the illusion that a finite number of steps will unlock success is itself deeply comforting.

The second bit of advice for a would-be leadership writer is to find uncontested ground. In the battle for attention, it can help to focus on something wholly unconnected to business and to argue that the subject has something to teach managers. That approach gives the aspiring guru a chance to write about a topic or person that will attract a wider readership. It also builds their reputation as someone who can connect dots even (perhaps especially) when there are no dots to join.

Some of these sources of leadership lessons are familiar: sports coaches and military commanders, Shackleton and Shakespeare, Trappist monks and Stoic philosophers. But authors limit themselves unnecessarily by narrowing the horizon to humans. An entire subgenre of internet posts offers leadership lessons from animals, for example. Keen to know how a giraffe would perform as CEO? So useless at managing projects that you are driven to wonder whether an elephant would do better? From inclusivity and lice to change management and dodos, only one thing mentioned in this paragraph is made up.

Indeed, why draw the line at sentient beings? “Skin: Leadership Lessons from the World’s Largest Organ” is a book idea crying out for an author. Skin constantly renews itself, as a thriving company should. It has a purpose. It is flexible. Sure, it has zero self-awareness, but look around: that is not an obvious bar to corporate success.

The third piece of advice is to pick the right title. Conveying a sense of urgency is vital: one-syllable words are the norm for a reason. A dollop of physicality—suggestiveness, even—can be helpful, perhaps because potential readers are so likely to be sagging behind a desk. And for all the emphasis on co-operation and purpose, it doesn’t hurt to embrace zero-sum words about winning, victory and coming first. A title like “Love Bomb: Be Kind and Crush Your Rivals” makes for a nice blend of emotional intelligence and pent-up violence.

With the synopsis settled, all that remains is to unveil a name for this how-to-write-a-leadership-book book. “Bollocks: Three Ways to Write and Get Rich” will be in stores this autumn and is available for pre-order now.

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Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:

Rio Tinto and the problem of toxic culture (Feb 12th 2022)

Body language in the post-pandemic workplace (Feb 5th 2022)

Purpose and the employee (Jan 29th 2022)

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Writing about leadership”

https://www.economist.com/business/2022/02/19/a-guide-for-wannabe-leadership-gurus, The Economist
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