Monday, September 27, 2010

Review - The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership by Warren Blank and Aaron Brown

Short review: A quirky book that tries to compare leadership to quantum physics.

With natural laws
Leadership's like quantum physics
Well, no, not really

Full review: The 9 Natural Laws of Leadership is one of the many management advice books one can pick up that claim to offer suggestions that will transform the reader from an ineffective bumbler to a skilled leader who will inspire those around them into heroic efforts on the job. Given that the market for such books is so saturated, each new book must come up with some sort of unique element that will set it apart from the crowd. To this end, Warren Blank and Aaron Brown made the rather odd choice to try to draw a parallel between leadership in the workplace and physics. The authors assert that they are not so much creating the concepts outlined in the book as discovering them, much as physicists through history have discovered the laws of the universe, hence they are revealing the "natural laws" of leadership rather than inventing them.

The authors carry the physics analogy even further, stressing a difference between their theory of leadership, which they compare to quantum mechanics and dub "quantum leadership" and the traditional thinking concerning management and leadership which they compare to Newtonian or "classical" physics. One of the central arguments of the book, built upon this comparison of quantum mechanics and leadership, is that leadership is not a continuous attribute, but rather a phenomenon that happens in reference to discrete events. The laws also emphasize that leadership results not from position, but from the willingness of others to follow the person who seizes the initiative and takes the lead. In effect, the theory allows for the book to be of interest not just to people in management positions, but to anyone who thinks that they could be a "leader". A cynic might suggest that this allows for more books to be sold. An optimist might decide that the theory is just that good.

Although I'm not entirely convinced, I lean a little towards the optimistic side of the coin with respect to the strategies outlined in the book. The nine laws, as outlined in the book, generally seem like good guidelines, although some are so trivially obvious that their inclusion seems almost extraneous, and others are phrased in such "New Age" style language as to make them seem silly, such as "Leadership is a field of interaction", and "Consciousness . . . creates leadership". These elements, however, seem to hover on the fringes of the argument, apparently placed into the framework to get to the presumably pleasing number of nine laws. The core argument - that leadership is an event based phenomenon in which one seizes the initiative and inspires willing followers - seems to be a fundamentally sound one.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from a failing that seems to plague a lot of management advice books: while it gives a theoretical framework, and a couple of "examples" of the framework being put into action, the people who will be most effective at implementing the concepts from the book in the real world are people who were probably already really good at leading others to begin with. For those who are merely average or actually inept, the book will probably have far less utility, because telling someone that they must take risks and accept uncertainty is very different than giving them concrete strategies for actually doing things that will make them better in noticeable ways. In effect, this book, like so many similar books, is probably mostly effective for elevating good leaders to being great but less useful for changing bad leaders into decent ones. This isn't really a condemnation of the book, so much as it is a failing common to most books on this subject. That said, while I doubt the usefulness of the book will be diminished for those who are not good at leading already, the strategies outlined in the book should be of at least some value to anyone who reads it.

Despite a somewhat strangely constructed framing mechanism that compares the book's theory of leadership to quantum physics, and a couple of less than impressive or useful "natural laws", this is a fairly decent book about leadership. The overall thrust of the book makes a strong statement about what a leader is, and what leaders do. The only real weakness is that it is somewhat less than useful for making a leader out of someone who doesn't already know how to do the things that the authors assert are the components of seizing the leadership moment. However, this book will probably be of great value to someone who has skills but needs to focus them more effectively, and will be of at least some value even for those people who do not and want to try to acquire them.

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