Don’t Be the Book

“Don’t be the book,” my mentor, colleague and former boss, Dick Scott, would always say at the beginning of a week-long, global leadership program that we would facilitate. This phrase sticks in my brain ever since I first heard it 11 years ago. As the years pass, I find deeper levels of meaning to this phrase.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of books, articles and talks are published about leadership every year.
Leadership is described with words like:

• Primal
• Magnetic
• Fusion
• Transformational
• Authentic
• Level 3
• Level 5, etc., etc.

An Internet search of the phrase “leadership model” yielded 433,000 results and countless images. Can leadership really be so many different things? How can anyone make sense of all of this information?

We can take some solace in another quote, this one from eminent statistician, George E.P. Box: “All models are wrong, some are useful.” In the case of leadership models, one wonders, “Why is a model wrong?” With apologies to Professor Box and my layman’s interpretation of his philosophy, they are wrong because they don’t completely fit the psychology, experience and context of any one leader. However, they can be useful to any one leader.

To be useful, though, requires a certain mindset of the leader: The willingness to sift through these diverse ideas and models and select the pieces and parts that fit her or him. In order for the leader to assess fit the leaders must have an idea of who she is.

Maybe she has already reflected about things like values, strengths, experiences, weaknesses, personality and style. Having done this, even a little bit, she is now in a better position to answer the question: “How does this book apply to me”? The habits of reading these sources, reflecting upon challenging experiences, and getting feedback from others will help her clarify and refine her own approach of leadership – her model of leadership.

This is difficult and takes some study, discernment and time. Many people, especially those in management positions, have a hard time taking this time. I know. I’ve been in management and I’ve coached managers. We want it easy and fast.

Approximately 7-10 times per year, for the last 17 years, I’ve received requests from managers asking me about the hot new leadership book, or recommending one that is a “must-read.” Often, they will ask me to build a workshop from this must-read so that they can give leadership training to their employees. First, it is good that 1) they are reading the book and 2) that they have the best of intentions for their employees. This is a good start. However, if it stops here, the event loses its power for all involved. Many times, I confess, I’ve have developed those workshops, the leader punched that ticket, the group had a good day away from the grind, then got back to work afterwards …. and nothing changed. The leader, and the group, did not improve their behaviors, and I was not an effective consultant.

So, becoming a good – or even great – leader, as in anything else in life requiring mastery, takes hard work, perseverance and time. There is nothing new or novel here. We all really know this. So keep reading those books, extracting the pearls of wisdom that give you new insights, and add to your leadership repertoire, and also importantly, reject those parts that don’t fit you. And, if you do use the services of a leadership development consultant, ask them how he will help you after the workshop.

And if this simple essay doesn’t really stick with you, just remember this one thing: “Don’t be the book.”

Bill Fanelli is the owner of Fanelli Pathways LLC and formerly developed leaders at Eli Lilly and Company. Email Bill at

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