Friendship bracelets, necklaces and crowns

Lockdown has been a challenge for all of us.  Those with children at school have had to double-up as teachers while finding time to do the day job at night. Whatever we have done has been achieved under exceptional circumstances. Annual appraisals have needed an approach to evaluation much like diving is marked in competitions: both for execution and difficulty.  If the evidence is right, then we have become addicted to the news, bought more on-line and consumed more alcohol.  Apparently, we have also been reading more and those of us in the universities have been writing more also.

While writing myself, I have also been asked to evaluate a few books on leadership, my specialist subject.  Some were sent to me by authors on the off-chance I might be interested, some were sent by publishers seeking advice on whether or not to publish and others were sent by friends who had found books in unexpected places.  As a result, I have made the breath-taking discovery that all books are not the same!

Of course, no two books are identical, though some authors seem to play ‘cut and paste’ so that earlier books become later books by rearrangement.  But books on leadership seem to be of three types: the friendship bracelet, the necklace and the crown.

Friendship bracelets are essentially personal and produced with the best and kindest of intentions.  My daughters made one or two for me as they were growing up and I treasured them, not for their crafting or expense but because they were personal.  A number of the books I have been reading are like that.  They are declarations of personal beliefs illustrated by anecdotes.  They describe a leader’s experiences and summarise their lessons learned, setting out the implications for other leaders in the hope that this will be helpful. 

One example I read two months ago was written by an experienced business consultant and consisted of lessons he had put together over two decades of consultancy.  He focused on those ideas and techniques his clients had found most helpful to them.  It was experience systematised and illustrated. It had a similar feel to a theatre review: clear, interesting and idiosyncratic.  The author was happy for the ideas to be considered and used freely but made no claim as to the generalisability of the contents.  The reader could take it or leave it.

Other books, and many business school course, are like necklaces.  They consist of jewels loosely strung together.  There is no unifying framework or idea but each element has value.  Leadership in the real world cannot remain fractured like this but choosing which ideas have more worth or relevance to each reader and putting them together into something more coherent is left to the readers themselves. 

These books also tend to have a similar approach to the presentation and discussion of evidence.  They tend to select and narrate stories which supports the argument, either by describing successes or failures.  ‘Here is an organisation that did exactly what we are saying and they succeeded, whereas here is an organisation that did the opposite and they failed.’  These books offer some evidence but it is not strictly empirical nor is it systematically collected.  So the generalisability of the ideas in the book is not demonstrated other than rhetorically.  The stories are illustrative but not comprehensive.

Then there are crowns.  These books (and courses) have a point of view: a unifying idea or theory which emerges from evidence presented.  These two characteristics tend to go together.  The crown books favour empirical evidence, meta-analyses and peer reviewed findings.  They suggest core ideas that follow from the evidence and suggest generalisability based on the current state of the research.  They do not imply that they are true for all time but, typically, that the contents may be the best we can do so far given our understanding.

Each type of book has its advocates, its merits and its problems.  The friendship bracelets are usually easy to assimilate and tend to be straightforward.  The necklaces impress with the quality of some of the jewels.  The crowns offer the integration of ideas that are evidence based.  But the friendship bracelets can soon seem faddish, the necklaces incoherent and the crowns heavy.

In business schools, we tend to try to produce crowns and then try equally hard to make them accessible in the belief that evidence is key.  We try to design our courses like that also.  In executive education, we have great discussions with our clients who push us to be practical while we push them to be more empirical.  Hence our love of co-creation.

So now I’m off to progress my next book on Leadership Jazz, written with one of my clients.  It is about rapid adaptation to unpredictable change through improvisation and experimentation and I’m still trying not to think of that as RAUnChIE.

David Pendleton, Professor in Leadership, Henley Business School 03/04/21

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