Thoughts on Leaders – Insight from Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker

“People who fetishize leadership sometimes find themselves longing for crisis. They yearn for emergency, dreaming of a doomsday to be narrowly averted.”
Joshua Rothman, Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules.
(from The New Yorker)


We successfully train people all the time. People are trained to do graphic design; to fix pot holes; to successfully use a forklift; to write computer code.

But – and this is a big but – the closer we got to the big “soft skills,” the tougher it is to actually, successfully train a person. It’s not impossible, but it is not easy.

And of all the “soft skills” out there, the big kahuna of them all is LEADERSHIP. How do we train leaders successfully?

I have read, and presented synopses of, books about leadership, and books about successful leaders and failed leaders. There seems to be a pretty big consensus that we don’t have enough successful leaders. Not for companies; not for organizations; not for our country.

This article by Joshua Rothman, Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules, is a true must-read in my opinion. It doesn’t quite provide answers. But it sure does capture the complexity of the challenge.

A couple of excerpts:

Without an answering crisis, a would-be leader remains just a promising custodian of potential. (Imagine Lincoln without the Civil War or F.D.R. without the Depression.) Before a leader can pull us out of despair, we have to fall into it. For this reason, a melancholy ambivalence can cling to even the most inspiring stories of leadership.

Many of today’s challenges are too complex to yield to the exercise of leadership alone. Even so, we are inclined to see the problems of the present in terms of crises and leaders.

The author recommends and refers to quite a few books on leadership — and highly recommends Elizabeth Samet’s anthology “Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers.” I’ve added it to my reading list.

Reading Samet’s anthology, one sees how starkly perspectival leadership is.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand. Great leaders are rare indeed. But I do have one new recommendation; a strong recommendation – read this article.

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