This book came as a surprise at several levels. Firstly, I wasn’t expecting a “Teach Yourself” title. I’ve bought several TY books in the past and often been a little disappointed. They’ve been far more complex than I had wanted and were more suited as a textbook for a tutor than as a self-help guide. Well, TY have obviously undergone a major re-branding. This book is one of their “Coach” series aimed at business people wanting to focus on specific skills. I’m afraid that the series isn’t necessarily contemporary in its approach to self-learning, for which it would probably need to be an online flipped version with links to several layers of depth of ‘virtual learning’ material (embracing interactive graphics, audio and video content) providing a customised planned journey through the content rather than just letting the reading go where they fancy. However, it is like a breath of fresh-air to the previous dense editions that had undergone little change in 40 years. The style is conversational and no fuss, in a workbook format that invites you to complete the pages. Credit to Hodder & Stoughton for such a dramatic reinvention though I’m afraid it seems to have been modelled on Open University courseware from the 80s.
To the uninitiated, the second surprise is in the title. ‘The Leadership Coach‘ suggests that this is a book about ‘how to become a leadership coach’ or about the niceties of leadership coaching. If you don’t know the nature of the series, then it might take a moment or two to realise that this isn’t for those who aspire to be coaches, it is intended to replace the services of a leadership coach for someone who nonetheless wishes to enhance their own leadership. As a practising coach in that field, I am uncomfortable with the idea that the human dynamic, loaded as it is with transference and counter-transference, between a coach and their client, can be replicated by a load of paper-based exercises. Having read the activities in the book, I’m afraid I remain far from convinced. Many of my clients take a great deal of persuasion that their view is not necessarily as objective as they would like, which paperwork won’t really provide, but worse still, I don’t think I have ever had a client say to me; “I want to be more strategic”, for example. They are much more likely to say; “I’d like to talk through our strategic options, as we’ve got this particular thing happening right now.”
The obvious next step in my thinking was to ask myself whether, nevertheless, the exercises might be of use to me as a coach – to provide to my clients as part of the process of coaching. That leads me to the third surprise of the book – its content. Most of the chapters address themes that are genuinely about leadership, which is good, though I’m not convinced that the 15% of the book devoted to time management and teamwork are relevant here. If this was a book on management coaching then their inclusion might make more sense, but my experience of leaders is that they are concerned with large groups or with individual dynamics, and learnt to manage their time a long while ago. When they say they have a problem with their management team, for instance, they usually mean that they have a problem with one or two members of it, not so much with team work. Few management ‘teams’ really are teams as they are autonomous and often, some members are even incentivised to be competitive with one another.
One of the reasons why the author suggests you might want to follow the book is because you “need to understand twenty-first-century thinking on leadership.” The 21st Century began in 2000, so I wondered how much of the material emanated from then and how much from beforehand? Whether they are current authors, the current generation of successful enterprises, or popular contemporary concepts, how many appear here? Of the 115 or so references, only 10% come from the 21st century and most of those are nothing new, but synoptic works, the author’s own publications, or critiques of earlier work. I couldn’t find references to any of the contemporary top-ten Fortune Global companies, nor to the plethora of other successes – such as eBay, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, or Google – all of whom are significantly altering the leadership paradigm. There was no reference to the work of Dan Pink on motivation, John Gerzema on strategy, Seth Godin on marketing and communication, Lynda Gratton on the management of change, to name just a few examples. Nor could I find anything substantive on key leadership topics such as sustainability, ethics or corporate social responsibility.
In summary then, it’s a refreshing new model from the Teach Yourself brand, though it is already dated in its approach. The content is dated, suggesting that it is a reworking of the author’s own materials from the 90s rather than really being 21st Century as claimed. Furthermore, it attempts to undermine a profession that is beginning to stabilize and demonstrate a true body of knowledge and consistent skill-set. This seems such a shame – there’s plenty of 21st Century material that could have been incorporated, current learning technologies are readily available (and could even have drawn more customers to the publication), and there are emerging themes that could have been embraced.
Dr Graham Wilson is a behavioural scientist, lecturer at TOBES (the Oxfordshire Business and Enterprise School), author of several management books, and works as a confidant to senior executives (www.the-confidant.info + www.executive-post.info).
This review appeared first in Coaching Today, the journal of the BACP Coaching Division, in October 2014.