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You can’t learn leadership from a book (or google, or PowerPoint)


Becoming a great leader is about more than having an MBA or swotting up on the latest 'how to lead' guide, says Mark Walsh.

You don’t need to read books on leadership to be a good leader – I know this as I’ve worked with some exceptional leaders in developing countries who didn’t read at all. If you look at history, the majority of great leaders have not done MBAs or studied psychology at university. I’ve studied the latter and I it was largely irrelevant to leadership.

I’d go as far as saying that the vast majority of leadership is not something you can pick up from a book or a PowerPoint presentation, or a blog for that matter. You also won’t learn to be a leader by reading this article. The fact that leadership is not a matter of information could mean that most leadership training is a big fat con. OK, that’s a little harsh, let me just say it’s a misdirected farce.

"The fact that leadership is not a matter of information could mean that most leadership training is a big fat con."

The critical problem is that the Western educational system has largely reduced learning to learning about things and this is reflected in business. Learning about stuff is not the same as learning to do something, and definitely not the same as becoming somebody. Head knowledge is nice, but at best insufficient. To use an analogy - I’m glad there’s a theory test for people driving, maybe it helps a bit, but is it a substitute for driving lessons? No. So what’s missing from leadership theory books?

Vision and drive

Ghandi didn’t read “Stopping Colonial Oppression for Beginners” then go about his work – he did what he was inspired to do and created a vision of change. Vision and a deeply personal drive are essential for leadership. How will you make the world a better place than how you found it? What will you do to ensure that when you die you will happily look back on a meaningful life? The answers are not in a book.


A problem with many leadership books is that they try and produce a ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula of leadership. However, Bill Gates and Tony Robbins are both leaders, yet they are as different as chalk and crack cocaine. I love the book “Why Should Anyone be Lead by You” by Goffee and Jones which advises leaders to “be themselves with skill”. Like most leadership books, however, it gives lots of good examples but doesn’t show one how to develop personally.


Emotional Intelligence is probably the most important set of skills for a leader to possess – technical knowledge alone is not enough and managers promoted for purely technical skills often find themselves in trouble as leaders. Even if they read Daniel Goleman’s opus they will not be much better off. Knowing about emotional awareness, self-control or empathy is not sufficient to have these skills. A book can no more teach you how to communicate inspirationally than it can teach a person how to love. Leaders lead from their hearts or not at all.


If you want to learn a language, a musical instrument or gain competence in a sport what do you do? Practice! Books may support this, but there is no substitute. Leadership is no different. Practice is a conscious directed activity, so simply being a manager for many years does not necessarily mean you are practicing.

There are many leadership books that tell you what virtues a leader should have and these lists tend to grow and change as fashions come and go, but for me the question is what practices support leadership? If we return to emotional intelligence, it is my experience that this is not an unchangeable trait, but a skill-set that can be developed over time through recurrent practice. You can ‘learn’ about emotional intelligence in a day, but to learn to do it (or even to ‘be it’) takes much longer.

It typically takes 90 days to break a habit (the initial period used in most addiction recovery programs, for example where the stakes are high) and 10,000 hours for mastery (according to Malcolm Gladwell). Practice is the how of leadership development.


Learning and leadership require embodiment. Without embodiment you are just papering over the cracks, and when I say embodiment I mean it literally. If a leader is engaging on a purely cognitive level they will not inspire followers or have leadership presence (see my previous article on how to be charismatic).

Working with leaders on an embodied level leads to powerful lasting change that is a very different kind of learning than you’ll get in the library.


The traditional apprentice model of learning recognised that learning is about relationship. I study the martial art of aikido for example - here the idea of lineage is crucial – without a direct connection to a line of teachers going back to the arts founding you would be laughed out of the practice hall as a leader.

Having read everything Jack Welch or Stephen Covey has written does not constitute a direct connection. This is perhaps a suitable point to bow to my leadership mentors Shihan William Smith (aikido), Professor Donald Levine (organisational leadership) and Dr Richard Strozzi Heckler (a master off embodied training who inspired much of the material in this article).  

Humility and Spirit

How do you read-up on humility? In my (not as humble as I would like) opinion - all true leadership is servant leadership. To lead by serving a group or higher purpose beyond oneself is essentially a spiritual matter beyond downloading data from Wikipedia. Spirituality is the elephant in the room when it comes to leadership and I sincerely hope it will not be a taboo subject in business for much longer. Soul is not a dirty word. This is an impassioned plea for business to grow up and grow inwards, not just more information, theories and jargon. 

So, should we burn leadership books?

Given the benefits of mentoring, emotional intelligence and embodiment, should people burn their leadership books and smash their computers? No, they have their place. They describe possibilities, connect people with information and may point in fruitful directions for action and practice. Google has the inspiring mission of making all information available to all people for the first time in human history*. Wow, that’s a great start and a huge opportunity. For leadership, however, it’s not enough.

*Google Mission Statement: ”To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." “Don’t be evil” is their unofficial motto interestingly.

Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer in the 'embodied' approach to management and leadership training. Based in Brighton he heads Integration Training - Business Training Providers specialising in leadership, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his training blog.

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