Woo-free, jargon-free, steak-knife-free leadership training?
May 15, 2016 2:43 AM   Subscribe

I want to improve my leadership skills. It seems like a lot of the resources out there are kind of...heavy on the vacuous woo and cut-throat corporate bullshit, and light on evidence, kindness and authenticity. Can you recommend better alternatives?

I work in a non-profit environment that is big on authenticity and fairly suspicious of corporate jargon, for-profit-style sales pitches, cut-throat management tactics and anything that's not evidence-based. In other words, I work with genuinely smart, nice, motivated humans who would see straight through anything remotely vague, illogical or manipulative.

And yet...a lot of what comes up when searching for leadership skills or training seems...kind of skeevy. Is there a Coursera course, book or other resource that teaches leadership skills without all the Tony Robbins-style cheesy grins, corporate profit focus and vacuous "inspirational" quotes I've discovered are so prevalent in this area?
posted by embrangled to Education (18 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Toastmasters is great at teaching leading, in addition to speaking. You can lead teams, organize meeting, and motivate individuals.
posted by exois at 2:57 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of "What you practice, you become," I would suggest the study of leaders in the past and present. Biographies.
posted by slobebop at 2:59 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

are you sure leadership is logical? i suspect there is some truth hiding behind the things you think are vacuous woo.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:22 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Frances Hesselbein has been writing and speaking on leadership for decades. A disciple of Peter Drucker, her distinguished career includes being CEO of the Girl Scouts of America (1976-1990) and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She turns 100 in November.

If you're not already familiar with her, here she is briefly describing her definition of leadership.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:43 AM on May 15, 2016

It depends what you mean by leadership. The Management Center is a nonprofit dedicated to improving nonprofit leaders. BoardSource is a nonprofit dedicated to improving board leaders. I have personal experience with both, and strongly recommend them.
posted by postel's law at 5:30 AM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jeffrey Pfeffer is a well-regarded organizational psychologist. The kind that submits journal articles to peer-reviewed journals. He also does quite a bit of writing for lay audiences.

If his stuff doesn't work for you, Stanford has a really good organizational behavior department that might be worth poking around.

You'll probably still get quite a bit of jargon, but you may also want to try some resources on evidence-based management; the stuff that people have had to prove through research.
posted by forkisbetter at 5:49 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Leadership materials are tough. I agree, a lot of them seem very much like late-night TV ads--"become a great leader in just 5 minutes a day, with these 10 easy tricks!"

I'm involved in a leadership program mentoring college students and they provide us a lot of material from Kouze and Posner. It seems to be as-good-as other leadership material I've looked at.

I think, though, the key with much of this (because often, they are really saying them same thing: build relationships, trust, inspire, support growth, etc.) is finding the framework that you can tolerate enough to learn the basics and taking as much from it as you can, then reading additional materials from Harvard Business Review, etc. regularly, so you are constantly improving and working on your weak areas.
posted by chiefthe at 6:57 AM on May 15, 2016

What kind of leadership are you thinking of? If it's management, I agree that the Management Center is excellent. If you're talking about something like change leadership (ie, creating change in an institution), I really like Ron Heifetz and his approach has been really useful to me. He talks about how to lead change in organizations/institutions, navigating the pitfalls, etc. He's written a few books - I think The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is the most useful.
posted by lunasol at 8:20 AM on May 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is an interesting question. I have a pretty good answer for you (in the sense that it worked well for me), but it doesn't seem to be easily accessible anywhere: the pledge manual of my fraternity. It's not a secret or anything (its intended audience, after all, is people who have not yet been initiated into the fraternity), and, since it's purpose isn't just to sell itself to corporate types, it had better advice than you see in commodotized leadership books. I still consult it regularly. I was able to find various other fraternities' manuals online, and I would imagine many of them are similar in content. Also, much of our stuff has its roots in freemasonry, so if you have any interest in joining a fraternal organization like the masons (and I don't blame you if you don't), you might find some useful information.

Another thing I'd suggest is to go to the Art of Manliness's archives and search for leadership. Somewhat embarrassing name aside, they're one of the more interesting and thoughtful blogs on topics like this. It's aimed at men, but there's nothing really gendered about it.

You might have better luck finding less hokey material if you split the concept of leadership up into its constituent components: inspiration, persuasion, communication, decision-making, discipline, etc.

One book is recommend, although not strictly about leadership, is Mindset by Carol Dweck.

My final suggestion is just to spend time around people whose leadership skills you respect. One of my close friends was the president of my fraternity when I joined, and he now runs a successful business and serves on the board of a local ALS organization. I feel sharper in my own abilities when I hang out with him.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:17 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just started reading Becoming a Manager by Linda Hill, who teaches at Harvard Business School, based on a couple of seemingly trustworthy internet recommendations. It's more about shifting into the mindset of managing people, and while it's geared at "new" managers, she does talk about how even long-time managers sometimes never quite make the switch. I'm only 40-ish pages into it, so I can't give it an unconditional thumbs-up, but it reads much more like an interesting report on Hill's social-science research rather than a motivational self-help book, and I'm enjoying it. I'd recommend it if that's the sort of skillset you're wanting to work on.

I abandoned it due to time issues, but Coursera does offer a free Stanford course on Organizational Analysis, which maybe also might help? I listened to the first week's worth of lectures and they were interesting, just bigger-picture than I need right now.
posted by lazuli at 9:35 AM on May 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

For something completely different, you could check out the National Outdoor Leadership School. While there is some jargon, it's all hand-on leadership training in a very real classroom-- the outdoors. It's fun, and challenging, and transfers over to "the real world" really well.
posted by grinagog at 9:56 AM on May 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I do and I don't. In that, every course I have ever been to has been 90% crap. But almost every one has included an epiphany moment that super-helped me because I was paying attention and coincidentally just in the right spot professionally to need that bit of advice.

I think leadership is too individual and situational for it to be any other way; you just have to accumulate wisdom and experience piecemeal and pick good mentors.

That said, a few favorites:
Hal Pitt seminars did a good job of describing the difference between leading and managing and had some good exercises to make you better at developing enthusiastic, effective followers. He made the term "vision" make concrete sense to me, instead of coporate buzzword-speak. Light bulb moment.

A Personal Mastery workshop I went to (link is example I haven't been to; we do our own) based on Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline was more about being the kind of person people will follow. A lot of light bulb moments in that for me.

I also like all the talks David Marquet does. Apparently he does seminars as well, but I haven't gotten around to getting him out to us yet to see what it's like.
posted by ctmf at 12:17 PM on May 15, 2016

The Empowerment Manual. It sounds woo-filled, but its actually a very practical guide to leadership skills and styles. It completely changed how I manage people.
posted by ananci at 12:57 PM on May 15, 2016

M. Scott Peck's book, The Road Less Traveled, provided me with two relevant insights. 1) The crucial thing about leadership is loving your people. 2) Love is not the same thing as cathexis.

Hugh Nibley's talk, Leaders and Managers, explicates the difference between leadership and management.

Both of these may be too wooful for your taste, but as andrewcooke noted above, leadership may be more wooful than you hoped.
posted by Bruce H. at 2:23 PM on May 15, 2016

If you're between the ages of 18 and 40, joining the Jaycees (or JCI) might be right up your alley. This is exactly what they do.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:59 PM on May 15, 2016

Small Unit Leadership. Full of really out there stuff like:

- how to tell people that they've done a good job in a way that will make them feel appreciated and part of a team but not full of themselves and clear about exactly why what they did matters and like they want to do more of that

- how to grow a spine and earn your pay grade and step up and tell people that they're doing the wrong thing in a way that won't utterly demoralize them and make them want to try harder to do the right thing and help others to see that you're fair but you're not a pushover and you have standards and you will enforce them

- how to develop a good plan to do the right things and tell people about that plan so they know what the hell they're doing and why

Don't be put off by the military stuff or the 'army leadership is different' stuff.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:06 PM on May 15, 2016

The Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine is fantastic at teaching authentic leadership. He recommends yoga, woo-free meditation, and figuring out who you really are, as well as gives advice on how to lead.
posted by culfinglin at 9:56 PM on May 15, 2016

I read a book called "The Three Meter Zone" by James D. Pendry about being an Army NCO. It's very hands-on: retail leadership at the day-to-day (not vision or strategy) level. He was a CSM for twenty years, directly working with soldiers, and I found it a useful read about what a manager and leader needs to be doing for their people every day.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:33 AM on May 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

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