Books that start with the author dying are rare (if not downright impossible to write, for obvious reasons) yet Jeremie Kubicek’s Leadership Is Dead does just that… almost. Kubicek starts with a near-death experience that changed his life: a car accident in the middle of a hurricane landfall.
The book’s structure is fairly straightforward. Chapters one through four provide context and theory, and then chapters five through nine provide practical steps and applications. Chapter ten lays down the gauntlet with it’s title “Why You Probably Won’t Do This” (and considering the competitive nature of most leaders, I think this is a brilliant piece of reverse psychology).
For a book on life-affirming leadership, Kubicek begins with a surprising amount of death. For example, the book opens with Kubicek reflecting on the death of a leader he knew in Russia, followed by his own aforementioned near-death experience, and what he next describes as the death of leadership itself. His basic argument: command and control styles of leadership don’t work anymore. Instead, successful leaders strive for influence. Further, true influence requires leaders to give themselves away. What then is the major obstacle for effective leadership today? Self-preservation.
So how do leaders rise above this obstacle of self-preservation? Kubicek suggests seven habitual actions:
- First, give trust and become trustworthy.
- Second, become credible instead of just smart.
- Third, be intentional about your influence.
- Fourth, break through walls of self-preservation.
- Fifth, pursue relationship before opportunity.
- Sixth, give yourself away.
- And finally, become significant in your impact.
To Kubicek’s credit, I think his “influence” model is spot on. While command and control leadership models can take care of immediate issues, such models will not promote a self-sustaining organization. Succession planning is tremendously important for long-lasting organizations, and dominator-led organizations struggle when leaders move on. A variety of leadership writers have called for the end of command-and-control style leadership for nearly four decades. Two examples: Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model in the 1970’s, and more recently, Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Sciences, which draws from quantum physics and argues for the importance of information in self-organizing systems.
Kubicek also rightly summarizes the three possible perceptions that followers have of leaders: either they are (a) for me, (b) against me, or (c) for themselves alone. A variety of leadership research can support this, indicating that even the most heroic leadership stories are easily dismissed (or even made disempowering) when followers believe the leader is simply trying to manipulate them.
Also to his credit, Kubicek deals with the human side of leadership. His book is not just about management principles that guarantee greater profits, and he certainly does not write in a self-aggrandizing manner like other successful leaders who fill their books with self-starring heroic narratives.
Now for my one major critique: Kubicek does not describe leadership principles for limited human beings. Rather, he seems to assume an unlimited supply of time, energy, health, etc., that is simply not present in a fallen world. Certainly he is not alone in this oversight, as much of the leadership literature available today falls into the same trap.
Kubicek calls for leadership in spite of limitations, almost to the extent of ignoring one’s limits, giving everything away. My personal fear is that idealists who take this advice to heart will become martyr-leaders who sacrifice everything (including life-sustaining family and spiritual relationships) for the sake of the cause. Leaders operate in a world of limited resources trying to meet unlimited needs. This is where Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model seems more reasonable: servant leaders both serve and are served by society, so they avoid martyr leadership.
One might argue that Kubicek’s book engages in a sort of hyperbolic call for self-sacrifice precisely because of the self-serving impulses of many CEO’s (and indeed, most of humanity). If this is the case, then he is effective, if not entirely practical. For example, during May, 2011 a variety of leaders lost their influence (for the moment at least) because of their inability to control their own lusts, so Kubicek’s insistence on leaders focusing their energies outside of their own desires is certainly timely.
However, not all limits should be ignored. Sometimes human limitations are not because of sin, but because of personality. Unfortunately, Leadership is Dead does not adequately deal with real personality issues. Kubicek warns against potential pitfalls for introverted leaders, but he does not provide realistic strategies for how introverted leaders can give themselves away without experiencing the kinds of burnout introverted leaders are prone to in a world that expects extroverted behaviors.
As far as a Biblical worldview goes, Kubicek’s warnings against self-preservation certainly correspond with Christ’s own warnings in Luke 9:24. Christ tells us that one must give up one’s life in order to truly save it. Christ also explains His own leadership in Mark 10:45, explaining that He did not come to be served, but rather to serve and even sacrifice His own life for the sake of others.
Kubicek’s comments on influence correspond with reality. From my own experience, I will confess that when I become obsessed with simply preserving what I have (health, wealth, and relationships), then my leadership influence does falter. On the other hand, when I take risks and extend myself (pushing myself to exercise when tired rather than rest, choosing to be generous with my money, and inviting other people into my life and home even when it is not convenient) then I find my influence increases.
Although Kubicek’s book is not rife with scriptural references, he retells the story of David and Goliath as the focus of appendix two. At first, I rolled my eyes at the thought of another “you can beat the giant” essay, but Kubicek’s concluding interpretation works. He explains that the stories of these three characters represent three styles of leadership.
Kubicek equates Goliath with a dominating leadership style, David with the liberating leadership style, and Saul with the self-preserving leadership style. The interpretation works. Goliath is full of bluster, self-confidence, and destructive power. Saul is concerned with preserving his power, and in 1 Samuel 17, his self-preservation paralyzes him, preventing him from becoming a heroic leader. Meanwhile, David, though young and inexperienced as a warrior, has confidence that his past experiences have prepared him for his present obstacle. Moreover, David trusts in a force bigger than himself, bigger than Goliath’s bluster, and bigger than Saul’s instincts for self preservation.
First, let me admit that I’m not entirely objective about Leadership is Dead. This review is written by someone who is not a CEO or a pastor, but rather someone who studies leadership as both an academic discipline and as a practitioner in an educational setting. Academics are trained to look for possible flaws in any theory, and educators are used to working with resources insufficient for the demands placed on them. So perhaps I’m a little pessimistic. In my own defense, I am neither a “glass is half-full” nor a “glass is half-empty” person. Rather, I tend to notice that the glass has a crack.
I am also biased because I went to college with Jeremie Kubicek. And one of the reasons I do like his book is because I also really like Kubicek. He is the real deal. So in spite of my one major critique, I still recommend his book.
Leadership is Dead will seem especially relevant for Christians who serve in executive-level leadership or pastoral roles. However, Christian leaders at any level of business as well as in the church can benefit from Kubicek’s insights.
For those who want to explore the idea of influence a little deeper, I also recommend Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership and Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. For mid-level or up-and-coming leaders, I recommend they add Ira Chaleff’s The Courageous Follower. Chaleff’s book will help up-and-coming leaders work as influencers without requiring an executive suite to work from.
Command and control leadership may not be entirely dead (yet), but Kubicek’s influence model is definitely alive and kicking.