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Book Review: You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader by Mark Sanborn

September 25, 2006

I’m a huge reader of non-fiction in general and business-related books in particular, so I’ll be using this blog to share my reviews of what I’ve read. Today it’s the new book from Mark Sanborn, who scored a big hit the last time around with The Fred Factor.

I also post these reviews at Blogcritics.org; you can see my complete list here. (I actually only have one previous one thus far–Seth Godin’s Small is the New Big.)

Away we go…

Last weekend, after a week walking past a broken bottle on the sidewalk near my home and thinking, “someone should clean that up,” I grabbed a broom and dustpan and cleaned it up myself. While I had self-interest due to my child regularly falling on the sidewalk for no apparent reason, this was still unlikely behavior for me. What spurred me on? The new book from Mark Sanborn, You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader.

Like Sanborn’s previous book, the best selling The Fred Factor, this book is another small (102 pages) package with lots of advice on creating a real impact regardless of your position in the world or within your company. The premise here is how to be a leader even if no one’s put you in charge (or, in my example of sweeping up the broken bottle, even if no one notices). By taking the initiative regardless of expectations or official job description, you set yourself up for rewards down the road, including, in many cases, that lofty title you didn’t have before.

You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader is a good book for anyone needing motivation doled out in bite-sized chunks. And I’m sure that Sanborn’s past success will ensure this one has a long run on the bestseller’s list. That said, if you read a lot of these types of books (which I do), I can’t say Sanborn’s breaking new ground here.

The beauty of The Fred Factor, of course, is its “hook,” a nice story about an overachieving mailman — which is then extrapolated out to teach us all how to have a positive impact in our small slices of the world. You Don’t Need A Title to Be a Leader tries to do something similar, but the “hook” of being a leader regardless of your title is a little less meaty. As a result, while everything in the book is great advice, the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It’s just not as cohesive a message as Sanborn intends. (By the way, the book’s title comes from the reply a contract worker gives after happily accepting a critical assignment without the promise of receiving a lofty title on the other end.)

I’ll try to give you an example of what I mean. The heart of the book is the Six Principles of Leadership, which include The Power of Self-Mastery, The Power of Focus, The Power of People, The Power of Persuasive Communication, The Power of Execution, and The Power of Giving. Those all sound fine, but having just read the book, I already have forgotten what half of them mean or what I’m actually supposed to do to put them in practice. There’s good stuff in there, but it didn’t light a fire under me. (Although it caused me to think that maybe I should be the one to sweep up that broken bottle.)

While the book as a whole doesn’t strike me as a classic, I did dog-ear some pages that struck me, so let’s highlight some strengths:

  • Sanborn does a good job of finding stories of regular people who aren’t changing the world, but are doing things that anyone else could have done but didn’t. For example, one of his first stories is about a school administrative employee who, without direction, secures temporary classroom space when the junior high burns down.
  • In the “Power of Focus” section, Sanborn’s story of a man out of ideas on how to stop squirrels from invading his bird feeder ends with a powerful idea. This may be the best thing in the book.
  • Under “Power of Execution,” Sanborn offers some good advice about the danger of following “best practices.”

Sanborn is at his best when he offers compelling stories that show instead of tell. You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader could have used a little more showing and a little less telling.

e-mail me: adam@bessed.com

Adam Jusko is founder and CEO of Bessed, a Web site promising “search without spam”, thanks to human-edited search results and ongoing visitor feedback. Do a search, offer your comments, submit your site–help create the “bessed” search site in the world. 

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