I used to love numbers. As a kid, I was convinced that three was a magic number. In high school I truly learned that one is the loneliest number. Then in college I came to appreciate the deep meaning of 25 or 6 to 4 as I popped another Diet Coke for the all night finals cram.
I liked numbers because they were definitive. I take great comfort in knowing when a t-shirt says there are only two types of people in the world, that it’s not three or even seventeen. I can put things into their little boxes and know that I need not consider any other options other than the explicitly numbered ones given. Numbers give me comfort.
Then I became a manager.
When I first became a manager I developed an insatiable appetite for books on leadership. Back then we had books like “Deep Change,” “In Search of Excellence,” and “The Art of War.” Leadership was presented as a complex, multi-headed beast, that was challenging to master, but if you stayed the course and kept looking inward, you would be better tomorrow than you are today.
Somewhere along the continuum of then and today someone in the publishing field decided that if you wanted to sell a book on leadership, it had to have a number in it. At first it was nice to know that there were only seven habits to learn to be a highly effective person. Then it soon became apparent that there are only five dysfunctions of a team, 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, a mere 12 absolutes of leadership, and CEOs only face five temptations.
But it has fallen to a new low with the advent of leadership blogs. I use an app on my iPad that culls the latest blogs on various topics. Under the topic of leadership, over 35% of all the articles posted this week (12 of 32) have a number in their title. There are 6 Distractions Leaders Need to Resist, The Top 4 Attributes Every Leaders Should Embody, 3 Elements of a True Leader, 3 Types of Leaders Who Never Succeed and One Leadership Trait That Separates Superachievers From Underperformers – and the list goes much deeper.
I am not saying that there aren’t five dysfunctions of a team. I believe the fallacy is in believing there are only five. I can name at least 25 off the top of my head. I am pretty darn sure there are more than 21 irrefutable laws of leadership, and after reading the book, I am not sure Maxwell got the right 21. But he used the word “The” in the title. It’s not “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” but “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” Maxwell has penned himself the chief justice in deciding these are the 21 and there shall not be 22. So did Lencioni in writing “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”. At least Covey admitted years later that there was an eighth habit.
The problem with all of this is not that they are written – it’s why they are written. Syndicators wouldn’t be picking up these articles unless people were reading them. We like articles that give us definitive answers in a compact list, preferably less than 10 items long. We are still comforted knowing that there are finite bounds to what is expected of us. We take comfort in knowing that someone else has done the hard work of figuring people out. But, it is in this comfort and blind following of thought that we are most vulnerable.
People are messy. Life is messy. Leadership is about people and their lives. It’s messy as well. Leadership cannot be summed up in three of anything. To do so requires you to ignore the beautiful mess that was given to us. Life is chess, not checkers; not all of the pieces move the same way. As Plato said, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”
While I haven’t altogether abandoned reading books or blogs that have numbers in their titles, I have become exceptionally suspicious. If I do decide to read the article, I do so starting with a completely overdrawn emotional bank account.
In The 10 Rules of How To Write a Successful Article, I am pretty sure that “make the reader suspicious of your premise” is not in the list.