From Book to Leadership Program

Sometimes, it comes out of left field, completely unexpected. “Steve,” says the CEO, “I just finished reading this great book on leadership! There are some really outstanding ideas and lessons in here, and I want to get everyone onboard and implementing this. Build this into our leadership development programs, and get on my calendar to let me know what you can do.”

Okay, so I did not really have that exact conversation, but I have had a good dozen similar sorts of conversations and requests over the years to build programs around executives’ favorite books on leadership. I have responded to requests for “From Good to Great,” “The Leadership Pipeline,” “It’s Your Ship,” “Execution,” “Jack: Straight from the Gut,” and many more. All of these were great books full of good wisdom and advice. They were also big problems, from an instructional design point of view.

One of the most difficult challenges a training manager can be faced with is the passion of a senior exec for the latest book about leadership. This is a subtle challenge, and a lot of learning leaders and instructional designers don’t even realize the difficulty it poses. Instead, they read the book and build it into a leadership development program in a superficial way without thinking twice. But, the challenge is this: Reading a book—even a superb one—is not the same as making personal, individual changes in leadership behavior.

It is difficult to build a book into an effective development effort that actually changes learners’ behaviors on the job. Leadership and business books are (usually) about leadership style and philosophy, specific stories and situations, and the lessons learned from experience. They contain principles and advice. This is fine, but we need to know that each person will take something different away from a book, and that each person needs something different at any given time and place in his or her leadership career. Making everyone read the CEO’s favorite book can easily backfire. A lot of people who read it will not draw the same lessons that the CEO did. Quite a few people will skim the book or get a summary, and many won’t even read it at all.


Instructional Design Process – From Book to Development Program

The positive side of the book request is that there really is a way to use a favored business book to promote leadership development. These days, many corporate learning experts would suggest that an informal learning approach would be most effective. With that in mind, here is a suggested process for using a book as the organizing kernel for a leadership development effort.

  1. Read the book. Read the book and draw out what you think the key points might be for leaders in your organization. Answer the question, “Why is this relevant for us right now and what can we really use?” Make a list of key points to address this question. Then, go back and compare notes with the requestor. Big differences in the lists might indicate difficulty or misalignment between your understanding and the executive’s regarding the organization’s needs.
  2. Agree on business outcomes. If it is worth doing, it is worth some thought to results. Push for some indication of how business will be different as a result of developing people around the book’s concepts. The business outcomes do not have to be measurable, but they do have to be observable in some way. Get the requestor’s help to make the links between the book and the outcomes clear. This will guide your design process. Some real-life examples I have received include: greater employee engagement and satisfaction, increased customer loyalty, increased bench strength for internal promotions over two years, greater feeling of ownership by employees, reduced turnover in critical positions, reduction in accidents and safety incident costs, reduction in silo thinking that results in faster responses to complex customer requests, or improved rate of routine innovation leading to greater performance.
  3. Check the Link to Competencies. If your organization uses a competency model or similar organizing framework, do some work to see how the book can link to (and reinforce) your competencies. Seek out examples from the book that exemplify the different competencies and work those into the design of your development solution. At the same time, keep in mind that competencies are HR tools—they can be complex, confusing, and outside the normal realm of how most employees and leaders think. Real life leadership seldom uses just one competency at a time, and the examples from books may align better with the spirit of your competency model than with its details.
  4. Design the solution. Use your preferred instructional design process to design the specifics of the solution involving the leadership book. (I am assuming that you already have an ISD process of some sort, so I don’t want to waste your time by covering what you already know.) Here are ten tips you might want to consider:


Ten Tips to Consider:

  1. Make it a development process over time, instead of a one-time event.
  2. Use informal learning, rather than an instructor-led training approach.
  3. Offer a custom-tailored self-diagnostic to go with the book.
  4. Have the senior executive who requested the book lead the effort.
  5. Get leaders to teach it to or with their teams.
  6. Create a Web 2.0 learning support system.
  7. Have learners generate a constantly-growing list of tips and success stories.
  8. Report on progress at agreed-upon intervals.
  9. Require senior leaders involved to re-read the book at an agreed-upon interval.
  10. Publicly recognize successes, as culturally appropriate.



While the request to use a leadership book as the basis for a development effort can be a challenge, it is possible to do it well. As learning leaders and designers, we need to go beyond the easy solutions and do our homework. When we understand the executive’s passion for the book, we can help transfer that to other leaders in a way that promotes real, transformative, long-term development. Using a supported informal learning approach, creating an individualized learner process, and building it as a leader-driven process instead of an event can go a long way toward effectiveness. A solid approach with visible senior leadership involvement is also more rewarding for the executive who made the initial request and greatly reduces employee cynicism.

If you use a great leadership book as the core of an effective leadership development effort, you might just have to read between the lines to understand how to make it work, but the end result will be a good addition to your leadership development bookshelf.