How Has ‘The Best of…’ Changed?

There’s no shortage of ‘best of’ lists, especially in the field of management and leadership.  We won’t opine here on whether what’s touted as the best is really the best, pretty good, or OMG-how-did-they-come-up-with-that.  But it is instructive to look at what is tending to make it to the ‘best of’ lists that may never have been seen on the market – or if seen, dismissed – 10 years ago.  What’s considered good information for leaders today, how has it morphed over the years, and why is it emerging?

If we look at such business book lists as Fast Company’s Best Business Books of 2012, Industry News Corporation’s Best Selling Business Books for 2013, or the New York Times’ Best-Selling Non-Fiction, or if we check out the multitudinous lists of the 10 most important leadership skills today, we get a sense of the trends.

First, what hasn’t changed?  There is a lot of attention on marketing, especially getting consumers’ attention in an increasingly overloaded marketplace.  There continues to be predictable emphasis on productivity.

The ‘best of’ lists point to some significant shifts in thinking, whether the books are commenting on phenomena already being seen, or advocating for new paradigms.  Here are some of those trends being identified in best-selling business books and blog posts:

Time and Attention

Acknowledging the increased demands on leaders’ time and attention from cost reductions, proliferation of communications, and expectations of multi-tasking, a lot of business books are touting formulas for how leaders can manage the new 24/7 business reality.  And leaders are buying these books in droves, because this is a real-life problem with which they struggle constantly.

Health, Fulfillment and Legacy

The same forces that are creating the 24/7 business paradigm are creating a backlash.  Leaders are asking themselves, “Is this all there is?”  They are bone-weary.  Add to that the idealistic youth who don’t buy their parents’ acceptance of work as an obligation and a loyalty; they want work to satisfy inner needs.  And the baby boomers are simultaneously looking at those same inner needs as they look to the legacy they’ll leave.  This introspection has spawned business books focusing on the individual WIFM rather than the business results.

Self vs. Others

Though business books keep on coming about how to enhance your personal power and success, one of the healthiest shifts in emphasis is an increasing set of business literature aimed at how leaders relate to others, in particular on topics of empathy, appreciation, and helping/giving.  Our guess is this is fueled by the void left when personal power does not give commensurate satisfaction, and when working hard is only taken for granted.  Research, in addition, is strongly pointing to the benefits of these other-directed strategies in motivation and satisfaction.

Creativity and Innovation

Dan Pink’s book Drive took a fresh look at human motivation, and one of its findings was that people like to use their creativity (the most interesting thing being that this was considered a revolutionary new insight!)  At the same time, a sluggish consumer market and reduced capital meant that businesses had to find new ways to reinvent themselves and their products to remain relevant – maybe even to remain alive.  And so was born a body of business literature on how to unleash creativity and innovation, along with their cousins risk-taking and encouraging experimentation and even (gasp!) failure.

Change as the New Normal

As you can imagine when you read about the other trends, if the new normal is a 24/7, high-complexity, high-paced search for innovations in an environment of greater expectations for personal meaning and more people connections to manage, then the new normal is also about complex change and the leadership skills required to make it successful.  And the literature is hitting on the real challenge – how to make change systemically, not just one implementation effort at a time.

The ‘best of’ lists taken alone may not be significant, but as a leader, it’s worth considering how you will lead in the world they’re picturing.  What skills do you need to bolster?  What old habits may not play well in the world suggested by the ‘best of’s?  Maybe it’s time to check out a few of those books and blogs to check your instincts against the authors’.

Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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