· Features

Books: Leadership gems in hiding

For HRDs looking to identify potentially bad leaders, this book has tips - but they take some unearthing, says David Pardey, senior manager, research and policy, Institute of Leadership and Management.

The Elephant in the Boardroom - The Causes of Leadership Derailment
Author: Adrian Furnham
Publisher: Palgrave McMillan
Price: £25.00
Stars: 2 out of 5

Leadership failure has never been more topical. In business, the leaders of the big banks are pilloried. I hoped The Elephant in the Boardroom would explain why UK plc seemed to be experiencing such a shortage of good, effective leadership, but I have to admit to disappointment. The answer is probably there, but I don't think I've found it. Like Eric Morecambe playing the piano (badly), Furnham has all the right notes, but they are not necessarily played in the right order. His book has a structure of sorts, but its flow is weirdly episodic, with little coherence between the episodes. What's more, it seems curiously detached from the real world examples of leadership derailment that lie all around us. It reads more like a substantial literature review, providing the raw material for a fascinating study of leadership failure. Unfortunately, the reader has to construct this study from the elements here.

The structure, such as it is, revolves around five axioms: poor leaders can be bad (immoral or evil) mad (psychotic) or sad (incompetent), and the book focuses on the first two; leaders' strengths in certain areas cause imbalances, creating simultaneous weaknesses; those who combine a 'toxic triad' of arrogance (high self-esteem), anti-social or psychotic behaviour and Machiavellianism can hide their weaknesses for a long time, gaining power until they eventually become exposed; the fact leaders last as long as they do is as much a weakness of the environment in which they operate, as it is about the leaders themselves; and selection procedures prevent leadership time-bombs from being filtered out.

However, I had to go back to re-read the first chapter to be able to clarify these five axioms. When I'd finished I wasn't clear who the book was written for. The title suggests it's for the kind of people hanging around airports and stations, looking for something to deaden the pain of the journey. But the content is academic in style.

So, for an HR manager looking to identify potentially poor leaders before they rise to the level of their own incompetence, there are some valuable tips here - if they are prepared to work hard to unearth them. What's disappointing is that there is a really useful book buried here that, with care, could have been produced from the material. I've given it two marks out of five - it could so easily have been four, or even five.