The Best Leadership Book You've Probably Never Read

If stranded on a desert island and given only one book from which to teach leadership—in admittedly a very weird hypothetical scenario—I would choose a book that isn’t very well known. And no, it isn’t a Christian leadership book. Books like Jesus on Leadership are great, but in my opinion, if you’re serious about leadership, your reading has to be broader than overtly Christian leadership books. A few years ago we even spent a morning at UBA talking through this book during a Leadership Cafe.

The book is called Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership by Lee Bolman and Terrance Deal. It is now available in its 6th edition, but I’ll be pulling quotes from the 4th edition, which can be had for a much cheaper price. The older versions don’t suffer much content loss compared to the most recent edition.

WHAT’S YOUR MENTAL MODEL OF LEADERSHIP?

The premise of the book is simple: effectively matching mental-models to situations is the key to effective leadership. The key to this book is how it stresses that leaders should be able to identify and utilize multiple mental models—“frames”—rather than relying on a singular perspective for all occasions.

Bolman and Deal describe four frames: structural, human resources, political and symbolic. Through the process of framing—viewing a situation through the assumptions and understanding of a particular frame—along with reframing and “frame breaking” (12), leaders can better appreciate the complexities of organizational behavior.

IT STARTS WITH PARTS AND PEOPLE

The book is organized according to six parts, with the four central parts each dedicated to a frame.

The structural frame posits an organization’s dependence on clearly defined goals, roles, resources, and relationships between internal parts. Every organization, regardless of its mission or size, is founded upon such things and relies upon them to provide guidance, foundation, and focus. Churches, like companies, must have good structures in order to grow.  

The human resources frame advocates for the principle that if employers care for and develop their employees, share resources, and openly communicate with the workforce, then the result is an increased effort from the workers and overall effectiveness for the organization. The authors note that there is a risk in developing a workforce that may indeed use their new skills to move on to other employment, but that is one of the many paradoxes of leadership.

However, not caring for employees has the same result, and some may argue it happens faster with the organization reaping fewer benefits in the meantime. A workforce that doesn't feel cared for inevitably cares less about a company's mission and will not work as effectively before they leave. Any leader who balks at a human resources development plan would do well to remember this simple nugget of truth, and the accompanying the costs of continually replacing a workforce with no loyalty or institutional memory.

POLITICS ISN’T A BAD WORD

The third part is perhaps the most valuable section in the book, because it validates the necessity of employing a political frame from time to time. The book appropriately confronts and dispels the notion that “political” must always have a negative connotation. This frame emphasizes the need for leaders to be able to map existing power structures within an organization, understand the value of networking and building coalitions, and rightly reminds leaders that most organizations are founded upon a set of inherent negotiations and not upon hierarchical declarations.

This chapter is especially important for leaders as they encounter various leadership dilemmas, not the least of which is political in nature: “when to adopt an open, collaborative strategy and when to choose a tougher, more adversarial approach” (228). Too many leaders sacrifice themselves and their career upon this alter because they fail to understand the political nature of organizations.

Too many pastors lose opportunities to influence and minister in their churches because they fail to comprehend and anticipate how feelings and passions are governed by formal and informal coalitions among their members.

SYMBOLS ARE POWERFUL

The fourth part is dedicated to the symbolic frame and instructs leaders to be mindful of a more spiritual and emotional side of guiding organizations. Organizations each have a history and a culture, complete with rites, symbols, stories, and language.

Leaders in sports, the military, and religious institutions have relied upon the symbolic frame for generations, and this part does well to emphasize the need for this frame in the typical business organization as well. This profound section may seem simplistic in nature, but leaders may find that the easiest leadership successes of their tenure come from adopting ideas in the symbolic frame.

THE BOTTOM LINE

If I had a say in the pastoral training curriculum at each of our Baptist seminaries, every graduate would be required to read this book. The book’s size is daunting, but it is extremely well-written and easily digestible for the most common consumer of material concerning leadership or organizational behavior.

Sprinkled throughout the chapters are modern-day illustrations from every sector and industry, case studies, and references to notable works in the fields of leadership, management, organizational behavior, and business literature. For experienced readers in this area, these serve to confirm that the authors have taken proper appreciation for the “best-sellers”, while the novice reader is provided with a framework and additional resources to follow-up on. The book is well thought out and theoretically grounded—34 pages of references allude to the research that supports Bolman and Deal’s work.

The strength of this book is that it does not pretend to be something it is not. There is no one chapter trying to exhaustively explain a facet of leadership like strategic planning or succession planning that rightfully requires its own book. This book in an exhaustive, informative, and creative look at the world of organizational behavior. It correctly instructs the reader that complex things are sometimes best understood through a complex relationship of different perspectives. Managers and leaders from all industries would do well to read this book and apply its principles.

For a longer discussion of Reframing Organizations, watch our Leadership Café video below:

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Lee Bolman is an author, scholar, consultant, and speaker who currently holds the Marion Bloch Missouri Chair in Leadership at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He has co-authored 7 books on leadership and organizations with Terrence Deal. He holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in History and a Doctorate in Organizational Behavior from Yale University. Before his current assignment, he taught at Carnegie-Mellon University and, for more than twenty years, at Harvard University.

Terrence E. Deal, now retired, has been a professor at Stanford, Harvard, and Vanderbilt Universities and is the former Irving R. Melbo Professor of Education at the Rossier School of the University of Southern California. He has authored 20 books and over 100 articles and book chapters on organizations, leadership, change, culture, symbolism, and spirit. He previously taught at Harvard, Stanford, and Vanderbilt Universities. He has served as a former teacher, principal, police officer, and administrator, and has a Doctorate in Educational Administration and Sociology from Stanford University.