Top critical review
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I wanted to love this book
on December 25, 2017
The authors present a believable theory that our choice of language affects organizational performance. But after 280 pages of anecdote and hand-waving, we're left thinking that "Tribal Leadership" is _at best_ necessary but not sufficient. At worst it's irrelevant.
Another reviewer commented on the authors' inappropriate use of George Washington as an example of tribal leadership. Here I provide a nitpick but I think it will illustrate the larger point about the quality of this work:
The authors said Washington led America by "getting [his officers] to talk about... valuing freedom, hating the king's latest tax, or wanting to win the fight." If you've read any history, for instance David McCullough's "1776" or Gordon S. Wood's "Revolutionary Characters," you will find this description of Washington as a highly verbal, touchy-feely leader unrecognizable. They go on to say, "As [Washington] built the common cause, a mission gelled and they embraced 'we're great' language." In fact, nothing could be further from the reality of conversation in near-hopeless 1776 than "we're great." The authors mention Washington twice more, both times indicating a lack of having done their homework.
Throughout the book, the authors give many more examples, all presumably subject to similar lack of critical thinking. Since I haven't met or read biographies of the contemporary CEO's they're describing, it's impossible for me to know if there might be evidence contrary to their theory. They don't provide it. They do make much about their experience, and anecdotes, and 24,200 datapoints (sounds legit!).
They write, "If you want to see the academic side of our research, start with 'Appendix B.' " Therein I found no data about performance. Worse, I read the following astonishing admonition: "A company with a great culture and low strategic performance will, over time, find that its culture erodes." In other words, if you're a hopeless tech startup with a 'we're great' language, your choice of words will decline to lower levels and your organization will still fail. This was an exceedingly important point to explore, but they glossed over it like authors working to a deadline, or careless scholars, or both.
What we're left with is a way to *categorize* organizations by language. If their five-point scale has any power to predict individual or corporate performance, the authors don't share this fact with us. They make reference to "30% productivity improvement" and "history-making projects," but again these are presented as anecdotes without the strength of correlation, let alone the power of causation.
It's too bad, because I wanted to love this book and the classification system. Instead I'm left hoping I didn't fill my head with half-truths. If you're interested in practical conversation you'd be much better served with Roger Fisher, or for serious theory something by Deborah Tannen.