Book Review: Leadership and Self-Deception

“Leadership and Self-Deception” written by The Arbinger Institute

This month I re-read one of my favorite books on leadership, “Leadership and Self-Deception”. It’s been 15 years since I first read this book, and I was quickly reminded why I enjoyed it so much the first time. I am still finding my way into and out of those “boxes”.

Hundreds of management books have been written in the past decade prescribing ways to increase organizational and individual performance. These “Leadership” books typically offer simple lists of do’s and don’ts that when properly applied will miraculously result in happier employees and higher-performing organizations. The fatal assumption that is made in reading these “how-to” books is that the leader and the followers are in a state of mind that will allow for such changes to take place. In reality, this is rarely the case.

The national bestselling book “Leadership and Self-Deception” takes a very unique look at the root of poor performance and how to solve it. The authors of the book are the members of The Arbinger Institute. Arbinger is a management training and consulting firm that has worked with leaders from major organizations such as Microsoft, 3M, AT&T, and the U.S. Navy.

The premise of this book is that most personal and organizational problems are the result of self-deception. We deceive ourselves into evaluating situations and individuals in such a way to justify our own actions and belittle those around us. The authors use a fictional story of a new manager and his respective leaders to articulate what self-deception is, how individuals get trapped into it, how it undermines one’s performance and relationships, and finally the way to avoid it.

The book uses a simple example of explaining self-deception that was very close to my own experience. The example tells of a husband, a wife, and crying baby. The wife is asleep. The husband hears the crying baby and resists the urge to get up and comfort the infant. He justified this action be deceiving himself into thinking that his actions are appropriate due to the fact that his wife is lazy, inattentive, and incompetent as a mother. While untrue, these characteristics continue to shape his relationship with his wife moving forward. The authors refer to this existence as being “in the box”. The husband’s actions and performance as a husband and a father are greatly influenced by this self-created paradigm.

This scenario is very common in many business and personal relationships. I have put myself “in the box” many times in the past with employees, customers, and friends as I resisted taking the appropriate action in a situation and then justified my behavior by making false assumptions about the individual I was working with. I may have assumed that someone should have called me when in fact I could have initiated the call. I could have assumed that one of my employees would handle a particular assignment when I knew that I had taken responsibility for its completion. This self-deception has isolated me from that individual moving forward thus making a bad situation even worse.   

I enjoyed reading this book as I was awakened by a number of my own self-deceptions. I am busy working my box cutters as we speak. How many “boxes” have you created in your relationships? I recommend you read this book and find out.