Book Review: Leadership and Self-Deception

My rating: 4 / 5

This book presents some simple ideas on how often we deceive ourselves in an accessible way that will probably make you feel uncomfortable by the time you're finished.

That being said, if you're already familiar with the value of observing the self, the ideas here won't be too foreign.

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This book reads like a fiction novel. It starts with a new employee joining a fictional company. The reader learns along with the new joiner as he goes through an orientation program which covers the material. I found this novel format quite frustrating because the ideas being presented here are simple and could have been condensed into a few pages. It also makes it difficult to skip over material that you already know, because the narratives in subsequent chapters builds on the previous ones.

Despite leadership being the first word of the title, most of the book focuses on how we deceive ourselves. So I wonder if Self-deception and Leadership would be a better title.

Here are my takeaways1:

  1. We start seeing others through the lens of self-deception once we view other people as objects instead of fellow human beings with needs and wants just like our own.

    This happens when we act contrary to our values and choose not to help others when it is within our power to do so. The book calls this an act of self-betrayal.

  2. We start seeing the world in ways that justify our choice above - being "in the box" as the book would put it. In this state, we exaggerate the faults of others so they become a problem - until they are no longer a person but an object. At the same time, we also start to inflate our virtues. We need the other person to be a target of our blame.

  3. We are often unaware of being in the box.
  4. This leads to us behaving in ways that invites the people that we're blaming unjustly into the box with us by mutual mistreatment fueling mutual justification for each person's behaviour. This perpetuates a cycle of conflict and toxic behaviour.
  5. The antidote is developing greater self-awareness and consciously changing our mindsets regarding others to view them as fellow human beings. When we feel obligated to help others but are not able to do so due to other commitments, seeing others as people means we no longer need to assign blame to justify our behaviour. We do the best we can.

I feel uncomfortable with the box terminology being used here.

  • It is similar to the more common expression about thinking outside the box. I'm not sure if that was deliberate.
  • The book claims that we see clearly when we're so-called out of the box regarding someone and see them as people. There are two reasons why I disagree with this:
    1. The box terminology implies a binary state - we're either inside or outside the box when it comes to our relationship with someone. In reality, there are aspects of people that you see through less clouded lenses than others. It isn't as simple as a binary state.
    2. Our conscious or unconscious beliefs and experiences which is part of who we are make it impossible to truly see the world perfectly. This is an idea from the field of Ontological coaching. I found it interesting that Ontology - the study of our way of being - was indirectly referenced as inspiration for these ideas when the authors explained why they preferred to use the term "change in mindset" vs "change in being". They felt that the term mindset change would be more accessible.

It is also not clear why intentionally choosing not to help someone would be the root cause of self-deception - it could be as simple as someone leaving a bad impression on you which then colours the rest of your interactions.

My biggest takeaway has been becoming much more aware of my own reactions when I deal with someone that I feel uncomfortable with or dislike, which has been really helpful.

Some extraordinary claims were also made about how the ideas in this book transformed organizations, which are unfortunately always unnamed. The fictional novel format of the book also makes it harder to see how it would actually apply in real life. The examples feel quite contrived.

In summary, I would still recommend this book to someone who has not been exposed to these ideas.

  1. I wonder if there's a relation between these ideas and a concept called The Cycle Of Experience from Gestalt theory. Putting this here as a reminder to myself in case i figure it out one way or the other.