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You’re Reading What?

Last week I cited a management book that gave me some helpful perspectives on the insidious and even unintentional ways leaders can undermine organizational effectiveness. Knowing that academic audiences often discount items from the popular press, I expected a little electronic eye-rolling and was not disappointed. Words such as “psychobabble” and “common sense” made their way into the comment boxes, just as I knew they would. The ire of some readers was apparently increased by The Chronicle’s decision to insert a screen shot of the book’s cover, which seemed to suggest that I was reviewing the reading—or, worse, promoting it—which I most certainly was not.

The negative reactions were interesting but not surprising, and the comments prompted me to reflect on why many of us hold such disdain for books that fly off the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Do we believe that only academics are capable of writing anything worth reading? Are we just jealous that people who write for nonacademic audiences can command big speaking fees while most of us cannot?

While last week’s Wall Street Journal article about business-book authors who buy their way to the top of best-seller lists was disturbing, there really are some very decent management and leadership books in the popular press worth reading. And even if those works aren’t destined to be management classics, a little familiarity with contemporary thinking is not a bad thing. Don’t you want to be in the know when someone refers to “super connectors” (Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), “flying too low” (Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception), “right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus” (Jim Collins’s Good to Great), or the importance of “purpose, mastery, and autonomy” (Daniel Pink’s Drive)?

Whenever I hear someone summarily dismiss a management book that is selling well, I am reminded of the people who scrunch up their noses at other components of popular culture. You know, the ones who stumble upon a conversation about Mad Men, House of Cards, or Scandal, and try to ruin the party by uttering phrases like “I, for one, do not even own a television.”

Lightening up can be a good thing, and the ability to make connections using elements of popular culture can help us be more relevant to those who don’t live in our world. Yes, we can read things not accessible through JSTOR without killing any brain cells. Gone Girl? Entertainment Weekly? Strengths Finder 2.0, anyone?

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