Leadership Is Not a Life Hack

Oct 18, 2017

I was browsing Fast Company’s “Top Leadership Stories” recently and was struck by something. It’s actually something that has been bothering me for a while. Usually, it comes up in small doses and I brush it off. But here it was concentrated in one place.

I’ll give you a brief summary of each of their top stories and maybe you’ll see it too:

  • Female tech founders use a fake male alter-ego to get more respect in email exchanges.
  • Start-up CEO forces himself to call people on the phone rather than email. Finds that playing phone-tag is a pain but talking to people is good.
  • Editorial assistant eats “brain-healthy” diet for 2 weeks. Feels a little better but it’s expensive to buy fancy groceries.
  • CEO’s give trivial and contradictory “secrets” to productivity: Make decisions even if everyone doesn’t agree, work 16 hour days, start work at 4am, do important things first, don’t work too much, make time for family, do easy things first, don’t get distracted by email, other people, or your phone…
  • Blogger advises job applicants not to be arrogant or inappropriate in job interviews.
    Successful people focus on making major decisions and then fix them if they turn out to be wrong.
  • To get a good night’s sleep, relax before bed instead of snacking, getting drunk or watching TV.
  • Don’t say “to be honest” because it makes you sound like you’re dishonest or you can’t keep a secret.
  • Entrepreneurs give vague “secrets” to success: Be good at lots of stuff, get to know your team, don’t get distracted by your competitors, relax and don’t force things.
  • Personality study in tech companies reveals that men and women aren’t that different – except in some tech companies that tend to hire lots of guys who are jerks.

Really? Those are the top leadership stories?

In too many online venues, leadership has been overtaken by the culture of life hacks and tech-CEO worship: The five simple tricks to succeed at everything in life. Elon Musk’s Secret to Productivity, you know the drill.

I’m so tired of it.

OK. The one about the female founders resorting to a fake male colleague was both sad and funny at the same time. But it isn’t exactly a solution that extends to lots of other situations.

I have dedicated a large chunk of my professional life to studying leadership and doing leadership development in organizations. Let’s get real. If there were a handful of “counterintuitive tricks” that would instantly make you a great leader, everyone would already be doing it.

The fact is, leadership isn’t about making a few simple tweaks to your routine. It’s a lot deeper than that. It requires changing how you think, how you approach situations, and how you interact with people. And it requires those things on a variety of fronts: people management, strategy, collaboration, functional expertise, etc. Getting better at it takes real work and practice.

OK, rant over. What do you think?


Sean Kennedy has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 corporations to develop their leaders. He has extensive experience designing development programs to transform organizational capability and drive corporate strategy. In addition to supporting Cambridge´s clients, Sean collaborates with our senior team on learning strategy and the evolution of our portfolio. Sean previously worked for 15 years at Harvard Business Publishing and was instrumental in building its Corporate Learning practice.