On 46 Universal Secrets

I attended a (mandatory) leadership training today where, much to my surprise, I encountered something amazing. I was given a book that breathlessly announced it would transform my understanding of leadership. On the front and back covers, the book promised to unveil “46 universal secrets of how to step up to major challenges, create a brighter future, and produce extraordinary results.” At that point, I could only think, “if this thing irons clothes too, I may have to divorce my husband.”

Let’s step back for a moment. You didn’t misread my quote from the book. It plainly promised to unveil “46 universal secrets.” Did I mention it says that on both the front and back covers? I’m halfway to a colorable contract claim with that kind of promise!

After I took a moment to gather myself upon reading how my life was about to change, reality set in, and I realized I was, most likely, in yet another complete-waste-of-time leadership class where a super-jazzed moderator would throw platitudes at the wall for two hours and see what stuck. I wasn’t disappointed. Nearly three hours later, I emerged sore from sitting in an uncomfortable chair and confident in the knowledge that my leadership abilities were totally unchanged.

In the government world (not to mention the corporate and academic worlds), we are routinely treated to these trainings, refreshers, symposiums, continuing education classes, etc. I’m firmly convinced that all of these worlds would be far better off by eliminating every single last one of these time sucks and letting people get about the business of their jobs. For every interesting nugget of an idea, there are hours upon hours of talking heads droning on while completely uninterested attendees craft grocery shopping lists in their heads. The good doesn’t even come close to outweighing the bad.

For the people in this adult education business (and it is big business), the uncomfortable truth is that, if an adult wants to learn something, he or she will pursue it. And, if they have no interest, they’ll attend these mandatory classes, sit semi-politely, leave immediately, and never think about anything that was said ever again. In other words, it’s a business built on a premise that sounds great in theory — education, new skills! — that, practically, has little to no impact on the lives and careers of the vast majority of people that “attend” such classes.

Most importantly, when anyone tells you they are about to unveil to you “46 universal secrets,” you need to run away. Far away. Far away at a pace you’ve never run before. I’m not convinced there are 46 secrets in all of mankind, much less 46 universal secrets of leadership that until today — today! — were heretofore unknown to me and my classmates. When you think about it, it takes some real chutzpah to claim you’ve uncovered 46 universal secrets. If it were me, once I found Secret #46, I’d fear there were hundreds. I mean, why stop at 46? And, on a different tack, God only needed 10 commandments to instruct people on how to live a good life, but this dude needs to tell me 46 secrets about leadership? Really?

There comes a point in one’s life when you should just get to call BS and move on. As I stood there with the book in my hand this morning, I’m pretty sure I reached that point. And that’s no secret.

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