Leading a Reader to Lead

03/14/2015 01:15 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015

As the campaign season for 2016 U.S. presidential politics goes into high gear, voters will start focusing on "leadership,"--that overused and under-defined human concept. We all agree on the importance of leadership but defining it is harder. An entire field of leadership study has grown up over decades in this country, with volumes of books and articles written on the subject. I remember being assigned to read "Leadership" by James MacGregor Burns in 1978 in college. Truth be told, I remember very little about the contents of the book because most leadership training is done on the job which is why one needs a healthy degree of skepticism in approaching any new book on leadership.

Having said that, I have discovered a gem of a book on leadership-- a new and well-crafted slim volume entitled "Your Leadership Story," by Timothy J. Tobin. Tobin has over twenty years of experience helping organizations build effective leadership programs and is currently vice president of global learning and leadership development at Marriott International. Tobin knows a thing or two about how to have impact on people and the book leaves the reader inspired and excited about the topic.

Tobin begins with a much-needed survey of the "ecology of leadership," in which he lays out the variations in human approaches to leadership and the constant tension between self-perceptions of leadership and the perceptions of others. With examples and models, Tobin digs into the positive attributes of a leader: genuine, authentic, reliable, aligned, and the negative characteristics that befall many leaders: arrogance, insecurity, and a basic lack of awareness of others. In the old days, we called those factors "emotional intelligence."

Tobin tells good stories in the book about leadership. As a journalist, I appreciate Tobin's advice to see leadership as storytelling without embellishment or inaccuracies. As with any good story, leadership has the elements of plot, characters, themes, settings and inevitable conflicts and Tobin covers them all. "As a leader," write Tobin, "you need to understand the role of characters in your story, the role of perceptions, who your protagonists and antagonists are, and the impact you have on others, and others on you." In short, Tobin is reminding those who lead to look around and notice who they are leading and how they are leading, thereby putting the onus on the leader to read the cues. (The book has a particularly good section on conflict-management capacity--a critical part of leadership today.)

"Your Leadership Story," contain activities and recommendations that many leaders might mistakenly cast off as elementary--which is exactly Tobin's point. Many leaders believe they are too good at leadership to need training when the truth is that leadership evolves and changes. Tobin provides good suggestions on revising your leadership story--a refresher course that many would benefit from now and again.

What is refreshing about Tobin's book is that you will learn something new about leadership and use it. Leadership books tend to repeat some of the tried and true concepts around framing, narrative, vision, appearance and expertise. Tobin elevates the concept of "gratitude" in leadership training. "Sometimes we don't realize how fortunate we are. The good in our lives becomes wallpaper," Tobin writes--like "background that we take for granted and hardly notice" meaning we fail to recognize something positive and pay attention to it which is part of leading any organization in a positive direction.

I am grateful for having found "Your Leadership Story" and hope others are energized, inspired and motivated to read it.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.