In the course of my career there have been a relative handful of books, trainings, etc. that have truly made a big difference in my thinking and approach to work.  Let’s take a look at one of these now.

What manager has not been tempted by the promise of management books and movements that promise methods for creating better leadership and having a high-performing organization?  Do you ever wonder why there are so many management books published every year?  Were the old books so misguided as to justify the new, improved volumes begging for our attention?  Is it all just hype and marketing?  Do we really want to keep plunking down our dollars for more “instant answers?”  In my experience a great many of these just rehash the same basic advice with new packaging.  For example, it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like “Leadership Lessons from Olympic Gold Medal Winners” to cash in on the recent Winter Olympics. Just take a look at the NY Times bestseller lists to get an idea of how we are continually presented with leadership and personal improvement advice.

On the other hand, every once in a while I find something really fresh that does make me think (and hopefully, improve).  One of the best books I ever read is Fad Surfing in the Boardroom, Managing in the Age of Instant Answers by Eileen Shapiro.

Shapiro starts her book with the following definition:  Fad Surfing (n): the practice of riding the crest of the latest management panacea and then paddling out again in time to ride the next one; always absorbing for managers and lucrative for consultants; frequently disastrous for organizations.

The book’s use of the surfing analogy is apt–managers are constantly faced with waves of information about how to do our jobs better.  Here is a quote from the introduction that illustrates this well:

Welcome to the fad-surfing age, complete with a seemingly endless supply of programs and mantras for accomplishing “breakthroughs” in performance and achieving “world-class” results.  To review just a few of the options: you can, if you wish, flatten your pyramid, become a horizontal organization, and eliminate hierarchy from your company.  You can empower your people, open your environment, and transform your culture.  You can listen to your customers, create a customer-focused organization, and commit to total customer satisfaction.  You can do the “vision thing,” write a mission statement, and put together a strategic plan.  You can improve continuously, shift your paradigms, and become a learning organization.  You can devote yourself and your company to total quality management.  Or you can reengineer your corporation, with the intent, in the words of the original reengineers, of creating a “business revolution.”

You get tired and confused just reading that paragraph!  Although written over 20 years ago, it still sounds quite current (proving her point, eh?).  The Dilbert cartoon strip recognized all of these fads very humorously in 2014: (nine habits and time management tricks used by successful people, ten things all leaders need to do…), and on a more serious note, that same year the Harvard Business Review published “Beware the Next Big Thing, Before You Adopt a New Management Idea, Figure Out if It’s Right For You” (HBR reprint R1405B) – citing the Zappos Company use of “holacracy” as an attention-getting innovation that kicked off another “hype cycle.”  The HBR article states that 90% of the branded management ideas studied lost their popularity within a few years.

Many of us have read books, attended seminars, and introduced programs in our offices based on these management trends and solutions.  Reading the Shapiro book (and the HBR article) opened my eyes to why many of these “fads” do not work out as well as they might.  These materials critically analyzed the premises and promises of these and other management panaceas and helped me learn how to sift through all the hype to identify and apply those techniques that fit the courts I have worked in.  Always keep in mind specific operating and performance goals that fit your organization and the problems to be solved, blending any new approach into other efforts already underway.  As the book says, “think, experiment, and learn.”  Shapiro rightly calls this courageous piloting, because there almost always are inherent risks managers must take.

We all would like an organizational silver bullet to solve our management problems, but you must realize that this is not usually attainable.  Applying a “fad” without a thinking, critical approach is almost a guarantee of unreliable outcomes.

So, the next time you see something like The Top 9 Habits of Fabulous Leaders, be mindful to apply your critical thinking skills, cut through the hype, and stay on course to improved performance.


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