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What Strippers Can Teach You about Writing a Leadership Book

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.

What Strippers Can Teach You about Writing a Leadership Book

So you want to write a leadership book?

As the discerning would be non-fiction author no doubt realizes, leadership books are a reliably popular genre. Everyone loves a good leadership book, right? BK’s “ Leadership and Self Deception ” lives in the upper echelons of Amazon’s up to the minute rankings, after all. And there is just so much fun you can have with the topic! Just about anything can be a parallel to leadership!

It is this line of thinking, I believe, that leads to the many proposals I receive that follow the “Leadership and/of X” formula. Some examples (and lest you think any of these are just you- all of the examples given are of topics that I receive regularly):

  • Leadership of the Wizard of Oz!
  • Leadership and Design!
  • And my personal favorite: Leadership through Poetry!

What is wrong with any of these ideas you ask? Intrinsically, nothing of course. You can certainly learn leadership lessons in many places. To answer why none of these ideas is a viable book however, we are going to turn to a favorite musical from my childhood: Gypsy.

You’ve Gotta Get a Gimmick… or Not

In a charming and rather cheeky musical number from the show “Gypsy,” the young protagonist is advised on a burgeoning performance career. She is told that “you’ve gotta get a gimmick” to differentiate yourself and succeed as a burlesque dancer. The dancers who offer this advice are moderately successful; they have forged various stage identities for themselves with acts they describe as “if you wanna make it/twinkle while you shake it” i.e.- Burlesque and a light up costume! Another dancer is “Burlesque and Ballet!” All these dancers have gimmicks, which has assured them a mediocre level of success.

What did Gypsy do differently?

Gypsy Rose Lee, the young dancer who heard this advice, is the real-life inventor of the strip tease and went on to become a giant in her industry. Instead of going for a gimmick, she engaged the audience with witty recitatives, she made them laugh, she flirted and teased, slowly removing articles of clothing. Early in her career, she took off no more than a glove or a shoe. She went beyond shallow gimmicks to create a narrative of suspense, leaving her audience wondering what they would see, or not, that night. She deeply understood the key to her industry- always leave them wanting more.

And how…. does this relate to leadership books?

Leadership books will rarely be wildly successful if they are gimmicky and shallow. Drawing a charming parallel between leadership and a sport/a book/a metaphor might resonate for a few people here and there, but without a new message, without a substantive advance in leadership theory, your book will remain a two-bit burlesque dancer running the vaudeville circuit.

Self Deception, returning to our BK example, is not a gimmick. It is a complex way of thinking about oneself and one’s workplace that digs deep into personal psychology. Jennifer Kahnweiler’s “The Introverted Leader” drew on hundreds of hours of research and studies to create new ways of thinking about leadership from the perspective of an introvert.

Does your book have a change message? Does it challenge an organizational or societal assumption? Can you be unexpected, like the stripper who doesn’t take off all her clothes? Most importantly, does it engage higher-level thinking?

When you can challenge your audience to think critically, when you reach beyond some witty or cute comparison, that is when your book will thrive. This is the offering that will draw your readers in and cause them to reflect and grow.

And for those of you curious, you can watch the advice, sung spectacularly off key, at this link.

Photo of Gypsy Rose Lee via Wikimedia Commons