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[Book Summary] Leadership Unchained: Defy Conventional Wisdom for Breakthrough Performance

We are creatures of habit.
We like our routines.
We like to do whatever has worked well for us in the past.

Yet to become a truly transformational leader, you must turn off the auto-pilot!
In Leadership Unchained, Sara Canaday describes the new leadership rules for today’s rapidly changing business environment. To break free, she says, leaders must become rebels and radically rework accepted practices.

[Book Summary] Leadership Unchained: Defy Conventional Wisdom for Breakthrough Performance

What’s inside?

How does leadership today differ from leadership in the past?

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Management, Leadership, Women in Business


Sara Canaday offers clear guidelines for the demands and challenges facing leaders today, taking into account how the nature of leadership has changed. She covers when it is better not to act; how emotion fights objectivity; how leaders benefit from hearing diverse perspectives; why you need a “Stop Doing” list; and why trusting facts without verifying them is dangerous. Being truthful is paramount, she teaches, and everything else leaders must do follows from that.


  • The rules of leadership are changing.
  • Abandon the “bias for action.”
  • People don’t see the world objectively. They see it through subjective lenses.
  • Collaboration requires cognitive diversity.
  • Data is useful, but it may be misleading.
  • Doing the known and the familiar won’t win in a changing environment.
  • Facts alone don’t persuade people. Emotions and experiences change minds.
  • Expertise has value, but it can be seductive. Leaders need fresh perspectives.
  • “Best practices have a limited shelf life.”
  • Change shapes modern business, but some things don’t change.


The rules of leadership are changing.

Leadership rules evolve to match the changing business environment. The contemporary business world is more fluid than in the past, and leaders must develop a subtle sense of how to act. They must understand when to follow the old rules of leadership, when to break them and when to do the opposite of what tradition teaches. This takes courage and discipline. But, if you understand the patterns that hold you back, you can break them and achieve unprecedented results.

Abandon the “bias for action.”

The human genetic code includes a bias for action. Society values action, and leaders model it. In the traditional view of leadership, the leader is the person who takes action. The contemporary business environment reinforces this tendency toward action, as does the accelerated, around-the-clock news cycle. Technology promises that you can be continually accessible – a variation on taking action – while becoming more efficient, and you can lead others to do the same. Many leaders regard action as synonymous with success.

This view of leadership always had serious flaws and is becoming increasingly false. Many times, acting is the wrong course. For example, a study of 286 penalty kicks in championship games detected a winning strategy for goalkeepers: Stay put. It’s best for goalies to stay in the middle of the net when another player is taking a penalty kick. Goalies who don’t move have one chance in three of blocking the kick. Going to either side significantly reduces the goalie’s chance of blocking the shot. However, goalkeepers only stay in the middle 6% of the time. Why? They explain that it feels better to move, and they don’t want to look lazy.

“In other words, the bias for action was propelling them to behave in unproductive ways.”

Doing more can keep people from thinking well. If you want to create, your mind needs time to wander. Acting immediately is acting without thinking. Take a “strategic pause.” Sit and read or go for a walk. That sounds simple, but it requires discipline. Leaders should act as models for their organizations and encourage people to take necessary pauses.

People don’t see the world objectively. They see it through subjective lenses.

What people believe shapes how they see the world. This is true for leaders, too. No matter how objective they try to be, leaders’ perspectives shape their responses to situations. It is human to have a cognitive bias. People hang onto their own points of view despite contrasting evidence. They tend to credit ideas they agree with and remember them better.

“Putting it another way, what we know shapes what we see.”

Emotions can sway leaders. Emotions play a larger role in decisions than facts and spreadsheets. Like everyone else, leaders want to be right, so they make decisions that confirm how they think about the world. Once leaders develop a hunch, they seek information to support it, often looking for confirmation not truth. Refusal to see the full picture may mean missed opportunities.

Collaboration requires cognitive diversity.

Collaboration is a hot topic. Companies like Apple and Google have redesigned some of their workplaces to facilitate collaboration. This is helpful, but real collaboration requires more than putting people together. You need “cognitive diversity.” Many teams are fundamentally “homogenous.” Managers tend to recruit people who share their perspectives. Even firms that hire a diverse population find that people come to think more alike the longer they work together.

“Without cognitive diversity, collaboration is just an illusion.”

Leaders must “take a new path.” They must be aware they are not objective and thus seek contrasting perspectives. To promote collaboration, pursue cognitive diversity. This starts with recruiting. Seek people with different viewpoints to fuel your organization’s creativity. Leaders need to question themselves to purge cognitive bias from their thinking. They need the perspective of those who think differently. This might mean inviting other leaders to your meetings, networking outside your industry or joining a “mastermind group,” whose members follow different career paths. Read literature (articles or books) on topics or from authors that challenge you.

Data is useful, but it may be misleading.

Information has never been so available. However, while “quantifiable information” is useful, it is also deceptive. People can obsess over data. Leaders tend to believe in “hard data.” They trust it more than qualitative understanding. Facts can reassure. Investors and customers trust facts. Trusting facts without questioning them is dangerous. Leaders need to understand when to trust data and when to use their own “unique creativity.”

“Even the most objective information comes with a subjective slant.”

Leaders don’t see data objectively. Instead, they see it through a lens of their own perspective and biases. Having hard data also gives leaders a “false sense of security.” Contemporary leaders have to utilize data while not letting it rule them. “Whole data” is a useful tool in this battle. Leaders who use whole data look at statistics, listen to stories and seek user experiences to better understand customer motivations. Leaders take the time to ask questions, rather than assuming their numbers are right.

To better deal with data, gather “soft intelligence.” This means using focus groups, conducting interviews, observing customers while they use your services, and so on. Ask questions that remind you to check for bias. Always seek balance, and listen to your informed gut.

Doing the known and familiar won’t win in a changing environment.

People fall into patterns of doing things a certain way. They develop comfortable habits, and take actions that fall into patterns. Leaders are usually passionate about their projects and develop “strong attachments” to them. That’s understandable, especially if the project helped them rise to their current position. As a result, people often believe they will succeed by doing more of the same. Few people stop to ask: “What do I need to give up?”

“If we want remarkable business growth, sometimes we need the courage to prune the proverbial tree.”

Letting go might seem counterintuitive. The ease of repeated tasks and routines makes it hard for people to break their normal drill. This applies to companies and to people. Companies use the same spreadsheets; they send out the same “monthly reports” and nobody reads them. Organizations use outdated feedback because it’s easy. No one chooses to be mediocre, but the ease of routine keeps people from greatness. Daily to-do lists fill up with churning items that have always been there and still seem important.

To reach a new level, leaders must turn off their “auto-pilot.” This means questioning everything and killing sacred cows. Leaders must commit to “letting go” of things that don’t matter most. This doesn’t apply only to small things. It might mean abandoning huge projects. Ford Motor Company exemplified this idea in 2018 when it announced it would reduce its North American product line and “stop making cars.” Start by getting clear about your goals; then use those goals to filter every task or opportunity that pops up. Everybody makes a to-do list. Contemporary leaders also need to make a “Stop Doing” list.

Facts alone don’t persuade people. Emotions and experiences change minds.

Often, when leaders try to excite their employees, share a strategy or interview for a promotion, they lead with and rely on facts. However, leaders who rely too much on facts may inform their audience, but they don’t reach out to them on a human level and don’t persuade or impress them.

Often leaders accumulate a sense of what is and isn’t appropriate for them to do, and how they can and should communicate. Combine that with habitual faulty “communication patterns” and the use of abbreviations and buzzwords, and the result is a bored and foggy audience. Sterile, impersonal presentations move no one.Leaders need to be transparent and demonstrate engagement to spark passion in their teams and motivate creativity. Leaders must inspire while sharing data, or else they will seem inauthentic.

“When leaders don’t update and clarify their communication goals, their messages may not make it through the clutter.”

It is easy for information to overwhelm your message. People communicate in a cluttered landscape that pushes their listeners toward misinterpretation. The quantity of information doesn’t matter; quality matters. Rather than focusing on what information they need to communicate, leaders should focus on the results they want. Figure out what change or impact you need to bring about, and then work backward to determine what information to put in your speech or memorandum. This process shifts your focus to the message, rather than to the data. Stories are useful, because audiences remember something better if they encounter it in story form. Use visuals because people are more likely to recall text with illustrations, and visuals make a verbal message persuasive.

Expertise has value, but it can be seductive. Leaders need fresh perspectives.

Leaders often achieve that status by becoming experts, amassing credentials and building credibility. People come to know them as knowledgeable “thought leaders.” Expertise is useful, but relying on it too much can become an obstacle. Experts are susceptible to becoming “closed-minded.” They may give their own ideas extra weight and become blind to ideas from outsiders.

“Leaders who become overly attached to their own expertise may begin to suffer from negative consequences.”

Leaders must place themselves in situations that enable learning and growth. They need to be humble, and embrace what Zen Buddhism calls “the beginner’s mind.” This can generate anxiety, because it means going into the unknown. It requires a new kind of confidence; leaders must be willing to admit they don’t know everything. They have to be willing to say “I don’t know,” and to embrace questions as much as answers. Traditionally, leaders tried to avoid making mistakes.” Today, mistakes can be beneficial. Leaders should value them as a sign they’re trying new things. Success often comes as a result of trying and failing. And, in addition to rethinking such failures, leaders should seek knowledge from a broader array of sources.

“Best practices have a limited shelf life.”

Organizations imitate tested strategies, a pattern they call benchmarking “best practices.” Companies spend a lot of money identifying these practices, and they often build such benchmarking into their performance metrics. However, once a company establishes its best practices, people hold onto them long after they stop being the best way to do something. Users also may not notice that what’s best for one organization might not work for another.

“We are conditioned to imitate successful strategies.”

To break free, leaders must become rebels. They must radically rework accepted practices, just the way Netflix fundamentally disrupted Blockbuster and changed the video rental industry. Breaking the rules takes confidence and may seem crazy from the outside, but it can generate tremendous rewards. Try “reverse benchmarking”; do something unexpected that breaks precedent.

Change shapes modern business, but some things don’t change.

Leaders must let go of the old when it doesn’t work, but also be flexible enough to try something unconventional – and wise enough to know what they should not change.

“No matter how many things advance and evolve in our world, some timeless leadership principles never go out of style.”

Good leaders inspire people. They do what is right even when it’s painful. Great leaders define their careers by the people they serve, the connections they make and the relationships they sustain.

About the author

Leadership expert Sara Canaday also wrote You – According to Them.

Sara Canaday | Website
Sara Canaday | Email
Sara Canaday | Facebook
Sara Canaday | Twitter @saracanaday
Sara Canaday | YouTube
Sara Canaday | LinkedIn

Sara Canaday

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