Booming Business Book

Leadership and Self-Deception (serialized on Meridian) is now a business book bestseller for a simple reason: Any book that is supposed to help a business must first help a life.

Editors’ Note: Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box has been through eight printings, is available in nine languages including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Spanish and Dutch, has come out in paperback, and has in every way surpassed the publisher’s wildest expectations. To read this book, check Meridian’s archives on the right sash of this article.

The reviews have been extremely positive. The Vice President of HR at Heinz North America called it “the most profound and practical business book I have ever read.” The former president and CEO of LensCrafters described it as “the hidden key to productivity and success.” A Superior Court judge from Arizona said: “My blood pressure has dropped significantly, and as long as I apply the Arbinger principles, it stays low.” Who could have predicted that kind of response? And an anonymous reviewer on, from Canada, wrote one sentence: “Upon finishing this book, I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning.”

Meridian: Those reviewers have discovered what we discovered at Meridian. Leadership and Self-Deception is more than a business book.

Arbinger: Absolutely, and there’s a reason for that. Any book that can make a significant difference at work must be deep enough to make a significant difference in life. Think about it. If a business book isn’t profound enough to affect the way people live, how could it be profound enough to affect the way they live at work?

Meridian: So Leadership and Self-Deception goes deeper than an ordinary business book.

Arbinger: We think so. The reason this book affects the way people think about their work is because it affects the way they think about themselves. And the way they think about themselves reaches far beyond work; it reaches especially to home and family. We think that”s why so many of our readers respond to the book as fathers, mothers, husbands, and wives—-in addition to responding as CEOs, CFOs, VPs and all the rest. Readers see themselves both ways in reading this book.

Meridian: That surely accounts for part of the success of the book. What else do you think has made the book so popular?

Arbinger: For one thing, readers seem to find the book easy to read. It is written as a story and the story seems to carry readers along. But we think the most important reason for the book’s success is simply the ideas it presents. People are quite stunned by this work—-which, of course, is based on the philosophical work of Terry Warner.

Meridian: Say more about that.

Arbinger: All of Arbinger’s material—-whether for organizations, families, or individuals—-is formally and legally based on the intellectual foundation of the work of Terry Warner, a professor of philosophy at BYU and the founder of Arbinger. Many years ago Warner focused his intellectual studies on a single profound issue, the issue of “self-deception.” The reason this issue matters, and matters so deeply, is because in both organizations and families the people who are the problem can’t see that they are the problem. The very people who need to change can”t see that they need to change and therefore don”t change. That is the problem of self-deception. You can appreciate the ramifications of this phenomenon for corporations, for families . . . indeed, for organizations of all kinds, including, for that matter, governments. Well, in the course of his work Warner not only developed a unique conception of self-deception, but also identified the cause and the cure. Together these constitute a profound and gripping set of ideas, and readers respond to them. Leadership and Self-Deception tries to present these important ideas in a way that is entertaining and easy to understand.

Meridian: You mention this set of ideas. What can you say about them briefly? How, for example, would you describe the central concept of the book?

Arbinger: Well, think about all the people problems that afflict organizations—-whether the organization is a Fortune 500 company or a family. They include problems in communication, trust, conflict resolution, alignment, motivation, leadership, teamwork, and so forth. These all look like separate problems and thus like they require separate solutions: one workshop or solution for this problem, another workshop or solution for that . . . and so on. But it”s not true. Most of these problems have the same root cause. And this means that organizations never have as many different problems as they think they have. One deep problem is the cause of most of the difficulties that beset them. Leadership and Self-Deception identifies what this deep problem is, how it occurs, and what to do about it.

Meridian: And that problem is self-deception?

Arbinger: Yes.

Meridian: And you”re saying that the answer to this problem—-the problem of self-deception—-is actually the answer to most of the people problems that organizations typically identify?

Arbinger: Yes. It turns out that most people problems are merely symptoms of self-deception. Cure the disease of self-deception and you cure those symptoms.

Meridian: It sounds so simple when you put it that way.

Arbinger: Good, it should. And think about its importance. At the surface, organizational life is exceedingly complex. Myriad problems occur daily. But what if we could identify a single variable, a single root cause, at the heart of all that complexity? What if, beneath the surface of endless problems, there was a deep reality that was both simple and profound, and the key to solving all those problems? Well, we think that’s the case. And when organizations understand this—-again, whether the organization is a corporation or a family—-it allows them to focus on improvement with a power and a precision that they”ve never had before. It’s thrilling to see what people can do when they have a clear understanding of problems and solutions—-and a desire to make improvement.

Meridian: Another question we have about the book is its authorship. The only author that’s listed is “The Arbinger Institute”—-no personal name or names. We don’t recall ever seeing that before; it seems very odd.

Arbinger: Yes, it’s certainly very rare . . . even “odd.” People who buy books like to identify with the author; if there’s no author, there”s no one to identify with, and if there’s no one to identify with, there’s less reason to buy. We heard the logic many times and we understand it.

Meridian: So, why did you do it?

Arbinger: Because we knew it was wrong to identify authors in our case. We wanted attention to focus on the ideas in the book, not on personalities. The best way to do that was to remove personalities altogether. So that’s what we did.

Meridian: But it was a risk.

Arbinger: It was a risk, but we never calculated it that way. Identifying authors was never an option. We would have simply sought another publisher if Berrett-Koehler had not agreed to this arrangement. We’re happy they agreed, though, because they”re a great publisher.

Meridian: Do you do everything at Arbinger anonymously?

Arbinger: For the last several years we have. There are a number of reasons for this. First, we want to keep focus on the ideas and not on personalities. Second, as we mentioned before, our foundational material is based on the work of Arbinger’s founder, Terry Warner. We can only write about these things because Terry first thought of them. Even the myriad implications that Arbinger has developed are implications we have had occasion to develop only because of Terry’s initial work. So all of us at Arbinger feel a great debt to Terry and feel that it would be an affront to the trust we have received if we were to try to build up our own names and reputations. Third, writing is but one among many important tasks that are performed at Arbinger and we feel that those who write are no more important than those who contribute in other ways. Finally, writing anonymously helps us—-individually and as an organization—-avoid the traps and pitfalls of ego. All in all, it is perhaps the best decision we have ever made.

Meridian: You really take this seriously. The part about you trying to avoid the risks of ego is really intriguing. Could you explain a little more about it?

Arbinger: Sure. If authors are not careful they begin to enjoy the attention they receive. And when that happens everything changes. What once was promotion of an idea becomes promotion of self. What once was a desire to shed light becomes a desire to attract it. This is all insidious and grimy—-not to mention the exact opposite of Arbinger’s message. But it happens to good people. So in a way, you could say that we are desperately trying to avoid fame! We want to avoid both the effects of ego within the organization and the potentially corrupting effect it could have in our delivery of the material.

Meridian: You mentioned Arbinger material for families and individuals, as well as for organizations. Do you do formal work in settings other than for corporations?

Arbinger: Oh yes. In fact, a primary focus of our work is to help families, schools, universities, government entities, psychological clinics (and others in the helping professions) apply Arbinger concepts in their work. We have a wide range of initiatives in these areas. Indeed, at the invitation of the Chinese government, Arbinger is currently developing an initiative to provide training for hundreds of orphanages in mainland China. And here’s an interesting example in education: Cornell University is training all of its administrative personnel in our educational program. We also work with many treatment and corrections institutions, and train many helping professionals—-therapists, counselors, personal coaches, and the like in our approach. We are even beginning to work with the legal justice system, which is very exciting for us. We also put on regular public events for families, where individuals and family members can attend to learn how this material can be applied to improve family life. Information for these offerings is available on our web site at

Meridian: From training corporations to orphanages to elite universities to families . . . that’s quite a range.

Arbinger: That’s precisely the point. When our analysis of life is shallow all we see are differences. Nothing looks like anything else. But when our analysis is deep we see that at heart there is a deep sameness in life. What matters most in a corporation is the same thing that matters most in an orphanage. At the surface everything is different, of course, but below the surface, at the deepest level, everything is the same. And at that level what’s required is the same. That”s one of the profound implications of Arbinger’s work. To return to our earlier metaphor, the disease that affects one kind of organization is the same that affects another: self-deception.

Meridian: Since your book is being translated into so many languages, this message must be resonating in other cultures as well.

Arbinger: People contact us all the time wanting to know more and looking for opportunities to work with us. We’ve heard from people in Germany, the UK, Australia, Japan, Korea, Israel, China, India . . . the list goes on. All because of the book, by the way; we’ve initiated nothing.

Meridian: Have you formed many actual partnerships?

Arbinger: We’re very careful about that. Our highest obligation is to maintain the integrity of Arbinger’s material and to ensure its proper delivery to those who are interested in it. It”s not possible for someone to teach Arbinger concepts by learning to talk through prepared slides or other audiovisual materials. The requirements are much higher and so the process is much slower. The practical demands for anyone wanting to partner with us at long distance are significant. So the process is slower than you might predict. But we are pursuing those opportunities aggressively.

Meridian: Are there any other developments for Leadership and Self-Deception that we should be looking for?

Arbinger: Well, sometime this year a video will be completed. It is a piece of the highest quality and it will supplement the book very well. The video will be used primarily in corporate settings.

Meridian: What about other books? Do you have anything else in the works?

Arbinger: Of course Terry Warner’s book, Bonds that Make us Free, is out now, is being serialized on Meridian and is doing very well. As for other books—-there are several books/workbooks we use in consulting with corporations and with various other entities. These are all specific applications of the core Arbinger material found in Leadership and Self-Deception and, suitably modified, would be natural follow-up books for the general public. But it’s not easy to write a simple, entertaining book, and right now we’re pretty busy. So we’ll have to see.


2001 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.