By Jeffrey Pfeffer
Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99
If you think that much of what you read and hear from leadership gurus is BS, you have a supporter in Jeffrey Pfeffer. At first glance he’s an unlikely backer since he’s a leadership guru himself. But he’s a professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a fierce advocate of evidence-based management, as exemplified in his incisive book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense, co-written with colleague Robert Sutton, and his newest work, brashly titled, Leadership BS.
“Sometimes–not always, but some of the time–doing precisely the opposite of what the leadership industry prescribes produces better outcomes. What’s more, doing the opposite of what the leadership industry advocates is sometimes a much better, more reliable path to individual success,” he writes in Leadership BS.
He starts with a historical analogy: Around the turn of the 20th Century, medical practices in the United States were dismal, with people hawking untested and unproven cures. The Carnegie Foundation commissioned Abraham Flexner to study medical education and his transformational report led to formal licensing and a focus on seeking evidence for medical advice.
Today’s leadership industry parallels the medical field before Flexner, with anybody able to put out a shingle and no requirement that an individual has even read the relevant social science research. “The leadership industry also has its share of quacks and sham artists who sell promises and stories, some true, some not, but all of them inspirational and comfortable, with not much follow-up to see what really does work and what doesn’t. And much like the field of medicine prior to Flexner, what speaks the loudest in the leadership industry seems to be money, rather than evidence-based, useful knowledge. The way leadership gurus try to demonstrate their legitimacy is not through their scientific knowledge or accomplishments but rather by achieving public notoriety – be it the requisite TED talks, blog posts, Twitter followers, or books filled with leadership advice that might or might not be valid and useful,” he says.
He argues the leadership gurus offer a well-intentioned, values-laden set of prescriptions filled with “shoulds” and “oughts” that are mostly not representative of people in leadership roles, not implementable, and may be fundamentally misguided.
He believes the leadership industry has failed: “Good intentions notwithstanding, there is precious little evidence that any of the recommendations have had a positive impact.” A big problem is that much leadership training and development has become like a form of lay preaching. Inspiring stories are told about heroic leaders and exceptional organizations. That uplifts the recipients of the message but doesn’t seem to change much in actual workplaces. “Regardless of all the time and money spent on leadership, the situation in workplaces…. is dire with disengaged, disaffected, and dissatisfied employees everywhere,” he notes.
He probes six key messages from the gurus–authenticity, modesty, telling the truth, trust, leaders shouldn’t eat first, and taking care of others first–that on the surface sound reasonable but he suggests may not be wise.
He points on authenticity to Alison Davis-Blake, the respected dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She was so quiet and introverted as a doctoral student her professors were wondering when she would speak up. The authentic her, therefore, would be a flop in the high-profile position of business school dean. To succeed, she needs to be inauthentic–not her genuine self.
“The last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is ‘authentic’ –at least if authentic means both being in touch with and exhibiting their true feelings. In fact, being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do. Leaders do not need to be true to themselves. Rather, leaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them,” he notes.
Anthony Weiner, the New York mayoral candidate who sent pictures of his private parts to various women he met on the Internet, was unabashedly authentic. He was owning his thoughts, needs, and wants. Is that to be praised? On the other hand, a colleague of Pfeffer’s was probably being inauthentic when after his daughter died from a drug overdose he continued to soldier on in his administrative job, providing motivation and encouragement to others.
The noted writer-editor Harriet Rubin studied successful individuals and found inauthenticity was vital. Their success came from playing a role. A study by the University of Michigan’s Sydney Lieberman found that union leaders who were promoted into management and then during a recession returned to the frontlines exhibited the attitudes of their different posts in those two periods, changing with the situation. Inauthentic, but realistic and probably effective. “The idea of behaving authentically as a leader is almost certainly rare, because this is a concept that is at once both psychologically impossible–because of situational effects on personality and behaviour–and also not very useful because of the requirements for acting as a leader regardless of how one may feel at the moment,” he says.
Jim Collins propelled the notion of modesty into the leadership discussion when in his best seller Good to Great he revealed the best business leaders were humble and determined. But research has shown that overconfident people achieve higher social status, respect and influence in groups. A study of the recent financial crisis found narcissistic CEOs did worse at the beginning of the episode but because they have a stronger bias towards action and risk-taking, as a result of their self-confidence, they led their firms to bounce back more successfully. Whatever you believe about the virtue of modesty, Pfeffer warns we are surrounded by self-promotional if not narcissistic leaders–Donald Trump is a prime example–who seem to earn more than their counterparts, so it may be a tack to consider. (Interestingly, in his companion work Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins didn’t focus on modesty but instead called for a blend of executive and legislative skills. In executive leadership, the individual leader has enough concentrated power to act decisively. In legislative leadership, the person must rely instead on persuasion, political currency, and shared interest to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.)
Gurus insist leaders must be totally honest. But Steve Jobs was known for bending the truth–his “reality distortion field,” it was charitably called. “The ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial–maybe the most crucial–leadership skill,” Pfeffer provocatively suggests.
Trust is the glue of most social relationships and widely believed to be crucial to effective leadership. But Pfeffer no longer believes it’s essential to organizational functioning or even to effective leadership because the data suggests it’s notable mostly by its absence. Yet organizations and their leaders don’t suffer too many consequences for their untrustworthiness, to some degree because even after our trust is violated we tend to still be predisposed to grant trust to our leaders.
Leaders are supposed to eat last, letting their subordinates go first. It’s a noble idea, common in the U.S. military but not elsewhere. Indeed, he notes it’s a curiosity when it occurs. Unselfish leadership is rare and servant leadership–devoting yourself to helping your followers–difficult to implement.
The final behaviour he highlights is trusting the organization to take care of you. But the last three decades, with constant pruning of loyal staff, has put paid to that notion. “The logical conclusion from systematic data and countless cases in multiple environments, ranging from college and professional athletics to corporations to universities: Relying on the good behaviour and positive sentiments of work organizations for your career well-being is singularly foolish,” he says. His advice: Take care of yourself.
This is a stimulating and important book. I found myself resisting his opening attacks on the leadership industry since they were more bombastic than thoughtful and the research scant. But the following chapters, each tackling one of the six main themes, were in fact solid and eye-opening, making his case better and giving us cause to rethink the leadership messages we have been bombarded with.