The Leader’s Bookshelf - Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterLeadershipPerformance
April 25, 2016

The Leader’s Bookshelf – Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer

“The ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial–maybe the most crucial–leadership skill,” Pfeffer provocatively suggests. “Relying on the good behaviour and positive sentiments of work organizations for your career well-being is singularly foolish,” he says. Pfeffer’s advice: Take care of yourself.

Leadership BS
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.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
 
A few years back, consultants with ghSMART told us the biggest question we face is “who”: Picking staff is our most important decision, even more critical than “what” – the strategy we will employ. These days, in an era in which purpose is prized, “why” can often be the biggest question. But recently, best-selling author...
 
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...
 
We learned in grade school that one plus one equals two, but when we are faced with two choices in decision-making – and usually decisions end up framed around two possibilities — our approach might be described as one versus one equals one. We discard the lesser choice and move on with the better one....
 
Did your high school valedictorian go on to achieve greatness? High schools select their valedictorians because they show promise and exemplify the best the school has to offer. So it’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to achieve great things. Many achieve success in their future careers. But greatness tends to be rare. And...
 
Yogi Berra, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter. Five elite athletes who led championship teams. However, there’s a difference between them – a critical difference – that could be important to government executives seeking to be more effective at work. Three of those stars – Berra, Richard, and Russell –...
 
Radical candour sounds rather outré as a prescription for government executives. Careful caution is often the norm. But consultant Kim Scott believes candor is critical for relationships and internal organizational communications. And if that doesn’t convince you, her new book, Radical Candor, still has some terrific ideas to improve your weekly schedule of meetings and...
 
Innovation is prized and praised these days at work, even in government. We are supposed to relish creative change. But what if the reality is that humans instinctively reject such change? Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist at the University of San Diego who has focused on creativity, is making waves with her claim that our...
 
Leading the Unleadable By Alan Willett Your team probably includes some difficult people. You may not have chosen them – they could have been inherited – but they are your responsibility, even if at times you don’t know what to do. Should you shunt them off onto a project? Chastise them in public? Ignore the...
 
If you want to learn from mistakes in how to handle an interview, you could take a lesson from Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, and Alexander Haig. The three public figures all had celebrated careers. But each also had one moment when they badly flubbed an interview. Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy he had...
 
As understanding of social behaviour increases through intensified research, many government executives are learning about the art of nudging. Governments are establishing nudge units to encourage the citizenry to adopt desired behaviours and, less formally, ministries are trying other routes than laws and regulations to get results. Related posts: Where you sit is where you stand...
 
We curse meetings, but they are essential to today’s collaborative leadership approach. We may long to eliminate them – and no doubt some could be trimmed – but the bigger issue is to make the ones we have more effective. Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings,...
 
Government is replete with silos. Like the weather, everyone complains about them but nobody does much to change it. And if they try, they often find the silos sturdier than expected. That’s why Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect is an interesting book for government executives. Primarily about business, it still includes government, which is rare...
 
Words, words, words. Blah, blah, blah. Our days – our work lives – are punctuated by a sea of words. We use words to communicate. We use words to not communicate. We use words to share our ideas, to propel our innovation. Think of a recent meeting and you’ll likely think of blah, blah, blah....
 
Government executives are writers. Maybe not like Margaret Atwood or Joseph Boyden, but they pound out words every day themselves on their keyboard, in emails, memos, and other missives. Unfortunately, a lot of what they write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid...
 
Gladwell made Anders Ericsson famous—or, at least, his research work. A professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson conducted the study of violinists that the best-selling journalist glamourized in his book Outliers, imprinting on our consciousness that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at whatever task you devote such attention to....
 
Every evening, Marshall Goldsmith pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions about his behaviour that day. As a high-profile executive coach, he knows how difficult it is for top leaders to cleanse themselves of destructive behaviours. He makes his clients accountable to the people around them in order to heighten the...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some popcorn. Specifically, an experiment some psychologists dreamed up in which they handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn to everyone arriving at a suburban Chicago movie theatre in 2000 to catch a Mel Gibson flick. It may sound like a good...
 
David Dingwall is familiar to many government executives for his role in the Chrétien government where he held several cabinet posts, from public works to health. He later became a government executive himself, presiding over the Royal Canadian Mint, improving operations to the point the organization secured its first surplus in a number of years....
 
Are you an undermanager? We’ve all been warned not to overmanage – become a hen-pecking, micro-manager, obsessing about details, instead of delegating wisely. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes the opposite, under-management, is epidemic. Indeed, he insists it’s hiding in plain sight, but we don’t notice. “It is so often what’s going wrong in so many...
 
A leader’s job is to illuminate the path ahead. It’s vital to keep employees engaged and aligned with end goals on every project you undertake. And that challenge might be made easier–illuminated for you–by presentations specialist Nancy Duarte, who developed former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s powerful climate change slide show, and colleague Patti Sanchez in...
 
Ottawa’s Chris Bailey turned down a number of attractive job offers after university graduation in favour of something even more attractive: Figure out how to be productive. It was a personal Odyssey, as he tested the ideas peddled by productivity gurus to see what worked and what didn’t, and added his own twists. The result...
 
At the height of World War Two, a clever scheme was developed to disrupt the Nazi regime behind enemy lines in occupied territory without being detected. It involved a variety of obvious tactics such as slashing tires and draining fuel tanks but also included some unusual ideas to sabotage internal workplace processes. Those might seem...
 
Leadership BS 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...
 
If you want to improve your management procedures, search Google. No, don’t put those words in the search engine’s magical white slot. Instead read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. The head of Google’s people function shares insights gleaned from the company’s rapid growth and its many experiments with different procedures, to see what works best. Of...
 
Mentoring can be one of the most critical – as well as challenging and rewarding – tasks we undertake in the workplace. Sometimes it’s formal. Sometimes it’s informal. But always, when effective, it’s important. Related posts: How to cultivate a sponsor Coach or mentor: Which one do you need? Intrapreneurship in Action: An interview with Nick Frate...
 
In recent years, it has been customary for government – and government executives – to be looked down upon, while business has been exalted. Somebody who hasn’t succumbed is management guru Henry Mintzberg. Related posts: Savings without reduced service Networked Leadership: How Private Sector Leaders Are Investing An Apolitical perspective...
 
Many studies have shown that women are socialized to fit in, not stand out. But fitting in can leave you a follower, forever. To advance at work, you need to be noticed. You need to stand out....
 
In 1994 psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait” to describe a common problem he saw emerging in the workplace: The tendency to hop from task to task in a rush, without proper focus on what people were doing or should be doing....
 
Leaders motivate. They nudge and cajole staff into inspired work, wielding monetary incentives when required, at least in the private sector. Without motivation, employees might wither and certainly wouldn’t shine. That’s a basic premise of leadership and managerial thinking. And it’s dead wrong…...
 
When you think of creativity and innovation in government, John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably don’t spring to mind. Neither worked in government and, indeed, they were anti-establishment types who you can imagine sneering at “government bureaucrats.”...
 
You can’t appear for your important presentations in a black turtleneck and jeans like Steve Jobs did. And you don’t have alluring electronic gizmos to talk about. So suggesting you might learn from the presentation approach of the hallowed Apple pitchman might seem ludicrous....
 
We know feedback is good for us. We know it can help us improve. But receiving feedback can often be difficult. We tense up, even get irked or angry. Only part of the message, or perhaps none of it, slips through, as we slide into defensive mode. Related posts: Leader as mentor: The power of experience...
 
Leaders need to know how to inspire and manage, and have a solid understanding of the policy field in which they operate. But that’s not enough....
 
As I rush-rush-rush through the day, I occasionally remember the notion of “cool time” from a book published 12 years ago by Toronto time management consultant Steve Prentice....
 
Before a presentation, uncertainty and fear can lead us to try to include all the information required to answer all the questions recipients might have. There’s also a temptation to pack in as much detail as possible, to show the extent of our research, knowledge, and hard work in preparing....
 
Much has been written about decision-making in recent years, as we learn more about how the brain works and behavioural economists devise experiments to understand how we approach choice. But much of it could lead us astray… Related posts: Deliberating over decisions...
 
Elections can bring a change of government. They certainly bring a change in the face of government, as some ministers lose their re-election bid and others are shuffled by the returning prime minister. Related posts: Brainstorming: back to the three basics Leader as Hero: The Power of Commitment How can government make the most of AI without threatening rights?...
 
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously....
 
Governments monitor monetary inflation, and have kept it in check in recent years. But there’s another inflation, rampant, that isn’t monitored and walloping all of us: communications inflation. Technology allows us to connect – and communicate – in a host of ways not available to us just a few years ago, let alone a couple...
 
The dramatic clandestine rescues by Navy SEALs and their daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s lair may make their work seem a world apart from that of government executives. But in their 2003 book Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs, advertising executive Jeff Cannon and his brother, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon…...
 
If you can be a better leader through healthy living, the key to success in your job may lie in three words: Eat, move, sleep. Certainly Tom Rath believes they are important. And Rath, a Gallup researcher, has offered cogent advice before to government executives, in his writings on using their strengths at work and...
 
Finding mentors has been one of the holy grails of career progression, hammered into us by innumerable career consultants and the lessons of our own career. Yet now, someone is telling us to forget them. Related posts: The art of mentorship The benefits of an executive coach Intrapreneurship in Action: An interview with Nick Frate...
 
Today, when emotional intelligence is treasured, Sherlock Holmes would seem like a poor role model for government executives. The man lived in his mind and seemed remote from humanity. He could get enmeshed in a drug stupor or sidetracked by some obscure experiment or offbeat intellectual interest. Definitely not the model for modern, progressive governance....
 
No. The word jars us. Just two letters, but it makes us decidedly uncomfortable. In the workplace, Yes is the golden word, the winning word, the expected word that garners plaudits....
 
Our days are a series of decisions, some minor, some medium, some major – and the occasional one humungous. It might seem daunting to think of your day in that fashion, since it’s obviously hard to get every decision right....
 
Presentations make the world go round, particularly in government. Unfortunately, too many of them are ineffective. Incomprehensible graphics, too much text, and garbled messages....
 
Your first instinct might be to deny it, but you are probably a salesperson. Most government executives are, even if the public service is seen as galaxies away from the grubby world of commerce and sales....
 
Getting subordinates to take responsibility in the appropriate situation can be a mind-boggling pursuit. Often we find ourselves lurching into frustrating tugs of war, where they take more responsibility than we want and then take absolutely no responsibility when we are hoping – and perhaps insisting – they do....
 
To improve your job performance and prepare for promotions, should you work on your strengths or weaknesses? What about your subordinates? In getting the best performance from them, should you prod them to enhance their strengths, or shore up or eliminate weaknesses?...
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
As the World Bank in the 1990s was preparing for a major transformation to mark its 50th anniversary, consultants Chris McGoff and Michael Doyle met to discuss the plan developed…...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
A few years back, consultants with ghSMART told us the biggest question we face is “who”: Picking staff is our most important decision, even more critical than “what” – the strategy we will employ. These days, in an era in which purpose is prized, “why” can often be the biggest question. But recently, best-selling author...