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Book Review: Leadership BS

Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer Book Review by Bob Schoultz All American Leadership

To Read More Book Reviews by Bob Schoultz, click here.

Why this book: We selected this book for our All American Leadership reading group, and it was I who suggested it. It had been recommended to me by Liz Barron who said it was creating something of a stir in the world of leadership consulting. I can see why. I have several quotes in my review below, with page numbers in parenthesis, referring to the hardcover HarperCollins 2015 edition.

My impressions: This book is meant to be provocative, and it is. The book makes two major points:

FIRST: The things we say we want in our business leaders are not what we get – the majority of business leaders do not display the attributes that the leadership development industry promotes. Nor are these qualities widely rewarded in the marketplace. In looking at the reality of those who have succeeded in business, Pfeffer states that doing the opposite of much of what the leadership industry recommends might be more sensible.

SECOND: We have a multibillion dollar leader development industry which he claims has been spectacularly unsuccessful in improving the general leadership in the US or elsewhere. He points out that employee engagement has decreased, and poor leadership has increased in direct proportion to the increase in leadership seminars in Corporate America. He shares the amazing statistic that came from one study, that 35% of US employees would forgo a substantial pay increase in exchange for seeing their boss fired.

Leadership BS addresses five attributes that Pfeffer claims are often associated with and taught to be essential to excellent leadership. He argues that some of these attributes might actually be detrimental to effective leadership, or that they are so uncommon, that no one takes them seriously, or it is disingenuous to even promote them. These attributes are: modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and concern for the well being of others.

He devotes a chapter to each of these attributes – and below I give you Pfeiffer’s chapter title and what I understood to be his main point:

Modesty: Why Leaders Aren’t. “Although modesty may be valued in the leadership literature, self-promotion and assertiveness seem to produce better career results in the real world. “ (78) Pride in oneself, self-confidence, high self-esteem and a certain degree of narcissism are almost essential to get to a leadership position of any significance. and to succeed in it. Leaders need to engage in activities that make them, and by extension their companies, more noticeable and noteworthy. People and organizations are drawn to the self-confident and assertive, to the grandiose and the unusual. Modesty and humility are seldom rewarded. He does recognize the value of creating the “perception” of modesty.

And yet…

Authenticity: Misunderstood and Overrated. “In fact, being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do. Leaders do not need to be truth themselves. Rather leaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them.” (87) He emphasizes how effective leaders often need to sublimate their true feeling in the interest of their duties to the organization and to others. Good leaders must also be good actors, exuding confidence even when they may not feel it, not showing fear, emotional distress, or confusion, even if that is what they feel. They must have a public face, that may be very different from their “authentic” private face. “After all,” he asks, “what if your real self is an asshole?” (94) “One of the most important leadership skills is the ability put on a show, to act like a leader…” (98) Being true to the role and responsibilities of the leader is much more useful and effective than being true to one’s feelings at the moment.

And yet…

Should Leaders Tell the Truth – and Do They? “...the evidence is quite clear that leaders (and for that matter, other people) frequently don’t tell the truth and face few to no consequences for doing so.” (122) This chapter shows how “truth” is malleable and open to different versions and interpretations, and it has many different shades. Deception in negotiations is part of the practice of business. Leaders are expected to shade the truth to the advantage of themselves and their constituencies. And they are not held accountable – not blamed – when they are caught in being less than truthful. “I misunderstood.” “I was mistaken in my analysis.” “My memory served me poorly.” “That’s what I believed to be true at the time.” “Nobody asked that question at the time.” Pfeffer points out how our culture has developed a high tolerance for untruths – like our expectation that the used car salesman will not tell us his true best price to sell us that car. The “truth” is negotiable, and we expect leaders to use it to play the game to win.

And yet…

Trust: Where did it go and why? “Therefore, leaders, who first and foremost are responsible for ensuring their organization’s well-being, sometimes have to take tough actions. Such actions can entail breaking implicit promises or even abrogating contracts, undoing things that render the leader disliked and the company distrusted.” (147) In this chapter, Pfeffer is most ambivalent. He certainly believes that trustworthiness is a personal virtue and can serve business leaders well, but is quick to point out that when obligations to different stakeholders conflict, we expect leaders to honor their obligations to their companies first, and in fact often to their own personal interests as well, ahead of obligations to others who may have less influence. He said that’s what most of us expect, and it is important that we are aware of that, and protect ourselves by being very wary in whom, and how much we trust. “…people who regularly appear on most-admired lists and give talks at leading business schools – turn their backs on commitments when it suits their interests all the time.” (152)

And yet….

Why Leaders Eat First. (the title of this chapter refers to Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last.) “…relying on leaders’ generosity of spirit or the exhortations of the leadership literature is an ineffective and risky way to ensure that leaders take care of anyone other than themselves.” (169) Pfeffer points out that most people feel inclined to take care of people to whom they feel a connection, and in most companies, leaders have little connection to the people who actually do the work in the company, frequently don’t really know what they do, nor understand their lives. Their incentive packages also are geared primarily toward earnings – often short term earnings – and leaders, like most people, follow the incentives. He advocates Boards promoting people from within, so that leaders better understand and are able to connect with their subordinates, and creating programs which expose leaders to the core of the businesses activities and those who perform them (a la TV’s Undercover Boss.)

—-After addressing these 5 attributes Pfeffer concludes Leadership BS with two wrap up chapters:

Take Care of Yourself “…nice speeches and noble sentiments notwithstanding, leaders mostly take beer of themselves first and maybe second and third, also – regardless of what they are supposed to do. The pious conclusion: you should do the same.” (172)

He makes the point that leaders will primarily value your future contributions to the company, and give little thought to your past contributions. He has a section on why people want to put their trust in (and give up their personal responsibility to) a seemingly beneficent leader, in spite of the wisdom of not doing so. He advocates, “Take care of yourself and assiduously look out for your own interests in your life inside work organizations.” (187)

“In a nutshell, companies will treat you well as long as you seem as though you are going to be useful in the future, and companies will probably be less inclined to treat you well or to repay past contributions the minute you are perceived as being less useful in future endeavors.” ( 179)

Fixing Leadership Failures. “I find it depressing that we would want to discuss the state of leadership in organizations from the perspective of what feels good and uplifting, rather than what the evidence shows to be true.” (194)

This chapter basically advocates acknowledging the reality of what leadership is, not what it might be, and accepting the uncomfortable truth that many, many very successful leaders got that way by violating most of the recommendations offered by the leadership industry. He does not advocate arrogant, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-serving behavior but says that to ignore that such behavior has not always been an impediment to success, is dishonest. “Averting our eyes from the facts may provide solace, but it does so at the price of progress.” (194)

His advice to aspiring and current leaders:

  • Stop confusing the Normative with the Descriptive, and focus more on What Is.

  • Watch Actions, Not Words.

  • Sometimes you have to Behave Badly to do Good

  • Advice to Leaders depends on the Ecosystem in which they are operating.

  • Stop Either-Or thinking

  • Forgive, but Remember

He offers an intriguing list of disconnections (eg, the disconnect between leader performance and behavior, and the consequences those leaders face) and concluded that “…the remedy for the many leadership failures seems simple, and it is: to restore the broken connections, the linkages between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality. But this task will not be easy. The disconnections serve many powerful interests, and they serve those interests extremely well.” (219)

AND YET…. I believe there are important caveats to his objections to how the leadership industry promotes these five (and other) attributes. While I agree with nearly all his points, I think Pfeffer throws the baby out with the bathwater. I cannot argue with the ugliness of the reality he describes, and the ineffectiveness – indeed the vacuousness – of much of what the leadership industry promotes. I’ve been a part of it, and have also regarded much of what I’ve seen (and participated in!) as little more than “feel-good” box checking.

But there ARE advantages to expressing and reiterating an ideal, to creating, discussing and reenforcing a higher standard. Indeed, it can be done better – and he is right that many in the leadership industry makes a lot of money providing little more than entertainment and short-lived inspirational bromides to businesses, rather than truly affecting positive change.

That said, some in the leadership industry are doing it better and are truly making a real difference, and some in Corporate America are paying attention and doing significantly better as a result. Pfeffer is right that the reality is ugly, and there are abundant examples of stupid, self-serving, short-sighted, unimaginative, insensitive leaders using their employees as mere means to advance their careers and fatten their personal bank accounts. We will never eliminate that. That is important to acknowledge. And to fight against.

I agree with my friend George Reed who said that organizations which talk about leadership, good leadership, generally have better leadership than those which don’t talk about leadership. Such discussions, such workshops, a positive and constant drumbeat can provide leaders, managers, employees with a standard against which to measure their reality. And sometimes leaders, managers, employees are inspired to be better. Because we see so little Christ-like behavior is not a good reason for Christians not to go to church.

While modesty may be over-rated, we remember the hubris of Enron’s Ken Lay and F. Ross Johnson of Barbarians at the Gate notoriety. Do we not acknowledge the value of a certain degree of humility? While we recognize that leaders cannot be completely authentic or truthful in their dealings with their stakeholders, are we willing to accept complete phonies and liars? There is a wisdom in moderation, with virtue being the mean between two extremes, with good judgment and contextual considerations taking primacy. And over the long run, combined with competence in fundamental business skills, virtue does indeed have value in the market place.

Like many such books, I believe Pfeffer makes his point too strongly, and perhaps too stridently, and doesn’t adequately acknowledge or respect an alternate point of view. That said, I believer this is a valuable and worthwhile book for those in business, and in the leadership industry to read and consider.

Some Quotes ( laying out his reasons for writing the book):

“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. (x)

“…much leadership training and development has become too much a form of lay preaching…I explain why inspiration is a very poor foundation on which to build substantive change, and why and how the leadership tales we hear, stories that often have only modest amounts of validity, routinely make things worse, and possibly much worse. (6)

“…the core of the argument- that the qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees,or, for that matter, for the long-term organizational performance.” (7)

“Because the focus of much leadership research is precisely on demonstrating the connection between leadership and leader behavior on the one hand and outcomes such as job satisfaction, employee engagement, and turnover on the tother, these data reveal the abject failure of the leadership enterprise.” (13)

“…people believed in the world described to them in business school and in the prescriptions for leader behavior. Consequent try, they were surprise by and completely unprepared for what they actually encountered a work. ” (15)

The simple but important point: the oft-observed divergence in interests between individual leaders and the organizations they lead means that any prescription of what someone should do has to begin by both acknowledgtin the trade-off and sorting through that person/ real priorities and the multiple, often poorly correlated measures of a leader/s outcomes.” (19)

“…while leadership research may not be that interested in leader (as opposed to group or organizational) well-being, leaders almost always are.” (21)

“The leadership industry is so obsessively focused on the normative – what leaders should do and how things ought to be – that it has largely ignored asking the fundamental question of what actually is true and going on and why.” (23-24)

“Without baseline measurements of leader and workplace conditions, it is simply impossible to understand what to do to make improvements.” (31)

“What’s more, doing the opposite of what the leadership industry advocates is sometimes a much better, more reliable path to individual success. There are, in this domain as in many others, trade-offs, and the frequently unacknowledged trade-off between what is good for the individual and good for the group needs to be front and center in understanding why there is so much leadership failure over such a long time.” (32)

“…the many ways in which people conspire in their own deception, including deceiving themselves about their leaders and the organizations in which they work, would require a book in itself to do justice to this vitally important topic.” 181




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