Jeffrey Pfeffer on Leadership: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

In a world full of books, webinars, sensitivity training, TED Talks and employee retreats, you’d think that by now, we’d have gotten the hang of leadership.

Jeffrey Pfeffer
Jeffrey Pfeffer

Not so, says bestselling author and noted Stanford business school management expert Jeffrey Pfeffer. Surveys from far and wide tell us that leadership is failing at an alarming rate. Employee distrust of their leaders is widespread. Leader tenure is decreasing as more and more talented individuals suffer from career burn-out. Data indicates that about 50 percent of leaders are failing their employees, their organizations or themselves in one way or another.

How can this happen when so many self-proclaimed leadership experts are so willing to sell us the solution to the problem? The first thing we need to do, according to Pfeffer, is to call “B.S.” on the mythologies that currently surround the issue of leadership.

In his new book, Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (HarperBusiness, September 2015) Pfeffer sets out to do just that. The book “explores why so much of the conventional wisdom about leadership and so much of the activity aimed at developing leadership do not fit the facts on the ground,” he writes. “This reality means we need a different way of apprehending human behavior. And we particularly need a different way for teaching and coaching people to be effective in navigating the organizational world in which we live.”

book-cover-pfeffer-leadership-bsPfeffer’s book takes square aim at what he calls “the leadership industry”: the multitude of authors, speakers, lecturers and coaches who claim to know the true path to effective leadership, comparing them to snake-oil salesmen of the late 19th and early 20th century.

“Want to be a leadership coach?” he asks. “You can go to an institute or enroll in one of many programs, of varying quality and rigor, that train coaches with varying degrees of skill, but you don’t even have to do that. You can be a coach tomorrow.

“Want to be an expert on leadership?” he continues. “You could get training and exposure to the relevant research literature, but it’s not necessary. If you are persuasive enough, articulate enough or attractive enough, if you have an interesting, uplifting story or some combinations of these traits, you are or can be a very successful leadership blogger, speaker and consultant—whether or not you have ever read, let alone contributed to, any of the relevant social science on the topic.”

In his book, Pfeffer gives readers “a closer, more scientific look at the many dimensions of leadership behavior.” He also says he wants to encourage everyone to “finally stop accepting sugar-laced but toxic poisons as cures.”

This, of course, means taking a hard look at some of the things that we’ve been told are essential to good leadership—things that we want to hear—and seeing them for what they truly are. For example, he examines the issue of trust. “I’m a big fan of trust,” he writes. “I try to be trustworthy and honest in my own behavior.

“But,” he continues, “I no longer believe that trust is essential to organizational functioning or even to effective leadership. Why? Because the data suggests that trust is notable only by its absence. Nevertheless, organizations continue to roll along, as do their leaders who seemingly suffer few consequences for being untrustworthy.”

Pfeffer also offers hard but concise advice for workers who wait—sometimes years—for their employers to show loyalty to them. “If you hold the expectation that your hard work and good efforts are invariably going to be appreciated, acknowledged and rewarded by your employer in perpetuity, it’s time to get over yourself,” he writes. “You may think your employer owes you something for your past contributions and good work—but most employers don’t agree. Whether it’s paltry raises, painful rounds of layoffs, or cost-cutting moves to open-office plans, companies, or for that matter, nonprofits and government agencies, look after themselves and their own interests to ensure their survival and prosperity.

“Leaders mostly take care of themselves first—and maybe second and third, also—regardless of what they’re supposed to do,” Pfeffeer writes. “The obvious conclusion: you should do the same.”

Full of candid, hard-hitting yet invaluable observations, Leadership B.S. gets past the mythology of modern leadership and offers a scientific examination of how it works—and how it doesn’t. The result is an invaluable manual for subordinates and leaders for today and the future.

 

 

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