Jeffrey Pfeffer on Leadership BS: An interview by Bob Morris

Pfeffer, JJeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. Prior to Stanford, Pfeffer taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard Business School, London Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. He has given talks in 39 countries around the world and received an honorary doctorate from Tilburg University in The Netherlands. Pfeffer currently writes a twice-monthly column for Fortune.com, and in the past has written for Business 2.0, the CEIBS Business Review (China), Capital Magazine (Turkey), and for numerous other blogs in the U.S.

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Morris: You teach a course at Stanford during which you and your students explore various “paths to power”? Which (if any) seems to be the best to follow? Please explain.

Prefer: The best path to power combines two things: 1) a path that not many are taking and 2) something that you are capable and comfortable with doing. Many of our students want to do what they have done and that has made them successful thus far in their lives: play by the rules, and do what is expected. But as much social science research and writing by Malcolm Gladwell, among others, make clear, the rules are mostly created by those already in power so obtaining power often entails standing out and breaking rules and social conventions. Witness Donald Trump’s current presidential campaign. So first people need to find the white spaces, the unexploited or underexploited niches where there is less competition and more opportunity.

Second, the class focuses intensely on making people more comfortable with doing a wider range of things—such as networking, self-promotion, building their own personal brand, cleverly acquiring resources, getting known—that they may have been less comfortable with before.

Morris: Your also have a great deal of value to say about all this in Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t (2010). For those who have not as yet read this classic work, why do some people have it and what lessons can be learned from that?

Pfeffer: I am increasingly convinced that people who have power are not necessarily smarter than others. Beyond a certain level of intelligence and level in the hierarchy, everyone is smart. What differentiates people is their political skill and savvy. Florida State professor Gerald Ferris has done numerous studies both measuring political skill and also showing how political skill relates to career success. So the simplest answer to your question is that those who have power a) understand that the world is not always a just and fair place and accept that fact, b) understand the bases and strategies for acquiring power, and c) take actions consistent with their knowledge in a skillful way. Skill at anything requires practice, and power skills are no different.

Morris: Here’s the inevitable follow-up question: How do you explain the fact that others don’t, or at least don’t have power sufficient to their aspirations?

Pfeffer: People who don’t have as much power as they would like often begin by attributing their difficulties to the environment—competitors, bosses, economic circumstances, and so forth. But in reality people are customarily their own biggest impediment to being as powerful as they would like. One cannot control the actions of others, but we are responsible for what we do. People say things such as, “I can’t do this,” “it is not really me,” “this makes me uncomfortable,” etc. People, simply put, opt out of playing the game or doing so in a way that will make them successful. So get over yourself, and do what you need to do—and what, by the way, others around you are doing, to become more powerful.

Morris: Most business thinkers focus on what leadership is and does. In your opinion, what is leadership [begin] not [end italics] and what does it [begin] not [end italics] do?

Prefer: Almost no one as I think most leadership books are a joke. They are, as I note in Leadership BS, frequently based on wishes and hopes rather than reality, on inspiring stories rather than systematic social science, and on “oughts” rather than “is.”

Morris: OK. What about non-bushiness books?

Prefer: I have a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly in which I call out some books that are excellent primers on leadership. All of Robert Caro’s biographies are exceptional, in part because of Caro’s fundamental ambivalence about power. He sees its necessity and use for getting things done, even as he is often repelled by watching power at close range. His masterpiece on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, describes the evolution of Moses from idealist to pragmatist as he became one of the most powerful figures in the 20th century.

Volumes in the series on Lyndon Johnson, including Master of the Senate and The Path Power, describe how Johnson created resources out of nothing and built a substantial power base. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is instructive in painting a realistic portrayal of Lincoln and his methods for accomplishing his objectives. In fact, many good political biographies are useful in learning about power, strategy, and decision-making.

Morris: Of all the films you have seen thus far, which one — in your opinion — best illustrates some of the harsh realities of the business world? Please explain.

Pfeffer: People tell me the Netflix series, House of Cards, is sort of like my class come to life. The movie Margin Call portrays the realities of hierarchical relationships and rivalries beautifully, and how people respond when under pressure. Gandhi and Long Walk to Freedom both have the virtue of presenting larger-than-life figures in a more realistic way, showing their flaws and contradictions—their humanity—in a way that is very helpful.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Leadership BS. When and why did you decide to write wit?

Pfeffer: I decided to write Leadership BS because I was irritated by the hypocrisy in the leadership literature and the fact that many of the people writing leadership books exhibited behavior that was precisely the opposite of what they advocated and also what they claimed they did. Stories did not seem to be a good foundation on which to build a science of leadership.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Pfeffer: There were no startling revelations as I wrote the book. Things were pretty much as expected, possibly a little worse.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Pfeffer: The book is about as I intended, albeit longer and more developed than the first draft.

Morris: I know of no one else (with the possible exception of Charles Dickens) who formulates better chapter titles than you do. For those who have not as yet read Leadership BS, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these chapter titles.

First, Why Inspiration and Fables Cause Problems and Fix Nothing

Pfeffer: The chapter titles are, for the most part, self-explanatory. The lesson of Chapter 1 is precisely that: the stories leaders and others tell, few of which are true, are a lousy foundation on which to base any sort of science, and we know how to accomplish behavioral change and the importance of priming, informational saliency, and social networks. Producing inspiration and other good feelings doesn’t last very long.

Leaders are not modest, and more importantly, the extensive social science research on narcissism, self-promotion, and similar constructs shows that these qualities and behaviors are useful for getting hired, achieving promotions, keeping one’s job, and obtaining a higher salary.

Morris: Authenticity: Misunderstood and Overrated

Pfeffer: Authenticity seems like sort of a joke. Actually I believe it was the late comedian George Burns who said, “if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” People cannot be invariant across situations and roles and, moreover, leaders need to be true not to themselves, but to what others want, need, and expect from them.

Morris: Should Leaders Tell the Truth — And Do They?

Pfeffer: Lying is common in social life, often done for benign purposes, seldom draws severe sanctions, and many of the most notable leaders, including the late Steve Jobs, were consummate prevaricators. Told with enough persistence and conviction, what was once untrue can become true, in a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of way.

Morris: Trust: Where Did It Go and Why?

Pfeffer: With respect to trust, people tell me that it is essential for organizational functioning. Maybe, but most surveys of trust find that trust in leaders is low and nonetheless, organizations role along quite nicely. Trust is about keeping commitments, but in many instances, circumstances change and organizations therefore shed commitments, things such as retiree medical benefits, pension obligations, and even employees without much remorse or maybe even hesitation.

Simon Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last, embodies much of what I can’t stand about the leadership industry. While it is almost certainly true that leaders ought to eat last, the evidence on the ever-widening difference between CEO and average employee pay and the enormous severance packages leaders obtain even as front-line workers see their economic well-being eviscerated makes a mockery of the idea that leaders do anything other than take care of themselves.

Which leads to my overall recommendation: for decades corporate policy manuals and HR departments have told people they are responsible for their own careers. It’s about time people really heeded those warnings.
I completely reject the idea that working adults need to be treated like infants or worse and not told the realities, harsh or not, about the world of work. Keeping people in the dark and filling them with stories that are either mostly fabricated, unusually rare, or both, doesn’t do anyone any good. It is one of the reasons that workplaces and careers remain in such dire straits.

Morris: Presumably you agree with me that all organizations need effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. In your opinion, what is the single greatest barrier to developing such leadership and how best to avoid or overcome it?

Pfeffer: It depends what you mean by “effective leadership.” I do not think anyone who ever saw Lyndon Johnson give a speech would call him charismatic, even though he was one of the most effective presidents in U.S. history. Same with Lincoln. Charisma is only one source of power, and probably not a very important one, at that.

The single biggest barrier to effective leadership is, in my view, the leadership industry itself. Instead of telling people the skills and behaviors they need to be effective in getting things done, we tell them almost the opposite — blandishments about how we wish people would be, and how we wish workplaces were. That information is worse than useless as, to the extent people believe it, they often wind up losing their jobs.

Morris: Of all the U.S. presidents, which — in your opinion — best exemplifies the qualities of leadership that you value most? Please explain.

Pfeffer: Two just mentioned. Lyndon Johnson (with Abraham Lincoln close behind). Johnson was able to get things done, to read other people, and to adjust his own approach accordingly. One of the reasons he has so fascinated biographer Robert Caro over the years is Johnson’s consummate skill in acquiring and using influence.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Prefer: Personal growth and professional development require mostly being treated like an adult, which is pretty much the opposite of what happens in most workplaces. People need to be able to make decisions. To do that effectively, they need information and training in how to use it. So, the three qualities of a workplace that would develop people would be information sharing, investing in the training of the workforce, and giving employees the ability to use their training and information to make decisions.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Leadership BS, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Pfeffer: I am not sure any of the material in Leadership BS would be helpful for small companies and certainly not their owners. Of course, even owners have bosses and need to worry about keeping their jobs—so Power might be more appropriate.

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For your information:

Jeff’s website link

His Twitter link

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