Leadership BS: A book review by Bob Morris

Leadership BSLeadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time
Jeffrey Pfeffer
HarperBusiness (September 2015)

How to eliminate “too many leadership failures, too many career derailments, and too many toxic workplaces”

In Jeffrey Pfeffer’s latest book, he shares his thoughts about how and why so much (if not most) of conventional wisdom about leadership and leadership development is out of touch with realities, a collective ignorance that helps to explain “too many leadership failures, too many career derailments, and too many toxic workplaces.” He wrote this book to help those who read it to understand the root causes of such failures. He explores “the systemic processes that produce leaders who often behave differently from what most people like or expect.”

As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of how important the scientific method can be when put to work too answer difficult questions or solve serious problems. Briefly, it consists of a six-step process:

1. Ask a question
2. Do thorough background research
3. Formulate a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis with one or more experiments
5. Rigorously analyze the data and draw a conclusion
6. Share the results so that others can conduct their own experiments

I stopped at 25 when counting the number of times Pfeffer uses the word “why.” Those who master the scientific method make frequent use of the word during a process of verification of working assumptions or premises. Here’s Pfeffer again: “My objective is to help you understand [begin italics] why [end italics] these leadership failures continue to occur with unacceptable frequency, to understand the systemic and psychological processes that produce what we observe every day in the world, in spire of all the leadership-development efforts, training programs, books, TED talks, and so forth.”

So, what must be done? “To build a science of leadership, you need reliable data. To learn from the others’ success, you need to know what those others did. The best learning, simply put, comes from accurate and comprehensive data, either qualitative or quantitative. But the leadership business is filled with fables. In autobiographical or semiautobiographical works and speeches, in the cases and authorized biographies leaders help bring into existence, and, in their prescriptions for leadership, leaders describe what they want to believe about themselves and the world and, more importantly and strategically, what they would like others to believe about them. The stories leaders tell or have others tell about themselves on their behalf are primarily designed to create an attractive legacy. Sometimes such accounts are, to put it delicately, incomplete. Because these tales are designed to build an image and a reputation, they do not constitute qualitative data from which to learn. In fact, they aren’t data at all, any more than advertising is data or evidence.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Pfeffer’s coverage in the first eight chapters:

o The Failure of the Leadership Industry (Pages 4-8)
o Workplaces Are Mostly Horrible (10-14)
o Too Few Good Leaders, Too Many Bad Ones (16-18)
o Why All This Failure? (19-26)
o Fixing These Problems (26-32)
o Myths and Fables, And Why Inaccuracy Is Inevitable (35-40)
o Three Consequences of Workplace Failures (41-50)
– Cynicism
– People Lose Their Jobs — or Job Opportunities
– Unrealistic Expectations for Ourselves
o Inspiration Does Not Produce Change (50-54)
o Why Modesty Might Be a Useful Trait, and, Why Immodesty Might Be Better (65-71)
o Immodesty and Success (71-78)
o The Effects of Immodesty (78-82)
o The Authentic Leadership Moment (89-91)
o Why Authentic Leadership Is Not Desirable (92-95)
o Becoming Usefully Inauthentic (95-100)
o Why Authentic Leadership May Be Almost Impossible (100-103)

All great leaders throughout history have had a “green thumb” for “growing” leaders, some of which became great or at least effective. Pfeffer does not employ an extended metaphor that a workplace is a garden but he does have a great deal of value to say — in Chapter 6 — about inducing leaders to take care of others. I agree with him that “the field of leadership should learn something from economics and agency theory…[thereby] ensuring more psychological identification with and contact between leaders and those they lead, and using measurements and incentives to both assess and reward the desired and desirable behaviors of leaders that demonstrate actual taking care of others, are much more reliable ways to ensure that at least a few more leaders ‘eat’ last.”

Pfeffer is among the most insightful business thinkers and certainly attracts attention while generating controversy. Whom does he threaten? Those who embrace the status quo with the same desperation that Linus does with his blanket. However, there are others who are open-minded to diverse points of view and they value him and his work, although they may not always agree with him. Yes, some of his influences include Machiavelli and Joseph Schumpeter but there are also kindred spirits such as Mary Parker Follett, Douglas McGregor, and Robert Greenleaf with whom he agrees about the great need for leaders who have respect, trust, and empathy for those whom they feel privileged to serve. He offers a stunning example of a thought leader who is both an idealist and a realist, one who is driven to understand what works, what doesn’t, and why so that he can then share what he has learned with as many other people as possible. I am especially grateful for the fact that Jeffrey Pfeffer has what Ernest Hemingway once characterized as “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.”

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