September 20, 2015
Review of Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer
Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has a provocative new book called Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. In the book he criticizes the leadership training industry which, he says, teaches that leaders should be trustworthy, authentic, serving, modest, and empathetic. But according to Pfeffer, there is no evidence that this leadership training does any good. In fact, he says it is harmful because it paints a much too idealistic picture of organizational reality and of the reality of leadership.
Because of this, the leadership training industry, in Pfeffer's view, has done more harm than good. The gap between its idealistic picture and harsh reality has left many unprepared to deal with organizational realities. The picture of leadership which Pfeffer paints is one in which manipulation, lying, and acting narcissistically, are not only prevalent but also working and to some extent necessary and therefore recommendable.
This book surprised and disappointed me. Not so much because it criticizes the leadership training industry. It may be true, I don't really know, that it focuses a lot on prescriptions which are not helpful, irrelevant, and unrealistic. The book disappointed me in that it largely lacks what I think made several of Pfeffer's previous books great (Competitive Advantage Through People: Unleashing the Power of the Work Force, 1994; The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First, 1998; The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, 2000; Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People, 2000).
These books were realistic and critical too but added many specifics on how to build better and more humane organizations and HR practices while making organizations more effective, also. Unless I have completely misunderstood Leadership BS this book hardly does that. Instead it offers an overly cynical view on reality. Recommending some degree of narcissism, inauthenticity and so forth is, I believe, mistaken in the sense that it it based on a too narrow view on what the criterion should be for measuring whether practices work.
When narcissistic behaviors often help people attain positions of power and help them to stay in power longer (which may indeed be true) does that make narcissism a prerequisite for leadership? I think that is aiming too low. In such a world presidential nominees should be more like Donald Trump. But does Trump-like leadership work in a broader sense than that he has managed to acquire and retain wealth and power? I think the criterion should be broader. How much has Trump contributed to the wellness of his employees and business partners and to society as a whole? I am afraid the picture isn't so great. Or make the example more extreme. Think back of Nazi Germany or the slavery era. Would a scholar in those times recommend to do things that were prevalent then and which worked within in those systems?
Pfeffer's former co-author Bob Sutton wrote a book called the No-asshole rule. This book takes a stand against nasty behaviors of leaders and I agree with that. Pfeffer, instead, seems to be saying that because certain negative behaviors seem to help people to get into and stay in leadership positions we should accept that these negative behaviors belong to becoming a leader. This reminds me of Donald Trump who said the US would need a different type of negotiators to deal with foreign negotiators (such as the Chinese) and admitted that these negotiators were horrible people. I don't buy that and think it is dangerous. I don't buy that we should ever legitimize being horrible for whatever role because I think there will always be a price to pay.
Pfeffer writes: “The leadership industry is so obsessively focused on the normative — what should leaders do and how things ought to be — that it has largely ignored asking the fundamental question of what actually is true and why.”
I think this is a superficial analysis. Ignoring reality is, of course, unwise. But there is a way of looking at reality which is realistically and usefully normative. Just one example is the perspective of self-determination theory (see for instance How work can be made more needs-supportive). This perspective is undeniably ambitious (one might say normative) and very positive in its focus but it does not in any way deny harsh aspects of organizational reality and is also evidence based.