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Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time Hardcover – September 15, 2015
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From the Publisher
Author Tom Rath interviews Jeffrey Pfeffer on his new book, Leadership BS
Tom Rath: How would you characterize the current relationship between employees, leaders, and companies?
Jeffrey Pfeffer: Everyone is, and probably should be, out for themselves. CEO salaries have soared as a multiple of average employees' pay, and when combined with enormous severance packages, is essentially untethered from corporate performance. Employers lay off people and cut benefits at the drop of a hat. Research I did with Peter Belmi shows that the norm of reciprocity operates with much less force inside workplaces. And employees are, naturally enough, distrustful, fearful, and as Gallup data make clear, frequently disengaged.
TR: What role should leaders play in improving workers' careers and lives?
JP: Joel Goh, Stefanos Zenios, and I show that many management practices have health effects as harmful as second-hand smoke and that together workplace exposures result in about 120,000 excess deaths annually just in the U.S. If one is interested in well-being, as I know from your many writings you are, then leaders should be held accountable for their effects on people’s physical and mental health and their well-being. Profits are important, but so, too, are people and their lives.
TR: Of all the leadership myths you tackle in this book, which piece of conventional wisdom is causing the most damage in the modern workplace?
JP: That’s a tough one, because it depends on what damage you are talking about—damage to people's careers or to the well-being of employees. So I will provide two answers. The conventional wisdom that people should be 'authentic' is extremely career-limiting, because it says to people, 'be yourself'. But people need to be what the situation, and those they are with and responsible for, need them to be, not what they feel like being at the moment. People who express their 'authentic' feelings to their bosses, in particular, may soon find themselves out of a job.
The other piece of conventional wisdom that is harmful is the idea that we ought to be assessing leadership development activities through happy sheets or smiley-face sheets, those ubiquitous surveys. I did a Fortune column on why consumer ratings are essentially unreliable and invalid, and the leadership domain is yet another place where this is true.
TR: Should some high achievers opt out of leadership roles for their own (and the greater) good?
JP: Absolutely. In my last book, Power, I talked about the high price in terms of long hours and constant public scrutiny, among other things, that leaders often paid. Not everyone will want to, nor should they, pay the price of always being in the limelight and under pressure to perform.
And there are many exceptionally talented people who lack the concern for other human beings and their well-being that make them good stewards of other people's lives. So certainly there would be benefits to their opting out of leadership roles. However, I am not naïve enough to believe that many people voluntarily abjure power, regardless of the consequences for other human beings.
TR: Are there things we can do to identify and develop better leaders early on in their careers?
JP: For sure. I believe that power and leadership are inextricably connected—you cannot be a leader without having power and understanding power dynamics. Therefore, training aspiring leaders in the principles of power and influence is a great way to start. And one of the qualities I would look for in an aspiring leader is if the individual is psychologically tough enough to handle not being liked and the responsibilities that come with power.
“Sensible advice...” (The Economist)
“Jeff Pfeffer stands as one of the great management thinkers of our time. Here in this important work, he challenges us to embrace a hippocratic oath of leadership: first do no harm. Diagnostic and prescriptive, passionate and incisive, provocative and inspired-Pfeffer yet again makes a noble contribution.” (—Jim Collins, author Good to Great, co-author Built to Last and Great by Choice)
“As bracing as a splash of cold water, Leadership BS is at once a scathing indictment of the ‘leadership industry’ and a roadmap to success. Pfeffer dismantles the jargon-filled aphorisms of conventional leadership, replacing them with fact-based prescriptions for how to succeed.” (—Laszlo Bock, SVP of People Operations, Google and author of New York Times bestseller, Work Rules!)
“A provocative case that most leadership advice is baloney and the entire industry is broken. Pfeffer convincingly argues that we consistently give the wrong people power-and even when we get it right, authenticity is a recipe for disaster.” (—Adam Grant, Wharton professor and New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take)
“In this must-read book, Pfeffer exposes the gap between what we’re told we should do to be leaders and what successful leaders actually do to climb the career ladder. Pfeffer’s take-no-prisoners approach to management research and practice always reveals insightful and shocking results.” (—Keith Ferrazzi, author of ,New York Times bestsellers Never Eat Lunch Alone and Who's Got Your Back?)
“I wish I had read Leadership BS years go. It’s not only honest but helpful, putting words to the disconnect I’ve seen between what works and what we’re all “supposed to be” doing. This inconsistency has so much to say about the current state of professional women’s progress.” (—Gina Bianchini, CEO, Mighty Bell and co-founder, Lean In)
“Leadership BS goes directly to the soul of leadership practices, exposing both the rewards and penalties of contemporary notions. You’ll be challenged to look at qualities such as narcissism, vulnerability, immodesty and ego and consider why these too are important traits of effective leaders.” (—Curt Coffman, co-author of First, Break all the Rules)
“A fascinating inquiry into why the “leadership industry” has failed to develop better leaders. Pfeffer turns conventional wisdom about leadership upside down, and challenges us to rethink why and how leaders behave. It’s an indispensable book for every leader, executive coach, and others who seek to help leaders.” (—Morten T. Hansen, professor, University of California, Berkeley, co-author, Great by Choice)
“Pfeffer offers no nostrums, no feel-good solutions; instead, he offers unvarnished insights and dry-eyed suggestions. Anyone who is seriously interested in leadership should read this book.” (—Stephen Kosslyn, founding dean, the Minerva Schools of Arts and Sciences at the Keck Graduate Institute)
“Jeff Pfeffer has done it again. He forces us to confront uncomfortable questions about ourselves and our cultures. This book reminds us of the dangers of pursuing comforting messages instead of practical truths.” (—Kent Thiry, CEO, Davita Healthcare Partners)
From the Back Cover
Finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year
Best business book of the week from Inc.com
The author of Power, Stanford business school professor, and a leading management thinker offers a hard-hitting dissection of the leadership industry and ways to make workplaces and careers work better.
The leadership enterprise is enormous, with billions of dollars, thousands of books, and hundreds of thousands of blogs and talks focused on improving leaders. But what we see worldwide is employee disengagement, high levels of leader turnover and career derailment, and failed leadership development efforts.
In Leadership BS, Jeffrey Pfeffer shines a bright light on the leadership industry, showing why it’s failing and how it might be remade. He sets the record straight on the oft-made prescriptions for leaders to be honest, authentic, and modest, tell the truth, build trust, and take care of others. By calling BS on so many of the stories and myths of leadership, he gives people a more scientific look at the evidence and better information to guide their careers.
Rooted in social science, and will practical examples and advice for improving management, Leadership BS encourages readers to accept the truth and then use facts to change themselves and the world for the better.
Top customer reviews
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This is a rant, not a reasoned presentation. The author has points he wants to make, and many of them are important, but don’t expect to hear the other side unless it’s in a derisive tone.
When Pfeffer uses the term “leader” it refers to a senior leader or CEO in a large company. He makes some points that apply to leaders in other situations, but this is a book for people who aspire to senior leadership in a giant corporation. If you’re a front-line leader in any size company, or if you’re a leader in a small company, be wary of some of Pfeffer’s advice.
Before I get to my third point, let me describe what Pfeffer says is the purpose of the book. It’s at location 2015 in the Kindle version
“But by ignoring the evidence, the social science facts about deception, or, for that matter, any other topic pertaining to leadership, by pretending that common behaviors aren’t really that common, we miss the important opportunity to understand the social world as it is—the first step on the road to changing it.”
There may be one purpose, but there are really two books here. If you’re thinking about buying and reading Leadership BS, you should be attracted to one or the other, or both.
A Book About What’s Wrong with The Leadership Industry
The first and last chapters of the book concentrate on what’s wrong with the leadership industry. There are a lot of important points here. Take, for example, the fact that the effectiveness of leadership training is mostly measured by participant satisfaction surveys. There’s very little follow-up to see if the training made any difference on the job. And there’s very little evidence to support many of the prescriptions promulgated by leadership gurus.
Those, and many other points, are important and hardly anyone else is making them. If you want a good critique of the current leadership industry with some ideas about how things could get better, read the first and last chapters. You may or may not want to read the rest of the book.
A Book About “Real Life”
Chapters two through seven are about real life, the way it is and not the way we think it ought to be. I remember earlier in my career that I was puzzled by some of the things that happened around me. I thought that people should act a certain way, and many of them didn’t. That’s what chapters two through seven of this book are all about. Chapter two, for example, is about why leaders aren’t modest. And chapter three is about authenticity, whatever that means. There’s a discussion of whether leaders should tell the truth and another one about trust.
For my money, this part of the book is more about human nature than it is about the leadership industry. The observations are all accurate and they conform to Pfeffer’s statement of what the book is about, but I don’t think you’ll find many surprises or penetrating insights. There may be value here for you, but I think that Machiavelli did it better and in fewer pages.
If reading a rant bothers you, or if you’re put off by the seeming assumption that the only leaders worth writing about are in large, corporate environments, or you think that a book about how things are in big corporations isn’t relevant for you, don’t buy or read this book. You’ll just get angry and feel like you’ve wasted your time and money.
On the other hand, this can be a great read if you want a clear-eyed view of the leadership industry and its prescriptions. You’ll find that in chapters one and eight. If you find yourself puzzled by things that are happening around you in the workplace, chapters two through seven might be a good read for you.
Whereas I agree with some of the words in the negative reviews, I can't help but coming back to a simple truth. I agree with Jeff. In fact, some of the naysayers actually seem to reinforce his point with their comments - reading something that is negative is not uplifting. The sober truth rarely is, unfortunately. If you internalize the lessons, this book may well change your career. It won't, however, make you feel better as you walk into that next all day offsite on leadership at your workplace. Concepts like those expressed in Jeff's book are bound to inspire a couple of ratings of one or two, as these ideas are polarizing. That's okay. I recommend that potential readers spend some time with this material regardless.
Quite frankly, you will probably be better off reading this book even if you completely reject Pfeffer's entire premise. Just as philosopher Herbert Spencer taught, "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which can not fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance-that principle is contempt prior to investigation."