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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)
“Pfeffer persuasively attacks the simplistic generalities that masquerade as leadership advice. Offering examples of when such advice can hurt leaders. Turning some of our assumptions concerning authenticity, trust, and humility on their head. Essential reading for anyone who would rather rely on scientific evidence than merely on cool stories.” (—Sim B Sitkin, Duke University, Faculty Director, Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics)
“Challenges conventional thinking and traditional bromides, underscoring the importance of being evidence-based if you want to make an impact in developing leadership.” (—Barry Z. Posner, PhD, Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership, Santa Clara University, co-author, The Leadership Challenge)
“[Power] will help you get comfortable with challenging assumptions and lingering on the pause....[Pfeffer] draws on a wealth of social-science and psychology research.” (Inc magazine)
“This is an entertaining and inspiring read for anyone looking to shake things up at work.” (Publishers Weekly)
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. 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.
The introduction describes the “enormous leadership industry” co-existing with overwhelming numbers of “dysfunctional workplaces”, and concludes that “the leadership industry has failed”. A fairly obvious way to test this hypothesis would be to compare the extent and nature of leadership training, if any, received by leaders of dysfunctional workplaces with that received by leaders of high-performing workplaces, but the only evidence provided by the author is anecdotal.
In chapter 1, while debunking the value of inspirational stories, the author refers to two unnamed people who claimed to him that the conduct of Bill George while at Medtronic had deviated in an unspecified manner from the type of behaviour he recommended in his book “True North”. This seems to be an excellent example of how bad business books use gossip and innuendo to demonstrate points for which they fail to provide any statistically defensible evidence.
Chapter 2 is largely devoted to explaining why narcissism is better for you than modesty, chapter 3 creates a straw man of “authentic leadership” and knocks it down, chapter 4 explains why lying brings greater returns than honesty, chapter 5 claims that trust is not essential to organisational functioning or effective leadership, and chapter 6 explains that leaders overwhelmingly look after themselves first.
The book’s main purpose seems to be to advocate for a more evidence-based approach to leadership education, and for a stronger form of organisational governance that makes organisations less dependent on the whims and personalities of a single leader or a small group of leaders. I fully support both of these goals, but there are plenty of books available that provide better ways of achieving them.