Jeffrey Pfeffer Leadership BS Reflective Management

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s new book, Leadership.B.S, came to me as a holiday gift.  I’d noticed the striking yellow cover and red stamp on a trip to the bricks and mortar Amazon store in Seattle.  I took a picture of it as a reminder and there it was on Christmas morning.  This is the benefit of having a shared photo feed with your wife.

I knew little about the book or the author before I started.  Jeffrey is the Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of business and author or co-author of 14 books on Organizational Behavior, dating back to 1975.  With over 40 years as a scholar of leadership, Jeffrey uses Leadership B.S. to ask a question.  Why has workplace engagement and trust in leaders been stagnant or declined in over 40 years?

The Prescription Is Wrong

Jeffrey’s axe to grind is the “leadership industry”.  The multi-billion dollar market for books, training and seminars that claims to improve the craft and effectiveness of leaders.  This effort is completely ineffective, he argues.  Employees are disengaged and don’t trust their leaders.  Leaders keep getting fired.    False prophet celebrity CEOs sharing inspiring stories leaders that don’t match the reality of their leadership style.  Untrained laymen creating inspiring ideas and paint visions of workplaces that can’t exist in reality.  No hard science. No effective measurement the improvement of the prescribed techniques, seminars or books.

 Inspiring stories are like a sugary snack.  They are briefly uplifting but don’t solve hunger.

After laying out the dystopian landscape of work and leadership, he moves on to dismantle the leadership industry vision for an effective leader.  He postulates the prescription is for a leader to be :
  • Modest
  • Authentic
  • Truthful
  • Trustworthy
  • Serve others

Each behavior gets dismantled in its own chapter.  Jeffrey explains why each behavior is counter to human instinct, particularly in the workplace.  And gives many examples where leaders are rewarded for the opposite behaviors.  He calls upon an array of social science and anecdotes to make his case for each.

The only member of the leadership industry that Pfeffer names is Simon Sinek.  He goes as far as naming a chapter “Leaders Eat First”, the inverse title of Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last.  In my review of Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, I noted the book was comprised of anecdotes woven together with excerpts of studies from a variety of fields to back up his points.  Pfeffer – the champion of a science based approach to leadership – has written a book of anecdotes woven together with excerpts of studies from a variety of fields.

Scientific Rigor

Many of the anecdotes have a “man at the pub” feel to them (see sidebar explanation).

“You see  CEO X of AcmeCorp who published a book?  Well one of my students friends is a Vice President at AcmeCorp and she says he’s a complete tosser.”

The standard for scientific rigor appears to apply to everyone except Pfeffer.  He relies heavily on these hearsay anecdotes, conversations with luminaries at conferences and bits and pieces of studies from social science.  I’m sure he knows his eggs, but this book doesn’t transcend any other author I’ve read on leadership for scholarly rigor.  If anything, it felt like something knocked up in a weekend.  I found a number of occasions where a “fact” was used without any supporting reference or bibliography.

The Man At The Pub
The “man at the pub” is British cultural trope.  This man knows everybody and everything.  His wife’s, sister’s mate cuts David Beckham’s hair.  His mate, who’s a cab driver, drove a male prostitute to Number 10.  No word of a lie! This man entertains in short bursts but otherwise insubstantial.

Dr Pfeffer To The Rescue

This book doesn’t really offer any solution to the crisis it describes, or even a credible path to a solution. The last 3 pages headed “Connections and Disconnections” makes observations about disconnections in leadership and work. For example business performance, leader behavior and consequences are not connected. Presumably he means us to reconnect these things? After 219 pages of complaining about the leadership industry and the state of leadership, Pfeffer offers :
“I am not sure what will make a difference in the leadership crises that cost leaders their careers and provide too many employees with enervating work environments. But I am quite sure what will not work: more of the same inspiring sentiments based neither in social science research about human behavior nor in the facts about the state of play in the leadership industry … until then, everyone … will have to keep working away until we get it.”
Thanks for that. Leadership is broken and we need to keep working away until we [fix] it. Obviously everybody in the leadership industry is already trying to do this. I feel like I’ve been chided by an elderly relative who – having seen it all before – thinks everything I stand for is stupid. I get it though, I’d be bitter if I’d been working on something for 40 years and had realized that I’ve made zero progress.

My Jeffrey Pfeffer Is Your John Keating

Reading this book, I was aware that Jeffrey was challenging my fundamental belief that a leader should be modest, authentic, trustworthy etc.  I had to make conscious effort to look for the opportunities to learn, and avoid shutting out what I didn’t want to hear.  There’s good material here.  Jeffrey offers an important reminder that the state of leadership is pretty bad.  He’s right that humans can be power hungry and delusional.   His chapter on trust was well written and compelling. He admits many times that workplaces where leaders exhibit the “leadership industry prescription” are indeed great places to work.  He makes a great reminder that being a leader means – like a surgeon – sometimes you have to do harm to make things better.

When I reached the two third point, I realized my fundamental problem with the book.  It wasn’t written for me.  I don’t think this a book that intends to convince an optimistic leadership practitioner who believes in authenticity that their approach is wrong.  If it is it is woefully flawed.  This is a book written for someone that thinks all the fluffy, caring for your employees leadership theory is bullshit and wants someone to prove to them what they already know.

As a tool to reach people with a certain mindset that this book has its value.  Jeffrey and I agree that the workplace is pretty broken.  If we’re going to fix it we need everyone to participate.

People hear a message best when it goes through the lens of their existing perspective.

Optimists connect best with optimists.  Pragmatists connect best with pragmatists.  Pessimists connect best with pessimists.  He’s right, there are a lot of bright and optimistic people working in the leadership industry.  Each of them sees the potential for a bright future if we could get all leaders to be authentic.  Leadership B.S was a joyless and depressing read for me.  But if it gets a pragmatist or a pessimist  working hard to fix workplaces and leadership, then an important job has been.

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Leadership B.S. is available in a variety of formats from Amazon and other retailers.

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