Renowned Stanford Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer wrote a doozy of a book in 2015 entitled Leadership BS. It seems some titles create more noise years after publication, and that appears to be the case with Pfeffer’s book. It is getting some play once again in small and large organizations.
The chapters inside the book claim contemporary leadership advice gets it all wrong. Successful business leaders, Pfeffer attempts to prove through a series of research studies and anecdotal examples, do the opposite of what is generally thought to be effective.
A few supported claims:
Businesses perform exceptionally well when people don’t believe the leader is trustworthy.
Anti-social behavior, such as tirades and emotional outbursts, are often the norm with the best business leaders.
Effective business leaders display vastly different versions of themselves, thereby undercutting the view that great leaders are authentic.
The best business leaders fake the emotions they need to project in order to achieve the outcomes important to the business.
Very depressing stuff.
Pfeffer builds a strong case, but makes a common mistake. He presumes leadership and financial success are both cause and effect. Or should be.
Great leadership doesn’t guarantee business or financial success. Instead, it promises to create the individual and team performance essential for that possibility. Great leaders help to make organizations deserving of success. They create the conditions for tremendous outcomes. The rest is up to a multitude of factors beyond anyone’s control.
Some people and organizations succeed financially and socially despite poor leadership, while others fail in the same arenas despite great leadership.
For instance, a leader can galvanize the most superb business and organization with the highest talent and still have a competitor bring a superior product or service to market and destroy their long-term sustainability.
Leaders don’t determine financial or business success. Instead, they influence the environment where many forms of success, not only the financial ones, have the greatest chance of becoming a reality.
Winning the lottery doesn’t require great leadership. It just requires a ticket. Winning at life, on the other hand, depends heavily on quality leadership. Without the actions of great leaders, success becomes a unidimensional quality of mere dollars and cents.
Now that’s a load of BS.
Great post today - I love it when Research Methods comes up. I enjoyed this book - I feel Jeff is a bit like Robert Greene - I'm not sure if he 100% believes his own hype but likes pushing boundaries a little to get us to challenge conventional wisdom (just my guess - I don't know either of these guys). The popular book, Good To Great, suffers from the same limitations - Selection bias and using point-in-time outcome measures. The best study I have read that attempts to overcome these limitations is from Ben Schneider, etal., out of the University of Maryland. They did a longitudinal study and collected employee satisfaction data and financial data (return on assets and earnings per share) over several years. Their conclusion, financial success drives employee satisfaction more than the other way around. - Paper is titled, Which Comes First: Employee Attitudes or Organizational, Financial, and Market Performance - Journal of Applied Psychology 88 No. 5 (Oct 2003). A summary of this work can also be found in the Phil Rosenzweig book, The Halo Effect: ... And 8 other business delusions that deceive managers - one of the chapter summaries states this: "Many things we commonly believe lead to company performance - Corporate Culture, Leadership, and more are often simple attributions based on company performance. This has been my personal experience - Mortgage Industry (Interest rates and rising home prices (equity), and NIH funding within the biotech industries - We like to puff our chest and tell each other how awesome we are when in reality it is the market conditions that drive most of it. With that said, I do believe Leadership does make a difference - in exactly the way you describe in this post - by building high-performing teams - by focusing on execution. I have a gut feeling that if there were more longitudinal studies on this topic, Leadership would continue to play a significant factor.
Good leaders create an environment and culture so that people can bring their best to work.
In fact, to do that they must see themselves as serving their team rather than the other way round.
The “bad” examples above seem to suggest power and exercising that power is the way to prevail. Totally wrong. In fact, it’s doubly wrong because it’s power to create fear that it suggests is driving performance. This will create a toxic environment.
Great article. Thanks.