‘Leadership BS’ and the reality of unpleasant bosses

Jeffrey Pfeffer is used to being accused of cynicism. The popular course he teaches at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business is called The Paths to Power. His 2010 book Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t was attacked in some quarters, including by the Financial Times, as “a book about getting power and keeping it, nothing more”.

In his latest book, Leadership BS, he writes that colleagues have chided him for studying scorpions, spiders and cockroaches: unpleasant leaders, rather than the inspirational bosses whose stories fill much of the rest of the literature.

Prof Pfeffer prefers to describe himself as a realist. “I believe my job as a tenured professor is to tell the truth as best as I can,” he says. “People have called me cynical, and I say I’m not cynical, I look at the data,” he adds. “So the data say employee engagement is low and trust in leaders is low; that isn’t cynical: that’s the truth.”

A glance at the early stages of the biggest leadership contest of them all — the nomination process for the US presidential election — serves as illustration.

Donald Trump is an example of a leader whose success helps demonstrate that humility may be overrated as a useful leadership quality, Prof Pfeffer says. But he reserves his greatest disdain for Mr Trump’s rival Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, an example, he says, of how even “people who have presided over catastrophes” suffer no negative consequences. On the contrary. Ms Fiorina, “who by any objective measure was a horrible CEO, is running for president on her business record. I love it! . . . You can’t make this stuff up — it’s too good!”

Prof Pfeffer has carved out a name for himself by analysing power structures not on the basis of how everybody feels organisations should be but on how the evidence suggests they are. He is, for example, unconvinced by the idea that most organisations can operate without hierarchy.

In a 2013 paper, he wrote that “hierarchy is a fundamental structural principle of all organisational systems”, from fish to humans. Hierarchy makes complexity possible, and is “here to stay”, whatever the proclaimed merits of self-managing, leaderless systems.

The “leadership BS” he attacks in his book, longlisted for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, is generated mainly by the industry founded on such wishful thinking. It makes discomfiting reading for anyone (including journalists) who has extolled the virtues of modest, authentic, truth-telling, trustworthy leaders.

To paraphrase Prof Pfeffer’s main themes: bosses are not modest, leaders are bound to lie (even “great” leaders such as Abraham Lincoln or Nelson Mandela), authenticity is overrated and the gap between aspiration and reality is one reason that trust in leaders and leadership gurus has evaporated.

What frustrates Prof Pfeffer is not so much that wishful thinking still prevails but that its objectives remain unexamined and unmeasured. Once the medical profession discovered that germs caused disease and handwashing by medical staff would limit its spread, he says it was not enough just to urge doctors and nurses to wash their hands.

“If I say to you, you should do something, it’s then incumbent upon me to not just say, OK, I’ve done the ‘shoulds’, we’re done. [I have to] do something to measure how much of this actually occurs — which the leadership industry has been abominable at doing.”

This approach dovetails with work that he and his Stanford colleague Bob Sutton have done to promote evidence-based management principles. One reason for Prof Pfeffer’s outrage about the failures of leadership teaching over 70 years is that, when students become disillusioned by the gap between promise and reality, their distrust contaminates reactions to other solid social science.

The tools to do better are available, however. Having worked with Gallup, the polling organisation, for many years, Prof Pfeffer believes survey data can measure improvements and declines in employee engagement. He is warier about what staff say they think about their workplace, however.

After the New York Times published a critical (and disputed) analysis of Amazon’s culture, Prof Pfeffer wrote that he was not surprised people still went to work at the ecommerce company. One reason is economic necessity.

Another is the proven inclination of human beings to “rationalise their working conditions as not being that bad or even desirable”, rather than admitting they chose the wrong employer. Afterwards, he received an email from a former student. Both he and his wife had quit Amazon within a year of joining. As a result, Prof Pfeffer says, their negative views about the company would not feature in any Amazon employee engagement survey.

Prof Pfeffer claims not to be interested in winning any popularity contest. (That is no surprise: he was the co-author of research in 2002 that prophesied the end of business schools and said US universities were not doing as well as they could — hardly a conclusion designed to curry favour with his paymasters.)

But how does he react to the accusation that, by teaching future leaders how to seize and hold on to power, he is coaching students to replicate existing mendacious, self-interested, narcissistic leadership styles? “I can only solve what I’m competent to solve,” he responds. “I’m not a moral philosopher, I’m a social scientist . . . So I’m going to teach you the social science, and hopefully somewhere along the line, in religion or [from] your parents or your peers or something you’ve read, you’ve learned how to use the power that you’re going to get for good rather than evil.”

To imply, however, that Prof Pfeffer is merely an amoral modern Machiavelli (a leadership thinker whose work he believes is still important and relevant) is not quite right. An inseparable strand of his research — summarised in his 1994 book Competitive Advantage through People and 1998’s The Human Equation — links corporate success to staff commitment.

Asked whether he is more worried about the state of the leadership industry, or the state of leadership itself, Prof Pfeffer says he is not concerned about either. One of his depressing conclusions is that leaders and those who write about them — the former because they are self-interested narcissists, the latter because their misguided preaching is so popular — will continue to do fine. Instead, he says his concern is for “the human beings who have truncated careers and career derailments, and who work in places where they are literally exposed to conditions that are as toxic as second-hand smoke”.

There are bright spots. In selecting corporate directorships or consulting jobs, Prof Pfeffer does the due diligence that he implicitly accuses his academic counterparts of shunning. He finds a few companies that are doing the right thing: DaVita, a kidney dialysis provider, earns praise in his book for its “no brag, just facts” culture; so does SAS Institute, the privately owned US software group that often tops “best place to work” rankings.

The bad news is that once good leaders move on, good leadership is hard to sustain. Prof Pfeffer’s gloomy conclusion: “Even when you find the places that are wonderful, they tend not to remain wonderful.”

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