top of page
  • alyssaabarton

Leadership B.S.

I recently read Jeffrey Pfeffer's book, "Leadership BS," and I think it's great. The purpose of Leadership B.S. is to encourage folks to rethink, reconceptualize, and reorient their behaviors around leadership. It's an important read and valuable counterpoint to popular leadership mythology.

I picked up this book because I'm interested in developing my leadership skills - and who isn't? The farther along you advance your career, the more important it becomes to understand how organizations function and how to manage people. So I've started attending workshops here and there and reading the odd book or two to learn new ideas and skills.

Pfeffer flips modern leadership philosophies on their heads, using hard data and statistics to demonstrate that some of the modern "feel good" theories are just that: essentially, fluff that won’t do you much good in the real world. Instead of inspirational tales of heroic leaders (which he says is what you’ll get in leadership trainings and books), Jeffrey Pfeffer tells an abysmal tale of our increasingly miserable work culture. He highlights the bad behaviors of most corporate CEO’s and management, sharing loads of data that document increasing rates of leadership failure and job dissatisfaction across the U.S. and around the world over the last few decades. Pfeffer convincingly argues that the evidence shows that the modern leadership industry is failing us.

I have to admit that the leadership courses and trainings I've taken, and resources I've read and listened to to date, do tend to focus on inspiring tales and feel good advice rather than hard stats or role-playing in real-world scenarios. I took a Skillpath training in 2018 and, while it didn't focus on examples of Herculean managers, did place a strong emphasis on mental and emotional well-being and self-care.

So, while somewhat jarring, I think Leadership B.S. is a critical read for employees and soon to be employees, as well as leaders and aspiring leaders of all ages and experience levels, because it gives you the reality check you might not be getting elsewhere. If you want to become a leader - or if you work with one - you need to know what you’re in for.

At the end of the day, the main takeaway from this book is a highly sensible one: look out for yourself, put your own interests first, and be on guard in the workplace.

But beyond that, the book offers many more insights into the modern workplace. Here are some of the key points I got out of this highly entertaining but somewhat sobering book. Please note that I listened to this book on audio and therefore, though I have quoted the author in places, I have not cited the quotes to the appropriate chapter and page.

1. What Do Today’s Leadership Courses Teach Us?

For those who haven’t taken a dive into the leadership literature out there, here’s a quick summary of some of the top leadership philosophies:

Authentic Leadership: Essentially this theory encourages leaders to build legitimacy and trust through honest relationships with employees. It requires transparency, openness, and revealing your true self to employees. This is said to motivate and inspire the team while creating a better workplace.

Ethical Leadership: Ethical leadership is leadership based upon a foundation of respect for ethical beliefs and values, and for the dignity and rights of others. For example, leaders following this philosophy will prioritize corporate social responsibility, Fair Trade, having a work-life balance, and fairness. This is similar to values-based leadership (which I won’t cover here).

Servant Leadership: As Wikipedia aptly puts it, this is a “leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. This is different from traditional leadership where the leader's main focus is the thriving of their company or organization. A Servant Leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Image by Alison Czinkota. © The Balance 2018

While each of these philosophies has its merits, they won't be discussed here. Rather, the focus is on Leadership B.S.. That being said, to fully understand the leadership world, it is important to understand that there are truths and valuable insights offered by all of these theories.

2. Why You Should Learn These Theories - With Skepticism

The author challenges readers by likening modern-day leadership practices to quackery (sham doctors selling fake medicine) during the early 1900s – but if you think about it, he’s (at least somewhat) right.

There are no credentials required and no consistent standards applied judge the efficacy of leadership coaches or courses. To become a leadership coach or speaker, you might just be attractive, or well-spoken, or have an inspirational story to share. Unlike most fields, you don't necessarily need to have even read any books on the topic of leadership to speak or write about it.

Notoriety in the leadership industry is achieved not through results but through your reputation: blog posts, TED talks, books filled with advice (not data), social media followers, and all the other information you put out into the world is seen as a measure of your efficacy, regardless of whether your advice is accurate or useful.

Further, most leadership courses tell tales of legendary leaders instead of Real Joe Boss. Teachers offer students feel-good examples of the rare CEOs that make their companies great places to work, making utopia seem like the rule rather than the exception when the reality is that 99% of folks probably won’t luck out and get to work at such a place. The majority of our leaders are failing us – they are not living up to our ideals. (More on that below). And the majority of employees experience things like bullying, cronyism, ladder-climbing, brown-nosing and backstabbing colleagues, and shady office politics. So why do leadership courses, workshops, books and tools focus on shining examples of the rare workplace heaven and “hero leader” instead?

Pfeffer says it’s because consumers of leadership courses and books – we employees – don’t want reality, we want to be inspired. At the end of every leadership course or workshop, participants fill out user surveys and these surveys inform teachers what is popular. What did students enjoy. The author refers to these surveys as “happy sheets:” they are essentially gauging how entertained the participant was by the material they’ve just heard. And they’re usually provided immediately following the event, not months later after participants have the opportunity to implement the skills learned and gauge their effectiveness (because of dwindling survey returns as time passes).

Likewise, books on leadership sell based on popularity. We don’t find the hard facts or nitty-gritty to be as entertaining or uplifting as stories of heroic, passionate leaders that inspire. So those who teach tweak their content based on what gets better reviews and thus makes more money.

To me, lack of credentials and the entertainment-based foundation of the leadership industry are reasons enough to question what we read and learn about from leadership gurus. But Pfeffer goes even farther. He sites study after study by human resources companies, consulting groups, and 3rd party pollsters that demonstrate that the majority of employees around the world are dissatisfied, disengaged, and actively seeking work elsewhere.

3. The Verdict Is In: Employees Today Are Not Happy Campers

If we judge the efficacy and value of the most popular leadership theories on employee satisfaction, or on leadership performance, then the leadership industry isn’t making the workplace any better because those metrics are on the decline.

The author cites studies demonstrating high levels of job dissatisfaction at various workplaces in across professions. According to one National study cited by the author, conducted by the Nielsen company, only 47% of employees surveyed reported that they were satisfied with their jobs. The survey started in 1987 at which point 61% of respondents self-reported satisfaction with their jobs; but 25 years later it had dropped to 47%. Another study by Wright Management conducted in 2012 of employees throughout the United States and Canada found that only 19% of respondents were satisfied with their jobs.

In addition to the many sources Pfeffer sites to demonstrate that employees are dissatisfied, he also looks at employee engagement, lack of trust, and the desire to leave a workplace. I won’t go over all of the research cited, but here are some of the studies he shared. A Gallup poll from 2012 concluded that only 30% of the US Workforce is engaged at work. Another survey by Mercer, a Human Resources consulting firm, conducted of 30,000 employees worldwide found that between 26 and 58% of employees surveyed wanted to leave their jobs. Whatever way you cut it, Pfeffer makes his argument from every angle using the most up-to-date research at the time to show that employees are generally not happy campers. And despite the proliferation of leadership trainings and strategies, things are getting worse, not better.

It was pretty eye-opening to hear the data regarding workplace harassment and the high incidence of bullying at work. A large percent of employees across sectors experience bullying by co-workers or by their bosses, so much so that a significant number of employees from one study self-reported that they’d rather see their bosses fired than get a raise. Further, the author documents employees whose emotions range from shock, disillusionment, and feelings of being unprepared or deceived once they enter the workforce and are blind-sided by modern office politics. To be better prepared for success, employees should understand the types of behaviors – and weaknesses – commonly exhibited by leaders.

4. The Failure Of Modern-Day Leaders

“Modesty, authenticity, telling the truth, being trusted, taking care of others are the theories of leadership sold by the leadership industry. But it is rare indeed that today’s leaders exhibit these traits.” Rather, leaders are failing us left and right – from incompetence to ineffectiveness, and mismanagement to corruption – some studies estimate that 50% of our leaders are failures.

Pfeffer cites dozens of examples of leadership failure throughout his book. These include examples of leaders that only look out for themselves, give themselves large pensions and benefits packages while the company tanks, are abrasive and difficult personalities to work with, sacrifice subordinate staff first when layoffs are necessary while preserving their own positions to the end, or make poor business decisions that harm the company. He doesn’t provide an exact definition of success or failure, keeping it broad – perhaps to the detriment of struggling leaders everywhere who might benefit from a more concrete metric for success – but from the examples one can assume that putting the company first is good whereas selfish acts are bad.

He concludes that the “bad apple” theory – that poor leaders suffer from poor character or are anomalous – is flawed. Rather, there are systems in place that reward poor behavior in leaders and fail to reward great leadership frequently enough to cause massive behavior change. And, the current body of leadership fails to adequately address the fact that the system is so flawed.

5. The Failure Of “Feel Good” Leadership Theories

“Inspiration doesn't last long and often, leadership industry tactics (like empathetic or authentic leadership) are not based on empirical data and scientific research about what tactics actually work.” Why don’t they?

One by one, Pfeffer shoots down the assumptions on which the popular leadership theories are based. This is because doing the opposite of what the leadership pundits teach can actually benefit you, including by getting you into a leadership position in the first place, getting you tenure, and beefing up your salary.

He provides examples of how being inauthentic can be much more effective than being open and honest: providing TMI can provide opportunities for others to sabotage you. He demonstrates how narcissism can be more effective than modesty: bragging, confidence and assertiveness can bolster others’ perception of your abilities, remind them of your accomplishments, and will likely have more positive results when you’re the one who’s remembered come time for promotions. He also gives tons of statistics on lying.

The average person tells something like 1.6 lies a day, and one study found that 1 in 10 text messages contains a lie! Holy smokes. Even more frighteningly, another study found that something like 44% of people lie on their resumes. And sadly, very few liars are punished - including both employees and employers. Take note: 70% of companies in one study lied to employees about their ability to be promoted or advance in their career. This helps improve job satisfaction and productivity because employees think they are valued and might have a long future with the company, and the company loses nothing in this. Lies can also be useful for leadership to motivate staff when the company is poorly performing. Pfeffer talks about Steve Jobs and other charismatic leaders told wishful but self-fulfilling prophesies that, when people bought into it, saved the company and turned it around.

Pfeffer gets in deep and demonstrates how the systems we have in place actually reward bad behavior – not the kind of behavior we teach about.

In summary, you might want to read this book to avoid being surprised by the things you’ll find in the workplace. Read ALL the books, if you can, and take them all with a grain of salt. At the end of the day, it’s safe to say that the advice we find compelling is not always good advice, and not always true. Fact and reality checking is a survival practice that we ALL should learn and employ.

102 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page