Jack Covert Selects

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

September 10, 2015


Jeffrey Pfeffer's new book is not filled with a whole lot of inspiration, and tells us why those that are can be dangerous.

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Harper Business, 304 pages, $29.99, Hardcover, September 2015, ISBN 9780062383167

One of the most persistent requests we get on the editorial side of things here at 800-CEO-READ is to help people sift through the mountain of books and advice out there for businesspeople. The sheer amount of advice is actually a large contributor to the troubles we experience at work, and not just because it’s difficult and time-consuming to sift through it all, but because a very large portion of that mountain is made of garbage. That’s not unusual; seemingly 90% of everything—television, fiction, the food on supermarket shelves—is junk. But it’s also not very useful, and can actually be damaging to one’s health and intelligence if ingested.

Leadership advice and the health of organizations is no different. The world of business books in general, and the leadership industry more specifically, has a problem: it is filled with charlatans, self-proclaimed gurus, and leadership snake-oil salesman divvying out advice that is ineffectual at best, and oftentimes actively harmful.

It’s a situation Jeffrey Pfeffer likens to the practice of medicine in this country at the turn of the last century—when there was no license required and many medical schools were more concerned with financial gains than scientific and social gains—and it’s one he sets out to remedy in his new book, Leadership BS.

His goal is a large and admirable one, to make leadership more “humane and beneficent” than it has been in the past. But his methods are blunt.


By calling BS on so much of what goes on, this book gives a closer, more scientific look at many dimensions of leadership. Most important, it encourages everyone to finally stop accepting sugar laced but toxic potions as cures.


A big part of the problem is that the popularity of leadership programs is often determined by how engaging and inspirational a speaker is, and the last thing many companies need is comfort and inspiration. They need to face hard, uncomfortable truths about their company, and make necessary change. And too often leadership skills are given lip service and money in training, but there is no process in place to track improvment. And even worse, Pfeffer states, “Measuring the wrong thing is often worse than measuring nothing, because you do get what you measure.”


So if the assessments focus on how much people “enjoy” the experience—be that reading a book, watching a talk, or going to a training session—those same books, talks, and trainings will respond to those measurements by prioritizing the wrong outcomes: making participants feel good and giving them a good time. Simply stated, measuring entertainment value produces great entertainment, not change; measuring the wrong things crowds out assessing other, more relevant indicators such as actual improvements in the workplace. … In the case of leadership, that appropriate measurement would include assessing the frequency of desirable leader behaviors; actual workplace conditions such as engagement, satisfaction, and trust in leadership; and leaders’ careers—measures that are notable by their absence not only in use but even from much of the discussion of leadership-development activity.


So, Leadership BS is not exactly an inspirational book. It is sometimes even a little disenchanting, as when he tells us that “Making change, improving situations, getting things done, winning in very competitive environments, often requires being willing and able to engage in behavior and exhibit qualities that some people might find repugnant.” And that’s actually a good thing. As he told an attendee that was disappointed by the lack of inspiration in an executive program he taught:


If you want inspiration, go to a play, read an inspiring book, listen to great music, go to an art museum, or read some of the great treatises on religion or philosophy. I am a social scientist, not a lay preacher.


Inspiration, it turns out, tends to create more unrealistic expectations and sanctimony that it does needed change. If you are looking to be more successful, to be a better leader, inspiration isn’t going to help for long. “What you need” Pfeffer tells us, “are facts, evidence, and ideas.” And as a social scientist, this is exactly what he provides.

But even if it’s not an inspirational book, it is inspiring to think that the real problems of leadership and engagement can be addressed and fixed. And Pfeffer’s not shy in addressing them. To do so, he challenges both conventional wisdom and what he sees as the latest leadership crazes, including authentic leadership. He explores how being inauthentic can be useful to you and those you lead, and how lying—or “the ability to misrepresent reality”—may actually be the most crucial and important leadership skill of all. He will tell us how immodesty increases one’s likelihood to end up in a leadership role (even if it doesn’t always help one maintain that role). He shows pretty clearly that developing trust is actually unnecessary, and how distrust in an organization can be advantageous.

Because of all this, he also tells us how to create less leader-dependant systems (how to fix the system rather than rely on the skill or inherent goodness of individuals), and how to compel leaders to act in a more beneficent and humane way by making it in their self-interest to do so.

He will tell you that simply being inspired and optimistic can be fatal, that you can handle the truth (that you’ll be better off for it), and then he tells it. The truth is we must acknowledge that companies and those that lead them often have diverging interests, and then insist on more scientific methods to align them. And we must also demand more credentials and proof of success from those we hire to do that work. Once we do, the snake oil will dry up.

We have updated our privacy policy. Click here to read our full policy.