Every day, the multi-billion dollar corporate leadership industry pumps out books, trainings, blogs and punditry claiming to improve the effectiveness of any leader, based on everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Larry Page.
The reality though, according to Stanford Business School professor Jeffrey Pfeffer in his new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, is that the workplace is as dysfunctional as ever. Pfeffer argues that there's a disconnect between individual success and corporate success — not only are revered leaders often more complex than we give them credit for, but the "inspirational" leadership industry has also dramatically failed to improve career and workplace outcomes.
Pfeffer connects these shortcomings to what he calls the "moralistic fables" that come out of the leadership industry: the feel-good, anecdote-driven stories that tend to encourage openness, honesty and modesty. Instead, he advocates for a research- and data-driven approach to understand what works for leaders in the real world.
"Fundamentally, I'm a social scientist," Pfeffer says. "I'm pointing to what the social science research suggests about how people are actually selected into jobs and what makes them successful."
The Workplace Disconnect
At the same time, what helps people rise to the top doesn't necessarily correlate with great group results or healthy workplaces.
Multiple fields of study have shown that the interests of organizations and individuals within them are not aligned, says Pfeffer. "Many of the qualities that make leaders successful are toxic for workplaces, which is precisely why levels of employee engagement and trust in leaders are so low."
If we really want to fix the ailing modern workplace, he argues, we have to take a hard look at successful leaders, face the sometimes unpalatable truths and determine whether this is the leadership environment we want to continue perpetuating.
A Few of Our Least Favorite Traits
What does Pfeffer mean by unpalatable truths? To name one, he found that traditionally considered "successful" leaders did not adhere to the adage, "Honesty is the best policy."
Why? For some leaders, gathering support requires a fib or two. "If you want to get something done, you sometimes have to tell people what you think they want and need to hear, not necessarily the whole truth and nothing but the truth," says Pfeffer.
A healthy dose of narcissism was another unfavorable trait shared by many of the leaders that Pfeffer studied. While the leadership industry applauds modesty in theory, he found that people respond to confidence in practice. "The research on the relationship between narcissism and career success is actually quite extensive and overwhelming," says Pfeffer.
Remove the Veil
While Pfeffer recognizes the influence of traits like dishonesty and narcissism on success, he's not advocating for lying narcissists to lead organizations — instead, he's calling for a reevaluation of leadership.
"If [and] when organizations recognize trade-offs, they may be more conscious in managing them," he says. "For instance, if places really don't want to promote [and] select narcissists, there are easy ways to do so. But as long as there are these 'leadership myths' and stories, people will not pay sufficient attention to the evidence and ... to the inevitable trade-offs involved."
He points to people who have created enormous economic value — Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison — and explains that they're often unpleasant individuals who are very hard on the people they work with or around. Do we care about positive company culture, or do we want to create the next iPhone? It may have to be a choice. "Life is about trade-offs," says Pfeffer. "But trade-offs more consciously made are likely to be more sensible."
While some may balk at Pfeffer's contrarian findings about leadership success, his research is certainly worth taking time to consider — many admired leaders run companies that are toxic workplaces. By highlighting the disconnect between leaders honored on "most admired" lists and companies that are actually great places to work, Pfeffer's book inspires us to look for new evaluations and understandings of both individual and corporate success.
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