195 – Leadership connections and disconnections – some thoughts on Jeffrey Pfeffer’s ‘Leadership BS’

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                                         950 words

leadership BS

This is a new and interesting book. Promising to ‘pull back the curtain’ to show how leadership really works, Jeffrey Pfeffer (Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business) argues that ‘much of the oft-repeated wisdom on leadership is based more on hope than reality. This appealed to my pragmatic, rationalist view of the world. Things are not always what they seem (or how people would like them to seem).

It is a provocative book and reading it will challenge those who subscribe to the current leadership orthodoxy. In the Preface, Pfeffer compares management to medicine and highlights the progress modern medicine has made by rooting out the charlatans and quacks, and introducing science into the practice of medicine. He revisits this comparison in Chapter 8 when he provides advice on ‘confronting the reality of organisational life’.

This is where the ‘rubber hits the road’ after an interesting and thought provoking read through the first seven chapters covering why fables cause problems; why leaders aren’t modest; how authenticity is misunderstood and overrated; whether leaders should (or do) tell the truth; where trust has gone; why leaders ‘eat’ first; and how to take care of yourself.

In Chapter 8, Pfeffer starts with a discussion about the difference between management science and medical science. The main point is that doctors and medical researchers evaluate evidence differently to leaders.

“There is no theory or evidence that suggests that improvement comes from ignoring bad news, paying inordinate attention to rare, exceptional cases, or from failing to measure base rates for how often something occurs.”

This view is an indictment of management thinking. He sees discussions about leadership as like being under the effect of a mild anaesthesia, which leaves people feeling good while ‘somewhat uninformed about reality and oblivious to truths about organisational life’. The core of the chapter is the discussion about ‘actual leaders versus the prescriptions’.

“ … many of the most powerful and economically successful leaders in organisations of all types demonstrate little or no correspondence with the prescriptions for what leaders are supposed to do.”

I quite like Pfeffer’s list of ways to face the reality of organisational life. Here is a brief description. Read the book if you can.

Stop confusing the normative with the descriptive, and focus more on what is.

The leadership industry emphasises what should be rather than what is and teaches leadership using positive models and success stories instead of the entire range of leaders. Pfeffer says this avoids having to explain ‘why there are so many bad bosses after so many years of giving people sound advice on how to be better leaders’.

Watch actions, not words.

“Instead of intently, objectively, and clinically watching how leaders operate, we listen to what leaders say about what they do, how they talk about their values, the lovely sentiments they express.”

When people actually look at what successful leaders do, they often don’t see what the leadership texts would have them expect. Pfeffer advises paying attention to what is really going on and to the real behaviour and performance of leaders.

Sometimes you have to behave badly to do good.

Here Pfeffer returns to his medical analogy and describes the use of toxic poisons to treat disease or cutting people in surgery as part of beneficial treatments.

“The point is that sometimes to do good, you have to have the courage and wisdom to perform harmful, painful actions.”

Leadership similarly sometimes requires people to ‘engage in behaviours and exhibit behaviours that some people might find repugnant.’ Machiavelli gets a mention.

Advice to leasers depends on the ecosystem in which they are operating.

Pfeffer asserts that everyone wants advice and that the advice business doesn’t care whether the advice is used. The profit comes from selling it. In fact, if advice is followed and it proves to be effective it reduces the potential for further sales.

Further, he says that much leadership advice is ‘noncontingent’ and describes universal qualities and behaviours that fail to differentiate leaders. Being a better leader requires demonstration of the behaviours seen to ‘demonstrate strength, confidence and skill’ in the environment you are in. The leadership qualities required to succeed will be different in each environment. Successful leaders will exhibit them.

Stop the either-or thinking.

Pfeffer says that thinking of things as black and white makes it difficult to deal with the real world. There are downsides for leaders in oversimplification

“The fact that complexity in evaluation and analysis can be helpful may be one reason that a study of decision-making found that higher-status individuals engaged in more complex thinking.”

He says that the ‘good-bad, oversimplified stories’ need to stop. Acknowledging the complexity, multi-dimensionality, and multifaceted truth’ about leaders could result in a better understanding of social dynamics and a more ‘helpful map of the organisational landscapes we seek to navigate’.

Forgive, but remember.

This section gets a good run. Pfeffer says that if you forgive people will be more inclined to admit their mistakes and by remembering you are less likely to make them again. Past leader behaviour is important.

The final part of the chapter lists a series of connections and disconnections in leadership. Restoring these disconnections is the apparently simple but actually difficult remedy to leadership failure. Try and restore these disconnections in your organisation:

  • What leaders say and what they do.
  • The multidimensional nature of leadership performance and the simple, noncontingent answers so many people seek.
  • Leader performance and behaviour and the consequences those leaders face.
  • What most people seem to want (good news, nice stories, emotional uplift) and what they need (the truth).
  • What would make workplaces better and organisations more effective, and what actually gets done.

Pfeffer, Jeffrey 2015. Leadership BS – Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.

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