Leadership lies and the Stanford business professor fighting them

Leaders under the microscope, from left: Nelson Mandela, surrounded by ANC officials; Steve Jobs; Abraham Lincoln

We’re in an enlightened age of leadership strategy, aren’t we? This is the era of TED Talks, weekend summits, life coaches, corporations investing hundreds of millions into that sought-after enigma: emotional intelligence. So why are modern leaders failing so often?

That’s the question posed by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in his latest book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.

In the US alone, corporate training is a US$70 billion market, with 35 per cent of that dedicated to management and leadership training. Countless pages of well-written, carefully argued material sit a few mouse clicks away from management. Pfeffer’s research contradicts a great deal of it.

Pointing to fiascos at multinationals Yahoo, Amazon, General Motors and Merrill Lynch, Pfeffer assembles evidence that the current generation of executives is systemically flawed, despite the swelling profits of the so-called leadership industry.

As he points out, global workplaces are filled with dissatisfied and untrusting employees. Gallup data shows that, worldwide, only 13 per cent of employees feel engaged with their work. Job satisfaction has dropped steadily for around 30 years. Last year, Edelman research revealed that almost half of Australians distrust the companies they work for.

For the leadership class, Pfeffer presents another alarming trend: management-level workers are losing their jobs at an increasing rate. He places the blame at the feet of the leadership industry, painstakingly tearing down unhelpful “preaching” of the thousand-dollar weekend retreats and airport bestsellers.

“[They’re] telling people inspiring stories about heroic leaders and exceptional organisations and, in the process, making those who hear the stories feel good and temporarily uplifted while not changing much of what happens at many workplaces,” he writes. 

More troubling is they tend to make workplaces demonstrably worse. “Possibly much worse,” he concludes.

Having torn down these feel-good management strategies, Pfeffer zooms in on tactics that are proven, albeit less sexy and perhaps even less acceptable in today’s working environment. Large among his targets are executive truisms such as inspiring trust, telling the truth, being modest and exhibiting hefty doses of empathy and understanding – all ineffective at critical moments, he argues.

“Good intentions notwithstanding, there is precious little evidence that any of these recommendations have had a positive impact.”

Differentiating what feels good from what is effective in the workplace is core to Pfeffer’s findings. Effectiveness, he says, can sometimes require embracing shape-shifting, politically fluid pragmatism. Sometimes you may simply have to lie through your teeth.

For those who insist on “authenticity” at all costs, he suggests authentic leadership may be a contradiction of itself. One of the core skills of leadership is putting on a show: weaving a narrative that inspires confidence and engenders support, regardless of what’s happening backstage.

“Much of the oft-repeated conventional wisdom about leadership is based more on hope than reality, on wishes rather than data, on beliefs instead of science.” Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford graduate school of business

Indeed, some of those considered great leaders would fall dramatically short of many modern management behavioural standards. Pfeffer argues that Abraham Lincoln was a skilled liar who deceived the American public about his true stance on slavery. Steve Jobs spun a story of success and innovation while Apple teetered on the edge of oblivion in the 1980s.

Nelson Mandela is often described in almost saintly terms as a unifier for the ages, but his methods were often less pure than his cause.

“I’m certainly not saying lying is virtuous or to be encouraged,” reflects Pfeffer. “I’m just saying the evidence is quite clear that leaders frequently don’t tell the truth.”

Pfeffer has a history of evidence-driven analysis of leadership. He helped to make evidence-based management at least slightly popular with his 2006 book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management, co-written with Robert Sutton. Pfeffer also taught a Stanford course called “Paths to Power”, arguing that the ability to attain and wield power was an indispensable trait of leadership success, which led to his 2010 book, Power: Why Some People Have It – and Others Don’t.

His latest book message has much in common with Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, which 500 years ago advised rulers on the unpleasant things they might have to do to keep their thrones and lead their people. For his trouble, Machiavelli spent centuries being compared to the devil. Pfeffer must hope he doesn’t meet the same fate.

The hero who became a leader

Jeffrey Pfeffer, above, quotes former New York Times editor and Nelson Mandela biographer Bill Keller on the South African hero’s rise to leadership: “First, Mandela’s brief membership in the South African Communist Party, and his long-term alliance with more devout communists, says less about his ideology than about his pragmatism. 

He was at various times a black nationalist and non-racialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.”

Pfeffer’s assessment: “Does this make Nelson Mandela inauthentic? And if so, who cares?”

Read more: 10 powerful lessons from women who lead


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