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Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has disturbed many managers with his new book Leadership BS. In the book he observes that while our leadership programs tell aspiring young managers to be virtuous, the data shows that most successful leaders diverge significantly from the saintly path. It’s easy to draw the conclusion that Pfeffer is advising leaders to get ahead by acting badly. That’s why people are upset.

Pfeffer’s book seems straightforward, but it actually contains several related and emotionally charged ideas that are woven together—and that can be confusing. Let’s tease out three of the main ideas.

Idea #1: Don’t be naive. I’ve asked Pfeffer what he’s trying to achieve with his work on leadership. Front and center is his concern that capable young people go out into the business world and suffer terrible setbacks because they are naive about the rough power politics in organizations. He tells MBAs that there are times when they’ll need to be “economical with the truth”, that modesty will usually be a disadvantage, and they’ll need to be extremely careful about whom they trust. He also warns them that there are many people who will ruthlessly take advantage of them. Pfeffer tells us that it’s a big bad world, virtue often goes unrewarded, and sometimes we can’t play as nicely as we would like.

Idea #2: The leadership training industry has failed. Pfeffer says that the leadership training industry tells feel good stories about virtuous managers, but that doesn’t reflect the real world. So leadership training hasn’t worked to create good leaders. Furthermore, to the extent people believe what they are taught, these programs set them up to fail.

Idea #3: Unless we confront reality we can’t improve it. The leadership industry paints a picture of wonderful leaders; for example the marvelous CEOs Jim Collin’s talks about in Good to Great. This picture does not come close to reflecting reality. If we want to improve leadership, then we need to be honest about what the typical leader is like and what it has taken for them to get ahead in the harsh world of business.

TWEET: Quick summary. 3 main ideas from the book "Leadership BS." 

What should we do? Well, it can be depressing if you leave Pfeffer’s book thinking successful leaders are bad people, and if we can’t beat them, we have to join them. It is far better to focus on his core purpose of telling individual managers “Don’t be naive” and telling organizations “If we want to improve leadership, let’s be realistic about the world and study the evidence on the effectiveness of our current programs.”

Beyond that his advice for organizations is sparse. If the CEO happens to be a terrible person then there is not much you can do because he or she will shut down any efforts to change the leadership style. However most leaders are, like everyone else, a mix of good and not so good. Propose reasonable, evidence-based initiatives to improve leadership and as long as it does not harm them personally, most leaders will likely back you.

One specific piece of advice Pfeffer gives is to set up programs so that leaders spend more time rubbing shoulders with front line employees because it makes them more empathetic. The general lesson is to change leadership behavior by changing processes and programs, not by running more leadership training. In fact you can fund new processes and programs with the money you save by cancelling ineffective leadership training courses.

Pfeffer is one of the very best HR academics in the world and he cares a lot about creating a better world. Don’t be put off by the harshness of the evidence he shares about the reality of leadership. Use it as a starting point for finding ways that will really make things better.
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David Creelman

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. He studies the pressing issues in managing talent and culture. His most recent book, with John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan is “Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment.”