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Book Review: Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer

December 3, 2015

Leadership BSContrary to Pfeffer‘s advice, I want to be fully transparent: presently I am a Leadership Coach who is actively engaged in working with business leaders from startup companies to multi-billion dollar public companies. In addition, during my career in industry, I have had the good fortune to be a leader and to work with business leaders. Therefore, I have developed my own view of what it means to be a leader. So I am not an unbiased observer of the leadership industry.

Pfeffer, an academic and thought leader in leadership, tediously documents the fact that what we see in leadership today is not what the leadership industry has been advocating for the last several decades. Our workplaces are still full of disengaged employees. Pfeffer makes the case well.

“Regardless of the time and money spent on leadership, the situation in workplaces, not just in the United States but around the world, is dire, with disengaged, disaffected, and dissatisfied employees everywhere.” — Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership BS

And I agree with him that what gets measured gets done. So until we can persuade new leaders to change the environment of the workplace to one in which people matter, not just numbers, we will get more of the same.

Pfeffer’s conclusion is that the leadership industry has to stop inculcating transparency, compassion and leadership development and instead give in to what exists. That is, a more Machiavellian workplace — one in which you do what you have to do to get ahead in that particular environment.

I do not agree. If we give up and do not try to improve the workplace for employees, we will continue to have workplaces Pfeffer himself recognizes as “dire, with disengaged, disaffected, and dissatisfied employees everywhere.”

Pfeffer’s strength, data driven academic understanding, seems to have blinded him to the need to continue to work toward a better work world. His indictment of the leadership industry—that they are too academic, working on hope rather than what is—shows exactly how a strength can become a weakness.

Thankfully, I happen to have another book on the stack to read immediately after Pfeffer’s book. That book is Everybody Matters, by Chapman and Sisodia, explaining the journey that Barry-Wehmiller made from a Pfeffer world to a “Truly Human Leadership” world and how successful it is. And I had already read American Icon, by Hoffman, on how Alan Mulally led Ford back to life. I found it disingenuous that Pfeffer did not complete the data study, academic though it may be, by working to find examples of where highly successful companies have created exactly the kind of environment that the leadership industry inculcates.

I found Pfeffer’s work to be useful and informative about what is in the work environment today. His conclusions are off base and not helpful. The leadership industry hasn’t had an impact, not because their goals are incorrect, but because precious few organizations actually implement what it prescribes. I, for one, will not be dissuaded from doing my best to improve the workplace by encouraging leaders to become more concerned about people than they are about profits. The financial health of an organization is of course vitally important, but is not an end unto itself. As Herb Kelleher, the beloved longtime CEO of Southwest Airlines, said, “The business of business is people. Yesterday, today, and forever.” I remain hopeful we will build organizations that live Chapman’s, Mulally’s and Kelleher’s vision.

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