Leadership BS - why the leadership industry is a Ponzi scheme
The Leadership industry has failed
Unequivocally, he claims that the Leadership industry has not only empirically failed, with study after study of workplace discontent, but also that it contributes to that failure. As the cult of leadership has risen, its perceived effectiveness has fallen. Bullying, stress, discontent are the norm. A huge amount of evidence is presented to show failure after failure in so called ‘leadership’. What he uncovers is an almost wilful avoidance of evidence, measurement and data. He questions the very construct of leadership, suggesting that it was invented as a simplification to deliberately obfuscate the real complexity of the workplace. So despite the $20 billion spend, the results are depressingly disappointing.
Pfeffer’s challenge is to recognise reality and accept that the workplace and people are much more complex than the feel-good training courses suggest. In reality, leaders’ behaviours are often at odds with those of the organisation. Their interests in terms of rewards, promotion and progress are often at odds with those they manage and even the organisations they lead.
His arguments against ‘Leadership training’ are pretty damning. Here’s just ten, he has dozens more:
1. Most who offer leadership advice have never led anything
2. If they have, they were notoriously unsuccessful
3. Too many compensation consultants linked to leadership industry
4. Woeful lack of actual expertise & knowledge
5. Peddle inspiration not realities of management
6. Rely largely on storytelling and anecdote
7. Evaluation rarely beyond hours of training delivered etc.
8. Stuck in primitive ‘happy-sheet’ evaluation
9. Over-reliant on self-evaluation
10. Totally unaccountable
In the content he finds no-end of stories and anecdotes (as opposed to evidence) that are exaggerated, even fabricated. These myths are counter-productive as they produce cynicism in employees. The rhetoric is not matched by actual action and behaviour. Worse, those who don’t conform to the out-dated leadership model don’t get promoted and may even get fired. Others, such as women and certain cultural minorities, that value modesty and collaboration, also suffer. These are his general criticisms but the strength of the book comes in the precise qualities he sees as being quite wrong-headed.
Given that the book was published in 2015, he was prescient in identifying Trump as a typical product of the charismatic leader cult. He plays the leadership game and is winning. Pfeffer punctures the idea that ‘modesty’ is an admired and effective leadership trait. He draws on Maccoby’s book The Productive Narcissist, and his own evidence, to show that modesty, far from being a virtue, stops managers from thinking for themselves and being resilient in the face of adversity. It is energy, confidence and dominance that gets them where they are, not modesty. The Leadership industry may be holding back women and other potential managers by promoting false promises, such as modesty. He also accuses HR and talent management companies of being dishonest here in training for these qualities then recruiting the very opposite.
It may surprise many that anyone would question ‘authenticity’ as a quality for leadership – but he does. He flips this to show that good managers need to do what people need them to do, not what they as managers simply want to do, not pander to their own views of themselves. Flight attendants, shop assistants, sales people and many others wouldn’t last a day by being totally ‘authentic’, neither do managers and leaders. He also mentions the ‘delicious irony’ of leadership trainers who ‘train’ people to be ‘authentic’, as if it is a trait that can be acquired in a classroom. Being authentic, is for Pfeffer, pretty much the opposite of what leaders need to be.
Much as trust would seem to be desirable in leadership, it may not be that simple. Bernie Madoff inspired ‘trust’. Indeed, many L&D Ponzi schemes work on ‘trust’ – NLP, Myers-Briggs. Trust, like faith can lead one into real trouble. It may be desirable not to trust lawyers, competitors, politicking managers. True objectivity and realism may only be the result of not trusting everyone to tell the truth within an organisation, as you will be misled, even duped. You need to be on the mark, alert to deception, moves, protecting the organisation and, truth be told, that means distrusting some people.
Rich in real examples of leaders who were less than ideal, he shows how leadership training misses the mark most of the time – especially with the titans of tech; Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison. Political, sports and other leaders get a similar treatment. Most of the positive examples turn out to have serious flaws. So, when we look at what are called successful leaders, they turn out to be very different from what the leadership industry tells us. His recommendation is to get serious on the research, mainly what is effective, then hold so-called 'leaders' to account - not with happy-sheet nostrums but real accountability. This is an important point. It's not ghat he promotes immodesty, being inauthentic and telling lies, only to recognise that leaders and emplyees are people and that human nature always wins out. The remedy is to identify what you need from proposed leaders and then to make sure that they perform to those measures. This is where HR and remuneration committees fail. They pretend to be doing this when what they actualy do is pander to an utdated cult of leadership.
I have a similar but stronger position than Pfeffer on this, as I think the whole ‘Leadership’ narrative and training is misleading, harmful and Pozies out traditional management training as ‘Leadership’ courses. There is a lack of definition, theory and practice around the concept and it has become a Ponzi scheme, distracting from the real needs in workplace learning.
Near the end of the book he quotes the movie A Few Good Men, “You want the truth?... You can’t handle the truth!” Only read this book if you are willing to open your mind to the possibility that most of what you’ve heard about Leadership training is BS. It’s a hard pill to swallow for the L&D community – but the more we delay the cure, the bigger the epidemic of BS will become. It has already infected our schools, our politics. Let's ban the word 'leadership'. It's BS.