Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

By Jeffrey Pfeffer
Harper Business, September 2015
Hardcover $29.99, Ebook edition $14.99, 272 pages

In a Nutshell: The dirty secret is that leaders of many U.S. companies are poor managers and the hype surrounding our leadership industry is mostly bunk.

Who’s it for? Managers who need to improve their game, employees that have to protect themselves.

Author Quote: “To change the world of work and leadership, we need to get beyond the half-truths and self-serving stories that are so prominent today.”

After 20 percent of his graduate students were fired from their first corporate jobs, Stanford University Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer was angry. After taking time to observe how those in charge who are often terrible supervisors, Pfeffer wrote his latest book: “Leadership BS,” which bluntly dismantles M.B.A. classes, books, seminars, and TED Talks devoted to America’s leadership industry.

According to “Leadership BS,” the things we want in our leaders aren’t necessarily what we get. We end up with leaders driven by ego, greed, and self-serving deceit, leaving trails of damaged employees behind. This may be a harsh assessment, but this is how Pfeffer spends a good portion of his book, laying out the “BS” part of his argument.

Pfeffer claims that the results of leadership training are seldom measured and therefore not effective. In comparison, the medical field has base rates for tracking success and improvements. Post conference surveys given to leadership seminar attendees may have no connection to what was learned, instead focusing on speakers’ charisma and likability.

“Leadership BS” also claims that our popular culture glorifies business leaders that do a better job promoting themselves than caring for the people around them. Written in 2015, Pfeffer uses the chapter “Modesty: Why Leaders Aren’t” to describe Donald Trump as more of a brand than a credible leader. Even before his recent Presidential bid, Trump demonstrated the persona of popular business leaders that are adored in business publications yet lack the personal modesty needed to manage well. Pfeffer believes that modest leaders prefer to discuss their companies and the contributions of the leaders around them than themselves.

Pfeffer challenges the popular notion that successful leaders need to be authentic. In other words, being true to your own wants and needs is bad for an organization. Pfeffer describes a company CEO scheduled to be a guest speaker at one of his Stanford classes. The popular guest was sick enough that day to be home in bed with the flu but showed up and spoke to the class anyway. If this leader was being authentic or true to himself, he would have stayed at home. Knowing that his presence was important to the students, he persevered and presented an effective lecture. From this example Pfeffer concludes, “Part of the skill of being a leader is doing the job in a fully engaged, energetic way.”

So what about the rest of us who work for a CEO? Pfeffer recommends that workers simultaneously look out for both their interests and their organizations’ interest. (“People do need to take care of themselves.”) The company is responsible for providing you opportunities and not responsible for your career. The sad reality from reading “Leadership BS” is that today we live in a more transactional world where many companies will not take care of you. In the end it is ironic that the book advises employees to be more self-centered; at the same time it is critical of leaders acting the same way.

It’s worth noting that most of the CEOs the author refers to are with larger corporations, not the smaller or family-owned companies prevalent in Northern Michigan. In the end “Leadership BS” feels like a bucket of ice water reality being dumped on one’s head. Once readers realize that leaders aren’t what we’ve traditionally thought them to be, Pfeffer offers tangible ideas on how good leaders can develop themselves to run effective organizations.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.