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Does being ‘good’ truly make a leader great?

This week marks the opening of the latest film about Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., whose mythology as a genius is matched only by his mythology as a jerk. In a promo for the film, Steve Wozniak, Apple's co-founder, reflected on Mr. Jobs's status as an unlikeable visionary.

"I think history's going to remember him as one those great technical leaders of all time, just like Edison. He might also be remembered for his negative personality; I think that is going to go with his legacy forever," Mr. Wozniak said in a video preview.

Steve Jobs is just one of many highly regarded leaders whose less admirable traits seem to correlate directly with their success. Despite this, the underlying theme in most leadership blog posts, videos and books seems to advocate that being good leads to success.

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"Modesty, authenticity, telling the truth, building trust, taking care of others – all great traits – virtues in fact," Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business wrote in a LinkedIn post. "But sort of like hand-washing in medicine, there is remarkably little attention to the base rate – how often such characteristics occur in the world – even among (or maybe particularly among) some of the most admired business leaders – people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison, and of course, Steve Jobs," he added.

There is, he continued, a profound disconnect between what we tell people to do and the qualities that are necessary for success. It's a dichotomy Dr. Pfeffer explores in Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers, One Truth at a Time.

In the book, he argues that the leadership industry has failed. Despite the $50-billion (U.S.) spent annually on corporate training and development, an estimate credited to Barbara Kellerman, author of The End of Leadership, the workplace situation in the U.S. and around the world is dire, with disengaged employees, widespread bullying and poor job satisfaction.

"The leadership industry is kind of like the gambling industry. There is an insatiable demand," Dr. Pfeffer said.

He suggested this demand for inspiration is inversely related to the condition of the workplace. In other words, the poorer the conditions, the more employees are hungry for hope.

Endless studies can attest to low employee engagement and satisfaction, but it's really stories like a recent New York Times exposé of the cutthroat corporate culture at Amazon.com that highlight how office politics can deteriorate into a full contact sport.

Yet, rather than combatting this workplace malaise with fact and scientifically proven approaches, many find solace in meaningless inspiration, Dr. Pfeffer said.

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"As long as HR executives think that everyone should be having a good time rather than doing something more substantive, the market will continue to give us what we want. They [HR executives] want entertainment, inspiration. They want uplift. They don't want substance," said Dr. Pfeffer, who compares the tonic we swallow on leadership theory to the hair-growth potions sold at the end of the 19th century.

"These people are buying hope and false promises, not results," he added.

Admittedly, the reason many professionals crave inspiration in the first place comes down to the fact that the workplace has become a lot tougher to navigate. Dr. Pfeffer cites anecdotal evidence that a substantial number of business school graduates involuntarily leave their jobs within their first two years out of school. He attributes this to the graduates being unable to handle organizational dynamics. He also noted the thinning of middle management in corporations and the increasingly shorter tenure of executives.

Faced with this current reality, professionals, Dr. Pfeffer noted, can do one of two things. They can rely on scientifically proven approaches to achieving results or swallow the tonic being sold by the leadership industry.

While the current trend advocating authentic, caring leadership may work for some, it may not work for every leader in every context.

"There is no blanket leadership style that is proven to be effective across businesses, cultures, and people. Of course, treating people with dignity and respect is the golden rule for life and leadership, but there are so many other critical nuances," said Katherine Alexander, an organizational psychologist at Kilberry Leadership Advisors in Toronto.

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As for the growth of uncertified "leadership gurus," Dr. Alexander said that they often stumble when they walk into an organization with a "cure-all package or elixir."

She advises clients to look for leadership firms and advisers who have insight into the businesses they operate and make measured claims.

"Having a PhD doesn't inherently make you an expert, but it does help you to sort through a lot of the B.S.," she said.

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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