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Jeffrey Pfeffer calls out Leadership BS in his new book

Jeffrey Pfeffer warns of the many self-promotional if not narcissistic leaders, with Donald Trump being a prime example, we are surrounded by.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

Leadership BS

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99

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Leadership experts routinely call on executives to be authentic. But Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, considers the advice BS. So, too, the calls for leaders to be modest, truthful, trustworthy, serve others and expect their companies to honour their past contributions.

"Sometimes – not always, but some of the time – doing precisely the opposite of what the leadership industry prescribes produces better outcomes. What's more, doing the opposite of what the leadership industry advocates is sometimes a much better, more reliable path to individual success," he writes in Leadership BS.

On authenticity, he points to Alison Davis-Blake, the respected dean of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. She was so quiet and introverted as a doctoral student that her professors wondered when she would speak up. The authentic her would be a failure in the high-profile position of business school dean.

"The last thing a leader needs to be at crucial moments is 'authentic' – at least if authentic means both being in touch with and exhibiting their true feelings. In fact, being authentic is pretty much the opposite of what leaders must do. Leaders do not need to be true to themselves. Rather, leaders need to be true to what the situation and what those around them want and need from them," he notes.

He contends the calls for authenticity are an example of the foibles of leadership gurus, offering a well-intentioned, values-laden set of prescriptions filled with "shoulds" and "oughts" that are mostly not representative of people in leadership roles, not implementable and may be fundamentally misguided.

You want authentic leadership? You had it, he says, with Anthony Weiner, the disgraced U.S. congressman and New York mayoral candidate who sent pictures of his private parts to various women he met on the Internet. He was owning his thoughts, needs and wants – authentically. On the other hand, a colleague of Prof. Pfeffer, a senior-level college administrator, was probably being inauthentic when – after his daughter died from a drug overdose – he continued to soldier on in his job, providing motivation and encouragement to others.

Writer and editor Harriet Rubin, he points out, studied successful individuals and found inauthenticity was vital. Their success came from playing a role. A study by the University of Michigan's Sydney Lieberman found that union leaders who were promoted into management and then returned to the front lines during a recession exhibited the attitudes of their different posts, changing with the situation. Inauthentic, but realistic.

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"The idea of behaving authentically as a leader is almost certainly rare, because this is a concept that is at once both psychologically impossible – because of situational effects on personality and behaviour – and also not very useful because of the requirements for acting as a leader regardless of how one may feel at the moment," he declares.

But at least you can be modest, right? Jim Collins suggested in Good to Great that the best leaders were humble and determined. But research has shown that overconfident people achieve higher social status, respect and influence in groups. A study of the recent financial crisis found that narcissistic CEOs did worse at the beginning of the episode, but, because they have a stronger bias toward action and risk-taking as a result of their self-confidence, led their firms to bounce back more successfully.

Whatever you believe about the virtue of modesty, he warns that we are surrounded by self-promotional if not narcissistic leaders – Donald Trump being a prime example – who seem to earn more than their counterparts, so it may be a tack to consider.

Should you tell the truth? Steve Jobs was known for bending the truth – his "reality distortion field," it was charitably called. Lying in everyday life is common – your sales reps probably do it routinely. "The ability to misrepresent reality is a crucial – maybe the most crucial – leadership skill," he insists.

Trust is the glue of most social relationships, and organizations revolve around social relationships. But he no longer believes it's essential to organizational functioning or even to effective leadership, because the data suggest it's notable mostly by its absence. Yet organizations – and their leaders – roll along, not suffering too many consequences for their untrustworthiness, in part because even after our trust is violated, we still tend to be predisposed to grant it to leaders.

Leaders are supposed to eat last, letting their subordinates go first, and while that is common in the U.S. military, it isn't elsewhere. Indeed, it's a curiosity when it occurs. Unselfish leadership is rare and servant leadership difficult to implement. As for the final behaviour he highlights – trusting the organization to take care of you – think about the layoffs and pruning of loyal staff around you.

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This is a provocative book, and after a weak start – he takes aim at the leadership industry and ironically seems to fall prey to the same scattershot suppositions they do to prove his points – he settles down and offers a fairly thorough rebuke to many of the principles we have been taught to hold dear about effective modern leadership.

POSTSCRIPT

In Get Backed (Harvard Business Review Press, 235 pages, $44.00) consultants Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis show how to build the pitch deck for promoting a new venture to investors.

Psychiatrist and business coach Mark Goulston offers advice on dealing with the irrational people in your life in Talking To Crazy (Amacom, 259 pages, $33.50)

Alberta executive search consultant Catherine R. Bell makes the case for humane practices in the workplace and not separating work from life in The Awakened Company (Namaste Publishing, 219 pages, $34.50).

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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