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Bridging the Disconnect between Leadership Theory and Practice

A new book shows why the qualities we reward in our leaders can actually undermine a company’s performance.

If you haven’t read the book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, you are missing out. Pfeffer lambasts the leadership development industry — including business schools, human resource departments, authors, and leadership programs and coaches — for being clueless about the harsh political realities of the workplace, and for promoting behaviors that are aspirational rather than practical.

In a down-to-earth, take-no-prisoners manner, Pfeffer shares research and stories to back up his claim that leaders looking to advance their own careers should do the opposite of what most leadership experts tell them, and that “the qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees or, for that matter, for long-term organizational performance.”


To illustrate these points, Pfeffer spends a lot of time dismantling some of the statements offered as best or worst practices by leadership development experts. For example, there’s a long list of traits that experts say leaders should never exhibit. But given how broken our workplaces have become, Pfeffer writes, these supposedly bad behaviors are actually good for the people who practice them. Sometimes, they’re even good for an organization as a whole:

  • Immodesty “helps people attain leadership positions” and “hold on to those positions” because self-promoting people get noticed and self-confident people are assumed to be competent.
  • Narcissists exhibit more of the four traits correlated with leader effectiveness — “energy, dominance, self-confidence, and charisma” — and “are more likely to be selected for leadership roles and also to seek such positions in the first place.”
  • Inauthentic leaders are “able to put on a show, to display energy and pay attention to others, regardless of how they may feel at the time.”
  • Lying is “rampant among leaders” with few consequences. “Sometimes lies become the truth for the very fact of their being told and believed,” Pfeffer says.
  • Trust-violating behavior is “normative” because “keeping commitments… constrains their behavior.” Here, again, the consequences are few.
  • Leaders “eat” first because “they share little or nothing in common with those they lead.”

Pfeffer’s point isn’t to say that these behaviors should be promulgated, even if they’re effective; instead, he wants to inform and challenge leaders to change a defective system into one that enriches businesses and the people within. His core thesis is that the leadership development industry advocates behaviors that would enhance organizational performance if they weren’t in conflict with existing organizational incentives and basic human nature. As a result, there are disconnects between theory and practice, resulting in disengaged employees, ruined careers, and lower organizational performance.

Supposedly bad behaviors are actually good for the people who practice them.

To underscore this point, Pfeffer writes that in spite of investing significantly on leadership education and development (a cost estimated to be US$14 billion in the United States alone), only 13 percent of employees are actively engaged in their work and half of all leaders and managers are ineffective. As a result, he adds, 35 percent of employees in the U.S. are willing to “forgo a substantial pay raise in exchange for seeing their direct supervisor fired.”

Billions of dollars are being wasted because “we have a vision for the type of organizations and leaders we need, but lack a firm foundation on where we are, thus making it impossible for us to chart a path for improvement,” Pfeffer writes. In its current state, the “leadership enterprise helps produce people happily oblivious to many important truths about organizational life in the real world. In this zoned-out, semiconscious, blissful state, people are insufficiently prepared for what they will encounter at work and, most important, insufficiently energized to accurately diagnose and change that world of work.”

The last two chapters of the book discuss what can be done to mitigate poor leadership’s negative effect on organizations and careers. I have to admit that upon my initial read, I was disappointed that Pfeffer didn’t offer more prescriptions for fixing the broken system he so ably describes, and I asked to speak with him about some of his ideas. I came away from our conversation thinking that any attempt to recommend some kind of framework would have short-changed the magnitude of the issue. The book earned its place on my shelf simply by forcing readers to confront the differences between what should be done and what is actually done.

From an organizational perspective, Pfeffer has the following advice:

  • Research “why and how people who don’t fit the visions of what leadership should entail reached such powerful positions.”
  • “Act on what we know rather than what we wish and hope for.” We can fix the disconnects “between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality” in part by “ensuring more psychological identification with and contact between leaders and those they lead,” and measuring and incentivizing leaders “for what they really do and for actual workplace conditions.”
  • Build “work systems that are less leader-dependent” (e.g., employee ownership) rather than continuing to try to develop “fallible human beings” into being selfless, competent, and modest.

My talk with Pfeffer did end on a bit of a down note. Though there are organizations, such as Google, that have made significant strides to reshape their cultures in line with his recommendations, Pfeffer told me that he doesn’t see the number of such conscious capitalist companies increasing — even though they outperform financially driven companies. He believes that these best places to work will continue to be the exception rather than the rule because time and time again, “leaders will trade off money and performance for ego, power, and control.”

Given this sobering reality, Pfeffer advises individual leaders to manage their own careers, make sure they maintain good relationships with their bosses, and keep their options open. Doing so is the only rational path given that “workplaces are primarily instrumental, calculative settings largely free of moral sentiments and even normative constraints.”

Unfortunately, many leaders likely will read Leadership BS as an endorsement to continue to act out in ways that serve their interests at the expense of others. Fortunately, there are leaders who are guided by more noble purposes than power and status, many of whom I have had the honor to profile in this column. These leaders are disgusted with the soul-crushing nature of typical workplaces — instead, they strive to amass power while keeping their self-serving instincts in check in order to serve as a force for good. These leaders understand that to you have to be part of the game in order to change it, consciously making trade-offs and striving to choose the lesser of evils. And when the lesser evil becomes just evil, they leave the field to start a game of their own.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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