Leading Blog






11.17.15

Leadership BS

Leadership BS
Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer, is a very important book. It actually builds on the ideas and thinking presented in his classic book written with Bob Sutton, The Knowing Doing Gap over a decade ago.

Pfeffer wants to know why, in spite of the thousands of leadership books, blogs and seminars are there so many leadership failures? Pfeffer believes that the answer is to be found in the systemic processes that produce leaders who often behave differently from what most people might like or expect.

He’s right.

As a society we produce and reward leaders that think short-term and this is at odds with what it takes to get the leaders we think we want.

As we look around there are disconnects between:

• what leaders say and do,
• what the leadership industry says leaders should be doing and what they actually do,
• reality and the simplistic fixes we try to apply to it,
• what the leadership industry thinks it is achieving and what is actually happening or rather not happening,
• what we say we want and what we actually reward.

It’s not surprising that students of leadership often become disillusioned upon entering the workplace. Life rarely adheres to the good leader formula of success they have come to know.

Leadership BS is a compendium of human nature. It describes well the hypocrisy in all of us. We don’t always meet our own standards. We don’t always reward what we say we value. The real world doesn’t behave as it should. These are life issues as much as they are leadership issues. Consider the following comments from Leadership BS:
Once people believe they are better leaders—possibly because they have given talks or written about positive leadership, have attended lots of leadership trainings, or because they were once acknowledged for their good leadership—they are less likely to be as vigilant about their subsequent behavior, having already demonstrated their leadership credentials.

Although modesty may be valued in the leadership literature, self-promotion and assertiveness seem to produce better career results in the real world.

We seem to have a preference for immodest, grandiose, and narcissistic leaders. Narcissism and self-aggrandizement and the behaviors associated with these constructs reliably and consistently predict the selection of leaders, the evaluations made after interviews, and the selection of emergent leadership.
And finally, this would seem to be a fairly typical experience. Pfeffer was asking a woman who was being outmaneuvered by a peer how she responded to the whole thing:
She said that she responded by using her learning and ideas from a leadership course on personal dynamics, colloquially referred to as “touchy-feely,” to attempt to repair the relationship with her peer. “Why?” Pfeffer asks. “Because I have been taught to build relationships of authenticity and trust at work.” But it didn’t work because the peer was not interested in “repairing a relationship” or behaving with trust and authenticity; he was interested in taking over her team for his own advantage. Pfeffer comments: People not only have problems in their current positions, but they also lose out on attractive job opportunities by believing in the prescriptions so frequently proffered for how leaders should behave.
The leadership values aren’t the problem. It really becomes a “why” problem for each individual. Why do I believe what I believe? What kind of person do I want to be and why? How important is it to me to be this kind of person and why?

The fact is, you are going out into a world that doesn’t work the way it “should.” People are not always trustworthy, authentic, honest, supportive, generous, or any number of other highly regarded values. If you want to adhere to them you need to understand that the playing field isn't level. Not all organizations encourage virtuous behaviors.

Frequently, people do what works for them in the moment to get what they think they want now. It’s short-term thinking, but for many it seems to work. Leadership BS reads a bit like the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon illuminated some of the same issues almost 3000 years ago. He noted that, “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.” (I wonder if Pfeffer peruses Ecclesiastes in the quiet moments.) Organizations that tolerate less than virtuous behavior will get less than virtuous behavior.

Machiavellian values would not still be circulating almost 500 years after they were first published, if they did not “work” in the real world. They do and quite spectacularly at times. So I have to ask myself, “What is most important to me?” knowing that I may not get some of the things I want out of life if I stick to my values. It is a commitment issue. Values are personal and they stand up to whatever is happening around you. If they don’t they’re not values they’re strategies. Strategies change when conditions change. Some people will argue that “I’ll temporarily trade my values in on a bigger prize and then I’ll go back to them after I get what I want”—the corner office for instance. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Either way there’s always a price.

It’s a question of character. It is the same problem faced by schoolchildren every day: Do I compromise my values to get along, to be accepted, or to be promoted to the head of the line?

Narcissistic people often get the spotlight as Pfeffer noted. This can be confusing if a person doesn’t have the support structure to navigate human nature. We need to get better at building character from day one. Leadership begins in the home.

Pfeffer chides the leadership industry for focusing too much on inspiration and not enough on the reality of the world in which we live. And he is right. Inspiration is important as people need a vision, but there needs to be accountability along the way.
The leadership industry is so obsessively focused on the normative—what leaders should be doing and how things ought to be—that it has largely ignored asking the fundamental question of what actually is true and going on and why. Unless and until leaders are measured for what they really do and for actual workplace conditions, and until these leaders are held accountable for improving both their own behavior and, as a consequence, workplace outcomes, nothing will change.
He’s talking about creating accountability for what we say we value. Character is a long-term, life-long issue. Do you always stick to your beliefs even when you might lose in the moment for doing so? Fred Kiel demonstrates there is a long-term payoff for doing the right thing in his book Return on Character. The problem we all face in the short-term is that not everyone is playing by the same rules.

This isn’t a problem that is ever going to go away. We are all human and will continue to be human. We do need to work on ourselves but it is also an organizational problem. As Pfeffer and Sutton write in The Knowing-Doing Gap: “Some organizations are consistently able to turn knowledge into action, and do so even as they grow and absorb new people and even other organizations.” The difference between organizations that do and organizations that don’t comes “more from their management systems and practices than from differences in the quality of their people.”

The leadership industry certainly could do more. Knowing without doing leads nowhere.
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Of Related Interest:
  Return on Character
  Leadership Begins at Home

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 09:49 PM
| Comments (0) | Leadership



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