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Can we remake the leadership industry?

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Book Review:
Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and
Careers One Truth at a Time
, by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Harper Business)


To be a successful C-suite leader today, you must be authentic, modest, truthful and selfless—right? Not if you want to win in today’s environment, suggests Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Although countless books, blogs, executive education courses and articles may suggest otherwise, Pfeffer argues that until real data proves that these qualities drive real business results in the real world, these idealized leadership qualities should be considered just that: ideals. They should not, he cautions, be considered requirements for executive success–today, at least.

Leadership BS Book Cover

Don’t worry, Pfeffer’s new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time is not simply a dark update of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century primer for ambitious (and ruthless) political players. True, Pfeffer offers example upon example of corporate executives and politicians (in a parade of names that range from Abraham Lincoln to Martha Stewart) who have followed a Machiavellian “ends-justify-the-means” approach to self-interest-fueled leadership. But this book is more about calling “BS” on the current “leadership industry” that coaches future leaders to cultivate goody-goody behavior, rarely supported by enough evidence that proves that behaving well often works. Not accepting the harsh truths of what it takes to succeed in the C-suite (self-promotion, political maneuvering), Pfeffer says, sets up MBA students and the members of the C-suite for disappointment or even failure. “The leadership industry is rife with prescriptions that are neither commonly adopted nor completely useful. Which…is why the leadership industry has had such a small effect on the organizational world.”

Any data on authenticity’s effects?

Take, for instance, the “authentic leadership” movement. Pfeffer admits it is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when authenticity became a desirable trait of leaders, but finds a good historical reference from which to benchmark its effectiveness. He cites the first Gallup Leadership Institute conference on authentic leadership development at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2004 as a concrete starting point. It resulted in a special edition of the academic journal Leadership Quarterly on authenticity. While a wonderful concept “filled with pure motives,” as Pfeffer writes, there simply has not been much solid proof that authentic leadership works since this movement started.

Pfeffer did a search recently, ten-plus years after the Nebraska conference, on Google Scholar, which accesses more than 2 million academic sources on leadership. His Google Scholar search provided absolutely no papers on topics such as “occurrence of authentic leadership.” Yet, as Pfeffer writes, type the same exact phrase into Google itself, and millions of results pop up leading to advice on developing authentic leadership abilities.

Many stats on dissatisfaction with leadership

Pfeffer thankfully relies on more than the results of his Googling efforts to make his points. The book is filled with statistics that paint a wide portrait of how leadership training is failing. For instance, the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s 2014 Critical Human Capital Issues Survey found that 66% of the 1,367 participants said they were “ineffective at developing leaders and they were getting worse in this critical process,” as Pfeffer writes. Accenture, he points out, recently found that only 8 percent of executives surveyed “felt their company was proficient in developing leaders.” And Pfeffer doesn’t ignore how workers are affected by a lack of leadership. He cites a 2012 Gallup survey that found only 30 percent of the U.S. workforce felt “engaged and inspired at work.”

So is the best path for leaders who want to improve the state of leadership in the United States—and around the world—to simply “stop chasing ‘inspiration’” as he advises? Is the path to effective leadership to give in to the Machiavellian approach that has endured despite many books crying for more ethical leadership practices? Yes and no. The pragmatist in Pfeffer advises that leaders who want to reach the C-suite must watch out for themselves first, and not expect benevolence from fellow C-suite members, boards or even mentees and protégées (he cites the painful ousting of the well-loved Men’s Wearhouse founder and former CEO George Zimmer, among other examples).

He admits that sometimes leaders must be inauthentic to win a political battle for a desired business outcome. He points out that no one is perfect, and that to strive for perfection is setting oneself up for failure as a leader. But these are not the final conclusions nor the main point of this thought-provoking and fast-paced book.

Pfeffer’s main advice for leaders is to accept the unpleasant, unfair truths of today’s state of leadership because it is important to learn why inauthentic, immodest, selfish and untruthful leaders succeed financially or don’t face consequences for less-than-ethical actions. That’s not because he condones these actions, but instead because he believes truly understanding what motivates this behavior can help leaders correct it.

A thought-provoking prescription

So how to move forward? Pfeffer creates a powerful analogy for the leadership industry: medicine. A century or so ago, medicine did not require the training or licensing that it does today. Anyone could practice and declare himself or herself a health expert and sell “cures.” There was no measurement of outcomes. Pfeffer calls for leadership to become more of a profession like medicine, with credentials required to practice and teach, and clear ways to measure and track positive and negative outcomes of prescribed actions. Facing the ugly truths of selfish behavior in leadership can be, he argues, a lot like facing the ugly truths of a disease before figuring out a way to treat and then prevent it. After all, leadership affects business and financial health—the very lifeblood of every human economy and every human life itself.


Major takeaways by role:


Play by today’s rules, but look to improve them. Although much current leadership theory calls for CEOs to possess admirable traits like authenticity and selflessness, it is still just theory. If you want to turn this behavior into practice, do so and measure its effects in your own actions. Use this data as evidence that these leadership qualities pay off.


Do your homework on C-suite candidates, beyond the standard background check. See if a potential executive hire has a track record of verbal abuse or a history of other unpleasant but common “leadership tactics” that aren’t easily measurable because it doesn’t show up in a standard credit check. Accept that no C-suite candidate is perfect, but commit to avoiding toxic leaders if you want to improve the state of leadership today.



Forgive, but don’t forget. If you make a poor financial decision or action, or are facing disappointing financial results, forgive yourself. Many executives in high-profile positions who have made colossal monetary missteps bounce back, whether this is “fair” or not. However, reminding yourself of the problem and its consequences will help you correct behavior moving forward.

Think like a doctor: painful experiences can lead to health. When you must make unpleasant decisions—say, allowing employees to use third-party systems and phasing out your company’s legacy tools and systems completely—your potentially unpopular actions can be understood as a surgical cut. It may hurt, but it’s for the best.

Become a role model for non-BS leadership Want to help turn the leadership industry into a respectable profession? If you and your company’s C-suite practice accountable leadership and produce data on the positive effects of ethical leadership, let the world know and find ways to help others accomplish it.

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