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Leadership Industry B.S.: Entertainment Vs. Enlightenment — Jeff Pfeffer

Contributor: Ali Ahmed

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he has taught since 1979.   He is the author or co-author of 14 books on topics including power in organizations, managing people, evidence-based management and author of more than 150 articles and book chapters. Professor Pfeffer has won numerous awards for his scholarly research.  He spoke with Stew Friedman about his just released book, Leadership B.S.:  Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time and what changes are needed in the “leadership industry.”

Stew Friedman: When I was in graduate school a fellow student referred to the articles we were reading in the premiere journal in our field, which is the Administrative Science Quarterly, as the “Administrative Science Pfefferly” to connote that in every single issue there was another profound article by Jeff Pfeffer. It’s a really great feeling to have him on the show.

Jeff Pfeffer: jeff pfefferIt’s a pleasure to be with you, Stew, and it is just a privilege to be talking to you this evening. Also, I’m privileged to be a signatory on the petition signed by many academics in favor of paid family leave. I think your work on the work family issue has just been outstanding, and it’s so important to make workplaces work for everybody.

SF: That’s really very gracious of you, and means a lot. You’ve been casting a keen and critical, evidence-based eye on organizations for so long, particularly on leaders. I’m curious to know, first, what inspired you to write Leadership BS? What has emerged recently that you just couldn’t ignore?

JF: That’s a great question because I had       not really ever intended to write this book or this kind of book. But the amount of hypocrisy and the cynicism that that hypocrisy spawns is just striking. You see these leaders, they come to Stanford and I’m sure they come to Wharton. They tell wonderful stories about themselves, and about how they would like to be seen and presented, which bear almost no resemblance of the realities of how they lead and how they conduct themselves.

SF: And everybody knows that, right?

JF: And everybody knows that. It provokes an enormous amount of hypocrisy and cynicism. In fact, as I began to think about this, it occurred to me that we have had decades – maybe five, or six, or seven decades – of this leadership industry talking about aspirational views of how leaders ought to be.    And I agree that leaders ought to be modest, authentic, they ought to tell the truth, they ought to do many things. But of course when you look at real leader behavior, it’s pretty much the opposite. And when you look at the condition of workplaces, not only in the U.S. but around the world, they’re in pretty dire shape. And so it occurred to me that the leadership industry had not only failed to make things better, but that by telling these stories that bear no resemblance to reality and having this kind of aspirational, feel-good quality to then, it was not doing anything to cause anybody to get off their butts and try to do anything to make the world of work better. And so it occurred to me if anything was ever going to be better, somebody had to look at what was going on and tell the truth about it.

SF: And you draw the very useful analogy to medicine a hundred years ago.  Explain how you came up with that idea and how it helps us to understand the argument you are making.

JF: We’ve known for hundreds of years that hygienic practices are important in preventing hospital-acquired or iatrogenic illnesses. And so we’ve done the studies that have shown that hand-washing is good for preventing illness.  Nonetheless the medical industry has done something the leadership industry has never done, which is to say, “We know hand-washing is a good thing, but let’s look and see how many doctors really wash their hands.”  When they found that many of them don’t wash their hands, instead of having more stories, or more admonitions, or inspirational talks, they looked at what interventions they might use that would cause doctors to do some of the things they ought to do, such as better hand-washing and other hygienic regimens.  The leadership industry does not have base rates. All these desirable leadership behaviors are occurring, and because we never measure the base rates, we can never evaluate any interventions as to whether or not those interventions are making things better or worse.  If you fail to do that, nothing is ever going to get better because if you don’t know if you’re getting better, you don’t know the success of what you’re trying to do.

SF:  What would it require to measure base rates? What would we have to do to establish that?

JF: First of all, the leadership industry needs to define the constructs more precisely. A chaired professor at Duke University, somebody who you probably know, Sim Sitkin, has written a very nice review on what’s wrong with charismatic leadership. And one of the problems with charismatic leadership is that the construct is defined in a way that makes it almost un-measurable.  But I still think you can define precisely what you mean by servant leadership, by serving others, by authenticity, and so on. The first thing you do is measure the frequency of such characteristics in the populations you’re using. If you’ve found, and this would be my guess, that they’re relatively rare, especially among senior leaders, then you need to ask the question, “why is that?” Why are desirable qualities that research has shown do lead to healthier and more productive workplaces, why are they so rare among leaders? And what might we do to increase their frequency?

SF: So, employee engagement and trust is low in the world today — in business and in societies, as you point out.  Aside the impact that improved leadership performance might have, what else do you see causing the problem of disengagement and low trust?

JF: Well, I think leader behavior is one source. I participated once on a panel in restoring trust in leadership with Mr. Edelman, the head of Edelman who does the trust index in public relations to restore trust. I’d do that by stop whining to people, which of course has gone on.   Companies increasingly see their employees not as assets, but as costs that have to be minimized, and so you have fewer employees being employed full-time. Fewer employees are getting health insurance from their employer than ever.  Companies have cut wages, they’ve cut benefits, they’ve laid people off over the years. All of this would lead to not just lower employer engagement, but adverse health consequences for employees who face enormous levels of economic insecurity and difficulties in accessing healthcare.

SF: Do you see this fraying of the relationship between labor and management as something that is increasing?  Where does leadership play a role in trying to strengthen the connection that employees do have or can have to their organizations and to their own personal health and their families and their communities?

JF:  The relationships are certainly fraying. As your colleague and good friend of mine, Peter Cappelli, has said in his book, New Deal at Work, and in the subsequent research, there’s a lot of data that suggests that job tenures are going down, and that the percentage of part-time and contract laborers has gone up. And as I’ve already alluded to, benefits are going down. There is certainly a lot of fraying of the relationship. Research done by our colleagues in the human resources management area, such as by Tom Kochan at MIT, has demonstrated that these are strategic choices made by companies. You do not have to outsource, downsize, or pay people nothing, in order to be successful. When Cascio did the study comparing Sam’s Club to Costco, he found that Costco is more profitable even though it pays more and offers more benefits. The so-called high road approach dealing with your work force has been written about by Tom Kochan, and Paul Osterman, and by a variety of people over the years. This is a strategic choice that some leaders have and it’s a choice that is motivated in part by the idea that people are indispensable. It’s interesting to me that we are very concerned with environmental pollution, and companies now report their environmental bona fides, how much carbon they emit in the atmosphere, how much recycling they do, and so on and so forth. I keep pointing out to people that in addition to environmental pollution, we ought to be concerned about social pollution.

SF: How would you do that?

JF:  It turns outs that there is a single item measure of self-reported health (SRH). It basically asks people on a scale of 1 to 10, how good they feel, from feeling horribly to feeling very good. And this prospectively predicts mortality and morbidity. And it does so almost as well as physiological measures, such as body mass index and so on and so forth.

SF: That’s easy to acquire – that information.

JF: It’s very easy to acquire. Part of this is we need companies to measure health data of their employees. Second, just as we now hold companies responsible for their environmental impact, I think we ought to hold companies responsible for their impact on the wellbeing and welfare of their work force. I mean Gallop, as you know, has partnered with Health Ways, and they do their wellbeing index, measuring how that varies across geographies, and so on and so forth.  That’s also very interesting data for us and another way of measuring this. But we ought to be concerned about human wellbeing. As I know, you are doing at the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project.

SF: I’d like to try to bring this back to what you have composed here in critiquing the leadership industry. There seems to be a missing link between what we are aspiring to produce in our leaders – which is people who can take us to a better place – and what we’re actually producing. We’re not really emphasizing enough what’s required to create a leadership cadre of people who are dedicated not just to economic outcomes, but to human and social outcomes as well.

JF:  That’s exactly right. And it’s one of the conundrums I have highlighted in this book, Leadership B.S, but which I have not been able to solve.  Here’s the dilemma: the qualities that we claim we want in leaders – modesty, authenticity, telling the truth, taking care of others, etc. – are precisely the opposite of the qualities that actually make people successful. And by successful, I mean we know that narcissism (which I would argue is the opposite of modesty) has been reliably shown to be predictive of getting chosen for leadership roles, maintaining those roles, getting higher salaries, getting more successful, and some of the most successful leaders are narcissists. Michael Maccoby wrote this wonderful book called, The Productive Narcissist and talks about that.   The irony is then, there are a lot of reasons ranging from sociobiology to social psychology that explain this, but the qualities we claim that we want to see in leaders are exactly the opposite of the qualities we seem to be selecting for and exactly the opposite of the qualities that bring people individual success. So, there is individual success, which is often earned at the expense of the organization or social system’s success, and that is a conundrum or dilemma that denies so many.

SF: So, please go further with this issue of the disconnect between what we aspire to and what we do.  What ideas do you have for what organizations and individuals in organizations can be doing to ensure that they can start to produce those kinds of leaders that we would hope for as well as those that we actually see in the world today?

JF: Some years ago, when I used to write columns for Business 2.0 when Business 2.0 still existed, I wrote a column about lying, and as it occurred to me in the course of doing the work for that column, that a lie takes two people; the person who tells it and the other individual who wants to hear it. And so, in many ways we are our own worst enemy. We are complicit in many of the failures of the leadership industry. It is the consumers of the leadership industry’s products that want entertainment rather than enlightenment. It is the consumers of the leadership industry and the people who are selecting leaders who say we want leaders – I heard this story recently, even about the vaunted General Electric –who get good results, but only in the right way.   But then they are willing to make the tradeoff to get the good financial results, no matter the human toll that is exacted. So, it is we who are complicit.  In the Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld article that came out about Amazon recently, it’s just more controversy about this. One of the things I did in a Fortune column about that article is to look at the overlap between the most admired leaders and the most admired companies, and the best places to work. And not surprisingly, there is almost no overlap. Only four companies are on both those lists. So, we admire leaders who behave badly and exact huge tolls on their work force as long as they produce great financial results. That is something we are all individually and collectively responsible for.

SF:  There is something about those who seem to be the pinnacle of corporate society who have somehow belied this image of the grand and moral philosopher king that we all wish to have leading us to a better world, and that’s painful. So, as consumers what is available to us to start to deal more with that reality, that gap between what we wish for and what we’re actually paying for?

JF: First of all, we ought to do due diligence on leaders; we ought to do a little investigation. If I said to you tonight, I have discovered a cure for cancer and I’m going to sell it to you for $500 million, which by the way had I actually discovered the cure for cancer, that’d probably be the biggest bargain in history, before you write me a check for $500 million my suspicion would be you would do a fair amount of due diligence to figure out whether I knew what I was doing, and whether or not the cure that I have discovered actually had any positive therapeutic effects. When we make individual financial investment decisions or collective financial investment decisions, we do our due diligence. But when we listen to the leadership talks, the blogs, the TED talks, read the books, and hear the inspirational speeches, we want to believe. It’s almost like we want to believe in Santa Claus or something. So, we almost actively avert our eyes, as opposed to accepting the reality that every human being in the world is neither a complete saint nor a complete sinner. That there we’re all mixed individuals and have a combination of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. So, we ought to be more clinical and do our due diligence on leaders. There are sites like Glassdoor. Many things are available now since every courtroom in this country is automated and you can find case filings. You can find information.  You can talk to people. And you can find out whether the stories you are hearing are true or not. And while it is uncomfortable oftentimes to confront the truth, my favorite movie scene is Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in Few Good Men – “You can’t handle the truth.” I do believe that not only can people handle the truth, but we need the truth. Because the only way we’re going to get from where we are with this low level of employee engagement is to understand realities of the situation, why we are where we are and measure our progress toward improving things.

SF: And that means really seeing a person for who she is or he is, as a flawed human being who is perhaps aspiring to doing the right thing, but has limited capacity, limited ability to see the world from different perspectives and is going to make mistakes.  When I have guests come to class, I ensure that they speak as much as possible, if not solely, about the various ways in which they have screwed up because I find that’s what students are really interested in hearing about. Because they see the gloss, but if you cut through that with the real story I find that helps people to see Oz. There’s a human being – I can still be successful and be flawed. So, does this resonate with what you’re suggesting, Jeff?

JF: Absolutely. The idea of having leaders talk about their flaws, the idea of having people look deeply into how leaders are actually doing, and when you see people behaving in interesting and funny and difficult and maybe even problematic ways, to not say, which I hear all the time, “Well, this person is wealthy and so it must be ok,” or “This person is successful.”  “This person is on the most admired list and built this great company.” You see this with the CEO of Uber. You see this with the CEO of Amazon. You see this with many CEO’s, where people will say “well, yeah…” I just read this wonderful blog, which refers to my book, but also talks about the new movie about Steve Jobs;  Brook Manville, who used to be a consultant for McKinsey, said the interesting thing about Jobs is that Jobs had all these flaws and was not the nicest human being to work for, but people would say, you know, he built the iPhone, he built the most valuable company on the planet and therefore, the fact that he behaved hideously, in some respects at least according to some people, we’re going to give him a little pass on that. But we don’t do that in the environmental field. I mean I don’t say, “Well Stew, your running Freedom Enterprises and you’re producing a great product, but you’re fowling the water and the air, but I’ll give you a pass because you’re successful.”  We don’t give people a pass on that anymore. We say you need to produce a great product at a good price, but you also need to do it in a way that maintains the integrity of the physical environment. And I believe we ought to have the same requirements for maintaining the social environment.

SF: I could not agree with you more. Jeff, I am afraid we have run out of time here. There is so much more I want to ask you about, but I am afraid we must conclude. Your work on taking down the leadership industry or really getting us to see it in a fresh light and what it really means for us to be growing leaders who can make a difference in our society is really so important, so refreshing, so provocative, and so useful.

About the Author

Ali Ahmed is an undergraduate senior majoring in Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in Cinema Studies.

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