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It’s time to get real about leadership


Aspiring slavishly to contemporary ideals is a sure route to failure, according to Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, writing for Stanford Business.

Can you tick all the boxes on the popular checklist of attributes for successful leaders? Over the past few decades the qualities prescribed by the corporate training industry have focused on authenticity, trustworthiness, modesty, empathy, emotional intelligence and a desire to serve others – especially your employees.

But is there any evidence that this recipe actually works? No, there isn’t, according to Pfeffer – in spite of the billions of dollars spent in the USA each year on management training. The leadership industry is a failure, and the modern workplace remains largely flawed and filled with disgruntled and detached employees.

In his new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, the professor challenges the idealistic model and urges us to tip it on its head by adopting an approach rooted in reality.


A key pitfall is how our celebrity culture directs us to aspire to the exceptional success stories of legendary figures like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Pfeffer says it’s wise to remember that these are just stories, often with the negativity and failure edited out.

“All those stories and the inspiration we get from them change nothing,” he says. “The fundamental problem with this industry is the disconnect between what we say we want from our leaders and how they actually manage organisations.”


Where exactly are we going wrong? Pfeffer starts by throwing the “nice” advice out the window and setting some records straight.

He says:

  • We need to accept that on the whole, great leaders are not, and should not be, truthful, authentic, modest and trustworthy all of the time.
  • Being a convincing liar can be a great tool for advancement and a skilled manipulator can build a strong foundation of social power.
  • Authenticity – or being true to yourself – holds you back. Leaders need to adapt to each situation and act accordingly. “Each of us plays a number of different roles in our lives, and people behave and think differently in each of those roles, so demanding authenticity doesn’t make sense.”
  • The ability to “put on a show” is one of the most important leadership skills to master. Playing the right role at the right time is essential.

With the idealised model so firmly established – and bringing the corporate training industry handsome annual turnovers – Pfeffer says strength of leadership will only improve when there is more clinical evaluation of development strategies. We need some useful data to analyse, instead of woolly questionnaires filled out by participants at the end of leadership training sessions.

In the meantime, if doggedly aspiring to an outmoded model of leadership behaviour is guaranteed to lead to disappointment, perhaps it’s worth testing out some of the professor’s advice.

Source Article: The leadership industry has failed
Author(s): Jeffrey Pfeffer