Leadership B.S. – Fixing Worplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Jeffrey Pfeffer – Stanford Graduate School of Business
I have written often about the great work of Bob Sutton from Stanford University, and now his faculty colleague and sometimes writing partner Jeffrey Pfeffer has given us Leadership B.S. – Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. This book will soon rank highly in the best leadership and management books of all time, and should be devoured multiple times by leaders in all fields especially in education. After all, how can you ignore a book which starts like this: “Leaders fail their people, their organisations, the larger society, and even themselves with unacceptable frequency.”
This book is a challenge to the leadership industry in general – an industry which Pfeffer argues mostly ignores evidence and research, relies on personal histories and anecdotes and is virtually immune to accountability for results. The book is an attempt – and a highly successful one at that – to synthesise years of academic research in the fields of psychology, organisational behaviour and social science and debunk leadership nonsense and pseudo expertise.
Pfeffer argues that effective leadership in reality often looks very different to the ideals presented by leadership gurus. Pfeffer shows that there is an essential disconnect between the behaviours and traits that we desire in leaders and those that are actually displayed by leaders in many organisations. The leadership industry focuses on the desirable behaviours without any assessment of their effectiveness, or understanding of the undesirable behaviours of leaders which more frequently lead to success. This is why, Pfeffer argues, work is such a miserable place for so many, and why so many leaders and organisations fail and repeat each other’s mistakes.
In reading Pfeffer, I am reminded somewhat of the work of John Hattie in education. Not only in the empirical tone with which they both write, but in the attempt to bring comparative research to a field full of assumptions. Pfeffer like Hattie not only writes to debunk the things that do and don’t work, but writes to show what works best. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that this book resonates with me. Although things are changing in our field, Education is an industry prone to opinion, conviction and blind faith about what works from teachers and leaders alike. There is also a burgeoning market in professional learning and leadership development within education that suffers from the same flaws as the wider leadership industry outlined by Pfeffer in this book.
Pfeffer also rails against the feelgood nature of much of the leadership industry which supports “inspirational speakers”, business fables and uplifting messages instead of clear evidence. Perhaps the quote that best sums up Leadership BS comes from Pfeffer himself. Challenged on his views by a business executive at a conference for not being inspiring of uplifting enough, Pfeffer responds with: “I find it depressing that we would want to discuss the state of leadership in organisations from the perspective of what feels good and uplifting, rather than what the evidence shows to be true.” [emphasis mine] Thoughts that ring true for education as well.
In summary – read this book. It will challenge your assumptions and beliefs about leadership, and make you reflect more deeply about educational leadership.
By the way, if you’re looking for high level educational research that highlights the most effective leadership interventions in education, check out Viviane Robinsons work in her book Student Centered Leadership.