Leadership BS Notes

Pfeffer, Jeffrey. (2015). Leadership BS. New York: Harper Business

As you might have guessed from the title, this book is not for everyone. While it should be, it is not. After all, there are many executives in many industries who feel that there is little reason to think about or analyze their leadership. That may have a long-term impact on their effectiveness as a person and the success of the organization. Call it “hubris” if you will.

But there are those, however, who see life as a never-ending series of growth and learning opportunities. Call that “humility” if you will. But these are the executives that will profit most from Pfeffer’s book. Leadership BS is for those who have a keen interest in improving their performance daily and over time- personally and professionally.

One additional note — reading this book is easy because of its organization — copious supporting factual references and stories accompany all his major points. The challenge of this book is to think about, seriously and deeply, how the subject matter relates to your own experiences in your organization. What possibilities open for you as you read? It might be helpful to have another individual or two to think about the ideas in the book collectively and verbalize your thoughts about leadership and its challenges.

The opening sentence in the Preface introduces Pfeffer’s intention for the first part of this book: “If we want to change a world with too many leadership failures, too many career derailments, and too many toxic workplaces, we must begin by acknowledging the facts and understanding why we are where we are. Only then will we begin to enjoy long-delayed progress.” So Pfeffer will look at facts, scientific evidence, studies, stories and other evidence to determine where we are with respect to the practice of leadership.

It’s clear that leadership is important to many people — leaders, practitioners, scholars and the general public. Leadership has been written upon extensively and has been the subject of many films. For example, when he searched Google (“leadership”), he obtained 140 million links to the term; an Amazon search of “leadership” produced 117,000 entries. People clearly see the topic as being very important.

Pfeffer likens the practice of leadership now to the practice of medicine at roughly the turn of the 20th century. At that time, “almost anyone could practice medicine “…as no credentials, experience, or particular knowledge [was] required”. Furthermore, “…conceptual confusion and imprecision abound in the leadership industry.” And many medical schools were more interested in financial gain than in the science of medicine.

Abraham Flexner was tasked by the Carnegie Foundation to inspect the medical landscape and issue a report. He did so in 1910. Flexner and the report were credited with revolutionizing the medical profession operating on “…the biomedical, scientific foundation” it is today.

Having realized that leadership practice was similar to the practice of medicine at the turn of the 20th century, Pfeffer’s goal in this book is to survey the field of leadership practice, including the teaching about leadership. This book amounts to a “report” of the realities on the ground (as it is now taught and practiced) in hopes that people will rethink and redesign leadership development in light of more scientific evaluations.

Pfeffer’s initial argument is that things are pretty bad. He argues that leaders fail customers. For example, airline executives in creating unpleasant experiences for their best customers, Amazon not carrying certain products because of arguments with suppliers, and banks inaccurately foreclosing on homes.

Leaders fail their stockholders. For example, Rick Wagoner leading General Motors into bankruptcy, Richard Fuld leading Lehman Brothers to nonexistence, and Ed Lampert taking an iconic Sears into mediocrity.

And leaders also fail their employees at Merrill Lynch, Hewlett-Packard, and airlines across the board (except Southwest Airlines) as wages are reduced, the number of workers is cut, and pension funds are imperiled.

Accompanying the many public failures of leadership is the failure of an enormous leadership industry existing for many years, ostensibly teaching leaders how to perform better and instructing initiates new to the field. What has emerged over the years is a set of amorphous agreements about how the best leaders should act: tell the truth, be authentic, inspire trust, serve others, be modest, and exhibit an understanding of emotional intelligence. These industry-wide “recommendations” about what leaders should be stand next to the evidence describing workers as disengaged and dissatisfied to the point where they’d like to leave. So there is very little evidence that the teachings of the industry have made much of impact on the workplace.

The author goes on to describe leadership training and development as not so much science as “lay preaching.” Inspiring stories about heroic leaders and exceptional organizations often make participants in conferences and training sessions feel good but are unlikely to translate into long-term behavior changes on the ground to improve the craft of leadership practice or that mollify disengagement and distrust to improve the experience of working.

He concludes that, despite the large and relatively old leadership development industry, there are “too few good leaders, [and] too many bad ones.”

Pfeffer proceeds to take a look at the common shibboleths regarding leadership practice of the leadership industry. With story, studies, and facts he dismantles their apparent “truths.”

1 – Why inspiration and fables cause problems and fix nothing

So what’s the problem with telling stories of unique and successful individuals and/or using those as inspiration to teach about leadership? Pfeiffer tells a wonderful story about being accosted at dinner one evening in a restaurant by a participant in one of his training programs. The program participant approached Pfeffer’s table and, in a rather loud voice, complained that, while Pfeffer taught what the research literature says, the program was inadequate because “… I came to this program for inspiration.” Pfeffer’s rather amusing response is illustrative of his faith in science and the intellectual pursuit of answers to problems. “If you want inspiration, go to a play, read an inspiring book, listen to great music, go to an art museum, or read some great treatises on religion or philosophy. I am a social scientist, not a lay preacher.” Pfeffer concludes by writing that he was surprised at the participant’s word — “inspiration” — and that he didn’t “…see many medical schools, architecture programs, physics departments, engineering schools, law schools, or computer science departments advertising their classes as ‘inspiring.’ Useful, rigorous, well-delivered, innovative, scientifically-based courses and programs that provide a foundation of knowledge for effective professional practice — certainly. But inspiring? Probably not.” If you are sincerely interested in changing the nature of work and leadership in a productive organization you are in need of facts, the latest research, and new ideas. But the leadership industry is keen on delivering what the customers want, excluding social science.

Of course, the problem of leadership development by fable and interesting stories is compromised further by the reality of stories – they may be fabricated, filled with self-deception, exaggerated, and incomplete as they lack the scientific scrutiny of data surrounding actual events.

When people go back to their work environments and measure inspiring stories against the reality of daily life in many organizations, they can become cynical — another downside of the story/fable approach by the leadership industry. As the author concludes, “In our quest for inspiration over insight, we wind up with neither.”

The author continues to describe other serious and injurious consequences to using the story/fable approach to leadership development over the studied, scientific approach. There is much to learn from the failures of leadership and he concludes that inspiration doesn’t produce lasting change.

2 – Modesty? NOT!

Modesty is another often-identified trait by the leadership industry that successful leaders supposedly practice. Pfeffer quotes Sen. Bill Bradley and Jim Collins who cited modesty as one of the qualities leaders need to be effective. Pfeiffer also quotes a Yale management professor, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who focuses on Donald Trump’s leadership style as being immodest when he calls it “puffery, pushiness, and deception” in a Wall Street Journal editorial.

It’s easy to see why modesty seems so important. People, in general, aren’t going to work as hard for the “leaders project” as they will for their own or their team’s project. People prefer having the ability to work on projects that are theirs so they can creatively apply their talents and have others associate them with the project. Leaders who hog the spotlight and credit are often seen in a negative light and people who work for them will reduce their efforts given that the project is not theirs. Those leaders who are more modest our better liked and admired and so are likely to have their workers more enthusiastically climb on board.

Related to these points is research that shows boastful presenters are the least effective in garnering positive evaluations while those who temper their modesty about their abilities garner better evaluations at the end. In addition, leaders who spend lots of their time publicly promoting themselves are seen as wasting valuable time, while they could be working productively on company or project goals.

Pfeiffer cites lots of studies and statistics to prove the above points. However, he also cites Michael Maccoby (2007) Narcissistic Leaders that equates visionary leaders with some reasonable degree of narcissism. Pfeffer notes the dictionary definition that narcissism includes a grandiose sense of self-importance, arrogant behavior or attitudes; a preoccupation with fantasies; a strong fixation on associating with high-status people and/or organizations — to name just a few characteristics. Given these elements, he includes Michael Eisner, Ken Lay, Joseph Stalin and Pres. George W Bush in this category. (And from what was said about Donald Trump earlier my guess is he would include Trump as well.)

As leadership roles are often ambiguous, questions frequently arise as to what a leader should do after she’s chosen. Was she the best person for the job? Pfeffer indicates that in this milieu “confirmation bias” operates with a “vengeance”. Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek out and interpret information that will confirm their biases. Discrepant information is devalued or ignored.

Pfeiffer points out that narcissists (self-aggrandizing and self-promoting) generally are more extroverted and have higher self-esteem than other people. So they tend to be noticed and chosen as leaders to fill a void. And once chosen as a leader (again practicing self-aggrandizement and self-promotion), “confirmation bias” tends to reinforce the idea that you are “the” leader for the job.

While the above may be seen as positive leadership behavior, Pfeffer points to research that shows grandiose narcissism “… tied to independently rated and objective indicators of presidential success [and] is associated with several indicators of negative presidential performance, especially in the ethical domain [and] is more elevated in U.S. Presidents than in the general population.” So much for modesty as a characteristic of a successful leader.

3 – Authenticity: misunderstood and overrated

Another leadership capacity that seems to be the consensus in the leadership industry is “authenticity,” which is “…being in touch with and exhibiting their true feelings.”

Regardless of how they personally feel at any given moment, leaders need to show, with great energy, that they understand and are in control of situations. Further, they need to pay attention to information and people in order to decide which is the proper way to react. Public face is important to leaders and must be preserved.

The author then points out that the last thing that a leader needs to do is act “authentic” when there are important demands that the leader must recognize and deal with. In other words, the leader needs to be true to the situation at hand, not him/herself. What do a situation and the people around them require to ensure that the situation is dealt with successfully?

While there are many organizations that ostensibly teach leaders to be authentic, a closer look shows that authenticity involves value-laden judgments; prescriptions characterized by lots of “should,” “oughts,” “need tos,” and “musts” may be “…fundamentally misguided.” There are no base rates that explain how frequent or pervasive “authentic leadership” is. And base rates are needed to estimate the impact on behavior change to answer the question, “how would one know if authentic leadership development, leadership training, writing, speaking, coaching, or teaching was doing any good if there were no comparisons between the initial state of the world and what happened as a consequence of all these activities?” Taking another swipe at the “leadership industry,” Pfeiffer says “… in medicine, people seem to believe that it might be important to understand the scope, ecology, and geographic incidents of a phenomenon, none of which seems to be of concern to the leadership industry.”

“Leaders need to be and do what their followers and society require, not what the leader feels like being or doing at the moment. … the simple fact is that as a prescription for leadership, being true to your role, fulfilling your obligations regardless of your wants and desires, doing what will make you successful in the environment in which you are working, our behaviors are likely to be much more useful than being true to yourself and your feelings at the moment. After all, what if your real self is an a!#hole”? (Reference to another book Pfeffer’s collague at Stanford, Bob Sutton, favorably cited previously in the text.) And there may come a time as one advances in one’s career that you need to put aside personal dislikes so a team can work successfully for the organization.

“True to yourself” changes over time. Experiences change your values and perceptions over time. So what is “authenticity” as learning and adapting never cease?

One of his concluding thoughts is the necessity to become “usefully inauthentic”. That is, “…confidence as much as competence determines success, and successful people are not bashful about promoting themselves and eschewing any feelings of modesty in the process.” “One of the most important leadership skills is the ability to put on a show, to act like a leader, to act in a way that inspires confidence and garners support — even if the person doing the performance does not actually feel confident or powerful.”

4 – Should leaders tell the truth and do they?

From many directions comes the belief that lying is awful. Pfeffer points to the story of George Washington who could not lie when confronted about who cut down the cherry tree. It is a story familiar to most and it is told to youngsters to inculcate the value of truth-telling no matter what. As it turns out, Parson Weems, who was a book agent and author, apparently concocted the story in order to boost sales of a biography he wrote about Washington. Interesting that a lie points to a “truth.”

In addition to the story cited above to emphasize the importance of telling the truth for everyone, including the first President of the United States, truth-telling is often a foundational belief of religion. And many sources of leadership advice tell readers that candor, honesty, and transparency are very important values in the practice of leadership.

Besides all that, practicing honesty in leadership positions seems to be incredibly important to success. After all, if subordinates or bosses or peers find out you have lied, you’ve squandered their trust, also very important in leadership. Also, if leaders lie, how will anyone in the organization know what the truth is and how to best to react to crises, not being able to ascertain reality.

Pfeffer, however, points to studies that consistently show over time that lying is a common and customary amongst people. Also, leaders from all sorts of organizations also lie (e.g. TEPCO, one of numerous examples cited). There are few consequences for lying and, as Pfeffer points out, positive results very often accrue from not telling the truth.

Many stories related in the text point to an unmistakable fact: lying (or not telling the whole truth) is common across many industries and occupations. As Pfeffer points out: “…sometimes survival demands that you do what prevails in the ecosystem in which you are competing.” So, if others are not telling the truth, so-called “fudging the facts,” then, in order to compete successfully, we need to do the same to survive. Lying helps people get powerful positions as well. Lies occur in negotiations; public service; scientific experiments; business and banking; Silicon Valley; online dating. Misrepresenting reality (not telling the full truth, fudging the facts, overlooking some evidence) may, in fact, be a leadership skill.

The author concluded by warning: “But by ignoring the evidence, the social science facts about deception, or, for that matter, any other topic pertaining to leadership, by pretending that common behaviors aren’t really that common, we miss the important opportunity to understand the social world as it is—the first step on the road to changing it.”

5 — Trust: where did it go, and why?

Trust is in short supply generally when it comes to average people trusting government entities and business leaders. So much of what we see on TV and read about in the popular press reinforces those views. Despite this exposure to untrustworthiness, “People expect trustworthy, honest behavior and react when they don’t see or receive it.” And despite the ubiquitous dearth of trust in leadership and organizations, most organizations continue to operate though trust is minimally present. While there are very public and large or massive abuses of trust, there also “…seems to be only limited consequences for violations of trust.”

Despite all of this—media exposés and the veritable lack of adverse consequences to those who abuse trust—people generally expect trustful behavior of others, a kind of “unwarranted optimism.”

Pfeffer concludes: “So yes, trust is a quality widely touted as being helpful, indeed essential, for good leadership. There’s only one problem: it is largely missing in most leaders and in most work organizations. You need to understand why, so you don’t get fooled again.”

6-Why Leaders “Eat” First

Among the topics that Pfeffer takes on here is Servant Leadership- the belief that the leader’s job is to look after the well-being of the followers as opposed to looking after organizational wellness. And his criticism about the lack of science is repeated: it is the measure of the impact of this leadership style on an organization’s culture.

Pfeffer also points to numerous leaders who have “messed up” yet leave with very lucrative severance packages while regular employees experience job and/or wage cuts. And he cites a study that confirms 725% growth in chief executive compensation from 1978 to 2011 while worker compensation increased 5.7% during the same period.

These and other studies validate the idea that leaders really do think of maximizing their own economic position rather than eating “last”. There are some organizations (e.g. Ben and Jerry’s) who specify executive salary related to a percentage higher than front line workers pay.

There is too much richness in Pfeffer’s Leadership BS to tell all here. While he spends much of the book taking apart the unscientific nature of leadership training, he does suggest throughout the book various corrective measures that organizations can institute to begin a new, more knowledgeable and scientific approach to leadership development. And, maybe most important of all, he gives advice to leaders who are sincerely interested in learning more about themselves as leaders. For example, he credits Marshall Goldsmith for his executive coaching program because Goldsmith asks executives to question themselves daily and to rate themselves on specific behaviors “…that have the greatest impact on their personal and professional objectives. Systematically and regularly reflecting on behavior, and even better, measuring such behavior, is much more likely to produce substantive change than mere storytelling…”

Flexner, maybe not. But there are crucial thoughts in Leadership BS that help us see why our approach to leadership development has yielded a paucity of results. Framed as it is in this book, it’s clear we have a lot of different work to start on and, in that regard, this is a book for every leader and organization.


Maccoby, M. (2007). Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds and Who Fails. New York: Crown.

Sutton, R. (2007). The No Asshole Rule. New York: Business Plus.