Is the leadership industry just nonsense?

I’m pretty cynical about “Leadership” and enjoyed Jeffrey Pfeffer’s attack on the Leadership industry. He suggests that the industry is built on un-researched platitudes and that every retired leader who writes a book doesn’t necessarily tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

To be fair leadership theories are hard to test. We can’t test the impact of honesty by running an experiment where we make some leaders lie while making their clones in identical organizations tell the truth. That said we can ensure that what is said doesn’t directly contradict what we know from other disciplines or seem divorced from reality.

As Pfeffer says: “There are two ways to understand the many leadership failures that fill the daily news. One might be called the “”bad apple” theory.” (Pfeffer, 2015, page 2). This seems to fly in the face of everything we know about context influencing decision making. Pfeffer is surely correct, therefore, to focus on the second approach, exploring the systematic processes, despite it providing fewer opportunities for self-satisfied moral indignation.

How does Pfeffer think we can improve management? “Measure and Hold People Accountable” (Pfeffer, 2015, page 27). I think this is critical for leaders and have a personal rule never to take seriously anyone who won’t tell you how to measure their success. Pfeffer isn’t a fan of “Inspiration” and thinks too often that the leadership industry sells uplifting stories of good triumphing. This is gives people false impressions about how others will behave at work while also justifying the status quo. If we think leaders are paragons of virtue it is a shock when cuts come and, as it typical, it isn’t the leaders who suffer most. Pfeffer is willing to tell the truth about the way organizations are often run even if this truth is a bit depressing.

He advises: “Stop confusing the normative with the descriptive” (Pfeffer, 2015, page 203). Don’t describe what leadership should be but what it is. If we are to improve we can’t pretend that most leaders are already perfect.

“The answer to how to be a better leader also depends upon knowing the environment you are in.” (Pfeffer, 2015, page 211). It is amazing how often leadership advice seems to ignore context. You aren’t a Macedonian King so you may have to behave a little a little differently to Alexander the Great.

If Pfeffer encourages even one person to take “Leadership” experts a bit less seriously that sounds like progress to me.

Read: Jeffrey Pfeffer (2015) Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, Harper Business