Marketing Thought

Is The Leadership Industry Just Nonsense?

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

Testing Leadership

To be fair leadership theories are hard to test. We can’t test the impact of honesty by running an experiment. Ideally, we would make some leaders lie while making their clones in identical organizations tell the truth. We can certainly ensure that what is said doesn’t directly contradict what we know from other disciplines. Ideally, advice will also not 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. This is to explore the systematic processes. Such an approach is better despite it providing fewer opportunities for self-satisfied moral indignation.

Bad Apples: Not Good Theory, Not Good For Eating Either, Photo By Elizabeth Makes Photos On Pexels,com

Improving Management

How does Pfeffer think we can improve management?

“Measure and Hold People Accountable”

Pfeffer, 2015, page 27

I think this is critical for leaders. A good 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 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. The truth may be depressing at times yet Pfeffer aims to tell the truth about the way organizations are often run.

What Leadership Is, Not What It Should Be

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. You may have to behave a little differently to Alexander the Great.

Is The leadership Industry Just Nonsense?

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

For more on dubious leadership thinking see here, here, here, and here.

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