Marketing Thought

Leadership, Power, And Morality

One of the things that struck me about Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power was its amorality. Generally speaking, I agree with him but even I was left a bit uncomfortable at times. Pfeffer clearly sees power as something you gain in order to achieve things with it. Power isn’t really anything to do with morality. Leadership, power, and morality are largely separate in his view.

Why Do I Sympathize With Pfeffer?

In many ways, I believe his view comes from a moral position. He rejects the idea of a just world that seems to infect too much leadership work. Some leadership books read like a boys’ own adventure where the good guys inevitably triumph. This isn’t the case, and it is a little nauseating to see those on top being lauded as moral leaders. We all know there is a reasonable chance that we’ll find out they were awful but this will only happen when they no longer control the levers of power and so can’t intimidate people into fawning. I would also say that leadership writers telling us about heroes who fought social problems, e.g., racism, while celebrating bigots of yesteryear is especially galling. (This entire paragraph directly relates to J.B. Steenkamp’s Time To Lead, see here).

Loyalty Is A Two Way Street

It is hard to argue with Pfeffer’s view of the problem of loyalty in modern US business. Firms that are not loyal to their staff can’t reasonably expect much in return. Should you worry about an employer who is not worrying about you? If you are teaching leadership or leading please think about what Pfeffer says. If you want loyalty you have to show it. When COVID hit and firms did not protect their workers it was not a good look.

Loyalty Between Employer And Employee

Leadership, Power, And Morality

Pfeffer though does push the reader to slightly uncomfortable places. He says that higher-status people get more scrutinized. His advice is clear; if a tad amoral.

An important lesson: if you are going to misbehave in any way do so before you achieve a high-level position that makes you the object of constant attention by peers, subordinates, superiors, and the media.

Pfeffer, 2010, page 184

Or just don’t misbehave might be the alternative advice. (See here for more on the perils of status).

Fancy A Pay Raise?

Pfeffer is very realistic about compensation in companies. He tells the story of the chair of a compensation committee (this committee recommends CEO pay) who wasn’t willing to go along with excessive pay rises. The CEO was annoyed and, showing admirable energy and ability which did not seem to be evident looking at the firm’s performance, bullied the board into approving the pay rise. Then the compensation committee chair was expelled from the board. The message: it really does help if you can control the people who recommend your pay level.

Too Far

Maybe in 2022 we are just more sensitive but Pfeffer seemed to go beyond the sensibly cynical. He noted the case of a university faced with demands for better treatment of women.

the administrative response was brilliant and effective: the university established a committee on the Status of Women, gave the committee some stationery, a budget, and a modest amount of office space….and told the committee to study the facts and come up with recommendations.

Pfeffer, 2010, page 168

Did it work? It depends upon how you define success. You might think the appropriate solution was to find a way to treat women better. It didn’t work at all on that front. But it did kick the issue into the long grass as those co-opted onto the committee focused more on their budget and forgot about causing discomfort for the university administrators.

I’m not sure I can agree that the response was ‘brilliant’. Perhaps I am in danger of seeing a need for leadership, power, and morality to work together, at least a little?

Still, I think people should read Pfeffer’s advice rather than one hundred books where the leader tells us that their care for the little people motivates everything they do while they speak from a yacht their lackies on the compensation committee enabled.

For more on Pfeffer’s work see here, here and here.

Read: Jeffrey Pfeffer (2010) Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, Harper Collins

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