Many books on leadership are like fairy tales: Inspiring, but misleading about leadership that is actually effective in our real world. Real leadership — i.e. leadership based on evidence and science, and thus statistically more likely be effective in practice — is less commonly found in leadership teachings. Instead, what we often hear is “feel good leadership” that sounds good, but is often ineffective, or worse, counterproductive at worst.
Few books open our eyes by revealing truths hiding in plain sight. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is one. Leadership B.S. by Jeff Pfeffer is another.
Many books, lessons, and word-of-mouth teachings about leadership are misleading, misrepresentative of real world experience, and based on feel-good ideals. There are five reasons why several things we are taught about leadership and management are wrong.
- Lack of Rigor — Many leadership lessons based on someone’s experience are not based on a systematic analysis of complete data, comprehensive understanding of circumstances, and other available options at the time. What worked for the winner may be simply chance (luck), weakness of the opposition, or insufficiently acknowledged help from others.
- Before and After — The behaviors that lead a person to a powerful leadership position are often not the same as the good qualities the person assumes later in life after they are already successful. Take the case of Bill Gates, who as a competitive businessman was a different person from the kind, caring philanthropist he is today.
- Delusion — Human beings have a positive, good impressions of ourselves that are often not accurate. Studies have shown that about 80% of people believe they are better car drivers than average, better looking than average, and better human beings than others. The Overconfidence effect and above average effect are well documented. How a successful leader feels they act (morally) is often quite different from what they actually do based on observation.
- Deception — Human beings, especially successful ones, lie, mislead, and often don’t give away their coveted secrets that given them their competitive edge. There is plenty of scientific evidence that lying is a common daily habit.
- Leaving a Legacy — Many leadership books and articles are written to make the author look good, to build a good reputation and brand for the leader, and to make money. They are not primarily written for the purpose of making other people successful, even if the author thinks so. This could be due to delusion, deception, or a bit of both.
For the above reasons, my friend Jeff Pfeffer and I sometimes say that most leadership books and products should be labeled like packs of cigarettes: “Warning: This information will make you feel good in the short term, but is likely to be harmful to your effectiveness, career, and well-being.”
So how should you minimize your time and effort wasted learning ineffective leadership and management methods that are likely to backfire?
I highly recommend reading the excellent book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University. It was finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year and Best business book of the week selected by Inc.com. This book will help you identify real and effective leadership and management lessons based on evidence that are more likely to work than platitudes.
Disclosure: In the acknowledgements section of this book, Professor Pfeffer writes:
This book was inspired in part by my interactions with Rajiv Pant. It was Rajiv who first used the phrase “feel-good leadership literature.” It was Rajiv who provided some of the stories and examples incorporated in this book. But mostly it was Rajiv Pant who helped me see how much damage was occurring because of the current incarnation of the leadership industry. Rajiv’s support and friendship mean a great deal, not only for this book but in my life.
Pfeffer, Jeffrey. Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (pp. 221-222). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
My rating of this book: 5/5 stars.