Leadership B.S. by Stanford University Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer (Book Review)

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.

  1. 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.
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  2. 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.
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  3. 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.
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  4. 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.
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  5. 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.

Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage (Book Review)

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I find many books on leadership to be fairy tales: Inspiring to read, but misleading about leadership that is actually effective in our real world. Real leadership — leadership that is based on evidence and science, and thus statistically more likely be effective in practice as opposed to “feel good leadership” — is less commonly found in leadership books. Mandela’s Way, written by Richard Stengel, a respected journalist, is one of the few books about leadership lessons from the real world presented with journalistic integrity.

My rating of this book: 5/5 stars.

Your Brain At Work (Book Review)

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Let me tell you a story about my friends Emily and Paul.

Emily and Paul were struggling in their demanding jobs and in managing their busy family life raising young children at home.

Emily, a marketing manager at a company, had recently earned a promotion to VP and was finding it challenging to supervise the team comprised of people who were her peers until recently. Paul, an independent software engineer and project manager, was running into problems completing the proposal for a software development project for his client, managing his subcontractors, and determining the best way to architect and implement the software product.

Their workdays were burdened with email overload, filled with meetings, and interrupted by phone calls at the most inopportune moments. They multitasked during meetings, responding to emails on their smartphones1 while missing important discussions and failing to pick on subtle (and some not so subtle) human interactions.

Life at home was no child’s play either. Their son, Josh, and daughter, Michelle, didn’t feel their parents understood them. The parents and children didn’t communicate on the same wavelength. This led to the parents and children talking over each other and having angry arguments.

So Emily and Paul turned to a consultant called D’Rock for help. By following his evidence-based, proven, scientific advice, Emily and Paul began to get increasingly better in their jobs, with family and in social settings.  They didn’t become perfect: They still made occasional mistakes, but fewer and smaller ones, and when they did, they recovered well.2

The improvements in their lives were measurable, major and memorable. Emily and Paul became highly successful in their jobs, solved the problems with their children at home and even developed a more enjoyable sex life!

How?

All this was possible because D’Rock was no ordinary consultant, but a neuromagician (stay with me here) — a superhero with who had the ability to give other people the power to change themselves for the better.

Here is the surprising twist to this story: D’Rock, the neurosuperhero character in this story is a real person called David Rock. He has even written a book that can help you overcome major challenges like Emily and Paul did.

Following David Rock’s advice will make you more successful in your professional, personal and social life. It is highly likely to make you a better computer programmer, a better project manager, a better people leader — better at pretty much every aspect of your job. It will make you smarter, more effective and happier. It will even enable you to fly. Ok. I’m joking about the flying part. Unless you are a pilot.

Before you ask me what drugs am I taking that have caused this flooding of dopamine into the synapses in my brain and is causing me these delusions, read the book Your Brain At Work and see if it changes your mind.

The book is enjoyable, educational and easy to learn from since it is written in the form of stories. That’s one of the best ways the human brain learns.

I highly recommend reading this book. Once every six months.

My rating of this book: 5/5 stars.

  1. Doing emails on smartphone during a meeting, by the way, is a not-so-smart habit. []
  2. The path of steady progress is preferable to the pursuit of unattainable perfection. I call this the P5 principle. []

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Book Review)

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Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is one of the most inspiring books I’ve read in a long time. It is a book about adventures, travels, cultures, customs, ancient wisdom, evolution, anatomy, biology, footwear, anthropology, friendships and human nature. It is also a book about long distance running.

Through the stories of his warm characters, Christopher McDougall teaches that long distance running is more about cooperation, camaraderie and caring than about competition. It reminded me of my favorite quote: Victory is winning others, not defeating others.

My rating of this book: 5/5 stars.

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (Book Review)

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I’ve been reading the book SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Like its predecessor, Freakonomics by the same authors, SuperFreakonomics is unputdownable once you start reading it.

What’s great about this book is that it argues against many things we believe to be true. Using statistics and challenging established wisdom, Levitt and Dubner make compelling arguments that give us fresh perspectives on knowledge we take for granted.

The authors cover a range of seemingly unrelated but interesting topics ranging from the economics of prostitution to the identifying potential terrorists using statistical data. The work of their colleague Sudhir Venkatesh, author of the gripping book Gang Leader for a Day is also featured in this book. They discuss the effectiveness of complex solutions like child safety seats (“car seats”) compared to simple solutions like seat belts. In their discussion of simple solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges like preventing and controlling hurricanes, they remind us that simple solutions are sometimes the most powerful and reliable.

There are numerous things in this book that many people will not agree with. This book does not claim to be an encyclopedia of correct, proven information. If you are looking for established science and facts, compared to the hypothesis and opinions presented in this book, even WikiPedia would be a more authoritative source of facts.  However, what I liked about this book is that reading it inspires and challenges the reader to think in new ways. In fact, the same methods this book uses to challenge other wisdom could be used to dispute the viewpoints of the people whose opinions are expressed in this book.

Whether you agree with all, some or none of their findings, reading their book will benefit you: It presents and encourages ways of finding different and better ways of conducting experiments and studies. It sparks new ways of thinking, even if you use the methods to challenge some of their own findings.

The findings and statistical data are presented in their approachable storytelling that everyone can enjoy. It is an entertaining, enlightening and even educational read. I recommend reading this book.

My rating of this book: 3/5 stars.

I thank HarperCollins for sending me a pre-release copy of the upcoming book for review. Below is a link to the book on Amazon. It will be released on October 20, 2009.

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

Build and maintain a cohesive leadership team

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For an executive, having a management team of people who are good at their jobs and work well with each other is one of the most important factors that lead to success together. Observing a number of successful projects, I realized that it is critical that your management team members care for each other, work well together and give to each other. Their sincere collaboration is far more important than their individual strengths.

I began to write this article impressed by how well the management team comprising of my direct reports functioned, collaborating with each other towards shared success. I was pleasantly surprised by how these directors shared responsibilities, how closely they worked with people in each other’s teams and how comfortably they gave credit to each other. When conflicts arose between them, they frankly, respectfully and nicely expressed them to each other, often one-on-one. Every time, they resolved them quickly and came out with a closer professional relationship. They actively and regularly talked to quell any turf battles between each other’s departments before they could form.

They had a wonderful professional relationship. They barely knew each other outside of work, having busy personal lives with their families on most evenings and weekends. I felt that my management team and I were like a work-family, sticking together through good and bad times, always believing that our success comes as a team.

When you manage and organize your company or your department, spend time multiple times a week with your direct reports together so that you all work well with each other towards shared success. In turn, they should ensure that their direct reports care about each other and collaborate. If you have, say five direct reports, make sure that just the six of you get together in a room to work openly and collaboratively at least twice a week (assuming you are in the same geographic location). The forum for this need not be always a staff meeting, it could be a working session on a project.

I was struggling to come up with suitable words to describe this and its importance. While reading the book The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni, I found that the first discipline described in the story talks exactly of this and hence is the title of this article. The book is written as a fictional story that teaches leadership lessons. It is easy to read being under 200 pages in large typeface which you can read in one evening. I highly recommend it.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Book Review)

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was as enjoyable to read on the Amazon Kindle as it would have been in a printed book. I started reading it on the plane during my flight back to NYC from Charlotte after speaking at a conference there. It took two evenings to complete.

The story is gripping and emotional: It makes use of back references and coincidences that fit in well for such a story touching Eastern cultures and societies. The descriptions of Afghanistan make you feel like you can relate to the place that is foreign to many of us. The depiction of the immigrant community in the San Francisco Bay Area feels like a genuine experience. Even though the author relates the storyline to Afghan history giving the tale a realistic feel, he does not dwell much into narrating the actual historical events like a part-history book. Instead, the book focuses on the characters and the plot, making it a thrilling experience to read throughout. The story isn’t a light read: It describes some of life’s gruesome realities. Overall, while he does employ cultural stereotypes, the author has captured the essence of different cultures and represents them well.

In most parts, the story feels real, as if it was someone’s amazing autobiography. Some coincidences do, however feel too eerie to be true. I recommend it.

My rating of this book: 4/5 stars.

Below is an introduction to the book in a video interview with the author.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56uFHgTs3us

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Book Review)

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I just completed Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner and found it an interesting book. (I listened to the unabridged audio book edition.)

This is a book written for the mass market written in a sensationalist style. If you are looking to learn about economics or are looking for facts proven by rigorous scientific study, this is not the book. However, what I liked about this book is its rogue approach of making almost heretic claims against established wisdom.

Whether you find the viewpoints the authors and collaborators of this book present to be believable or not, we do learn something important from reading this book: Conventional, established wisdom isn’t always gospel and needs to be challenged at appropriate times.

Parts of the book, especially the Chicago gang stories from the sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh are gripping like a novel. You will enjoy reading it. I recommend reading it.

My rating of this book: 3/5 stars.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (Book Review)

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I enjoyed the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. (I listened to the unabridged audio book edition.)

The book is insightful and makes you think about thinking. Since childhood I’ve believed that intuition and emotions are the result of our minds doing subconscious analysis. The book does a good job of describing the benefits and perils of people’s split decisions and reactions.

My rating of this book: 4/5 stars.