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.

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. []