Leaders Library: Swimming Upstream Against “Leadership BS”

Harry S. Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Our Leaders Library series gives me the opportunity to share the books and articles that I think are worth your attention. I would love for this to spark an interactive conversation – the Front and Centered version of a virtual book club!

One of my personal goals for 2016 is to read a book a month. The first one I read this year is Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a  Stanford Graduate School of Business professor. The book was a finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the year and I loved it.160029-PB-Banks-Blog-Quote_02_12_16

As an adjunct professor at Villanova University School of Business’ Executive Education program, I have a lot of discussions with my students about how to manage yourself and your career. We focus on maintaining personal relevance and most importantly, “owning” your career. This book reinforces that you need to take care of yourself. Doing so is not selfish; it is a smart necessity.

But what was so refreshing about this book was the unfiltered way in which it was written. It was not focused on feel-good messages about leadership, but rather on the reality of the current state of leadership practices in business. He did not talk about what “should be;” he focused on “what is.”

Bad medicine

Pfeffer doesn’t try to make you feel good; he tries to make you aware. I believe his goal was twofold – to encourage us to:

  • Use this information as a call to action, to motivate us to drive the needed change in leadership practices
  • Become more aware of what is going on, so we can cope with it effectively and manage our careers successfully

The author makes an early historical reference to medicine, writing:

“Around the turn of the twentieth century, medical practice and medical education in America were pretty dismal. People were hawking untested and unproven ‘cures,’ with their financial success dependent more on their slickness and persuasiveness than on the actual science and medical efficacy of what they were pushing.”

He goes on to say the similarities to medicine then and the state of leadership practices in business now is striking. Pfeffer obviously notes that since the turn of the 20th century, we have professionalized the medical industry through set guidelines and measurable standards, which gave birth to the true medical profession. As a result, the quality of care improved dramatically.

He does not say the same about leadership. In fact, he is pretty harsh. His core argument is that the “qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees or for that matter, long-term organizational performance.”

Just the facts

Pfeffer makes the point that what happens in the work setting is usually not based on trust, collaboration or authenticity, but rather on power and situational decision-making.

I can relate to his observations. I believe strongly in confronting reality head on. Working with facts, not half-truths, is what drives great execution. The first phase of confronting reality is understanding it. Pfeffer points to some known truths:

  • Employee engagement is suffering dramatically
  • Trust between employer/employee is dropping
  • People are losing jobs and finding it difficult to maintain careers

We could sit around and bemoan these facts. We could pity ourselves. We could bash people at the water cooler. Or…we could hold ourselves to a higher standard. We could be true leaders and be different. We could make the commitment right now to swim upstream. To focus on building trust, leading with authenticity and leading with a service mindset. We could be the pioneers who work to professionalize leadership.

Take the chance

I see this as a great opportunity. The good news is as a leader with these attributes, you will stand out and I believe you will attract great talent. The bad news? It will be hard. Swimming upstream doesn’t always feel good and is often risky. You have to understand that other leaders will not work this way, and you need to develop a way to work within the system, while remaining authentic. You cannot change something if you’re not around to change it. Immerse yourself in the opportunity and don’t focus on what others are doing wrong; focus on what you can do to make it better.

Even if you do not want to be the change agent, at least understand how the system works. This awareness will help you make better decisions about owning and managing your career.

Your turn

So there it is – my first official book review of 2016. If you are reading anything interesting, please share your thoughts and recommendations by commenting on this post. And the books do not have to be about business – at Front and Centered, we are all about life and leadership. So what have you read that has motivated and inspired you?