The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

"Leadership BS" Is BS

September 7, 2021

I don’t really do “book reviews” on here, and I don’t intend to start now, but this is a reaction to the book “Leadership BS” by Jeffrey Pfeffer.

What seems to be the core premise of this book is that there are these “leadership myths” propagating that are doing harm to workplaces and people’s (mostly leaders’ or aspiring leaders’) job prospects.

The framing example is Jack Welch, onetime CEO of GE, who is painted as this great business leader and everyone wants to emulate him, but the story leaves out things like GE’s “rank and yank” performance management policy, stories about “GE jerks” and other examples of fraud, price-fixing, and so forth.

The premise that inspirational figures have flaws that are glossed over or omitted from the stories is a good one, and one which I agree with.

Then it all goes sideways.

It’s important to have a balanced and accurate picture of people you idolize, if only because you shouldn’t hold yourself to an unrealistic standard. Great people have done great things, but most have also done bad things. Nobody is perfect. Strive for that perfection, but give yourself a break when you screw up, because screwing up is normal, and is necessary for learning.

Where Pfeffer goes off the rails, in my opinion, is that he twists it around to say that not only is it important to maintain a view of both the good and bad behaviors or principles of our business heroes, but that in fact many of their bad behaviors were necessary and should be emulated.

Pfeffer’s position is that learning good behaviors from successful business leaders like Jack Welch and Andy Grove is fine, but it overlooks the role their bad behaviors played in their success, so to achieve that success for yourself, you should be willing to:

  • Distrust people by default,

  • Break your promises,

  • Be narcissistic, and

  • Lie to people, especially those who work for you

Where this book drives straight off the cliff for me is that while the positive behaviors and concepts espoused by people like Andy Grove might not lead you straight to their levels of success, I don’t think that the solution is to tell aspiring leaders that they all have to be jerks, too.

Leadership self-help books leave out the jerk behaviors because everyone knows they’re jerk behaviors and what we don’t really need in this world is more jerks, so even if we end up with a leadership class that can’t seem to build the next juggernaut company like Intel, at least we aren’t being led by egomaniacal, sociopathic charlatans.

It’s one thing to suggest that we may have accidentally mythologized our idols and point out the flaws in our narrative. It’s quite another to write a self-help book celebrating Donald Trump’s narcissism or Andy Grove’s “wolf school” where he taught new managers to literally yell into people’s faces.

Where Pfeffer is correct is that our biographies should be balanced. Where he is wrong is that our self-help and behavioral recommendations should be, too.