Book review of “Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time” by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer continues his iconoclastic writing in this book that came after his previous book “Power:  Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t”. The book is a critique of the “leadership industry” that has mushroomed in the past several decades and the feel good culture that it creates.  The implication being that all of this invariably ends up hurting the readers than benefiting them. The key take away from the read is that all of us need to get real and confront the harsh realities of organizational life and politics rather than put our heads in the sand. The book asks the reader to cast a skeptical eye towards all the all inspirational stories, which tend to be half truths and cast leaders only in positive light. The net result being cynicism and setting us up with unrealistic expectations. Dr. Peffer systematically tears down leadership platitudes about “authenticity”, “modesty”, “truthfulness” and “caring for people” that are often peddled by the leadership coaches, books, and consultants. The author does not mince words criticizing not only the leadership industry at large but gives specific examples of how some of the people who teach leadership like former Medtronic CEO Bill George and former GE CEO Jack Welch are dishing out leadership lessons and platitudes that they never followed when they led their companies.

 On modesty, the book argues that most leaders are not modest and while modesty may be good immodesty may be even better. The truth about many leaders is that they actually have a narcissistic trait that makes them successful and that in reality we actually look up to the grandiose and unusual. On authenticity, the book argues it is often misunderstood and overrated, and in fact, leaders must often fake it till they make it. Leaders are expected to have presence and energy regardless of how they are personally feeling. In the next two excoriating chapters the author demolishes the idea that most leaders are actually truthful and care about their people, on the contrary, most actually attained their status by doing the exact opposite. In a prescient analysis of today’s political times the book points out that while we expect political leaders to lie, most business leaders also lie and keep up appearances when it comes to their products, timelines, expectations and results. The book specifically talks about the prevarications of Oracle boss Larry Ellison and the now famous reality distortion of Steve Jobs. In many ways, leadership is often about maintaining an aura invincibility and putting lipstick on a pig. Furthermore, often leaders actually put their interest ahead of others, indeed that is how many got where they are today.

The final pages ask the reader to be realistic, not expect the world to be a fair place and take care of themselves first. According to the author, it is a fool’s errand to put faith in most leaders, when most organizations choose them for demonstrating the exact opposite traits, of what is being taught by the leadership industry. We must live in the world we are in and not the world as we would like it to be. While it is quite cynical, in today’s world the book is a good reality check.

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