Unscientific criticism of unscientific leadership training practices

Review of: Leadership BS
Product by:
Jeffrey Pfeffer

Reviewed by:
On 19 September, 2015
Last modified:19 September, 2015


There are problems with a lot of leadership training programs, but the ideas provided in this book aren't going to help much.

Inspiration is a very poor foundation on which to build substantive change, and the leadership tales we hear, stories that often have only modest amounts of validity, routinely make things worse, and possibly much worse, according to Jeffrey Pfeffer in his book Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. The author goes on to make his case with a number of non-validated propositions supported by inspirational or perhaps de-inspirational anecdotes.

The introduction describes the “enormous leadership industry” co-existing with overwhelming numbers of “dysfunctional workplaces”, and concludes that “the leadership industry has failed”. A fairly obvious way to test this hypothesis would be to compare the extent and nature of leadership training, if any, received by leaders of dysfunctional workplaces with that received by leaders of high-performing workplaces, but the only evidence provided by the author is anecdotal.

In chapter 1, while debunking the value of inspirational stories, the author refers to two unnamed people who claimed to him that the conduct of Bill George while at Medtronic had deviated in an unspecified manner from the type of behaviour he recommended in his book “True North”. This seems to be an excellent example of how bad business books use gossip and innuendo to demonstrate points for which they fail to provide any statistically defensible evidence.

Chapter 2 is largely devoted to explaining why narcissism is better for you than modesty, chapter 3 creates a straw man of “authentic leadership” and knocks it down, chapter 4 explains why lying brings greater returns than honesty, chapter 5 claims that trust is not essential to organisational functioning or effective leadership, and chapter 6 explains that leaders overwhelmingly look after themselves first.

The book’s main purpose seems to be to advocate for a more evidence-based approach to leadership education, and for a stronger form of organisational governance that makes organisations less dependent on the whims and personalities of a single leader or a small group of leaders. I fully support both of these goals, but there are plenty of books available that provide better ways of achieving them.

There are problems with a lot of leadership training programs, but the ideas provided in this book aren't going to help much.

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