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Novel Solutions: Leadership Wreck

You should expect that a book titled “Leadership BS” isn’t exactly onboard with much of the advice you find in the business management section of the bookstore. One of the fundamental criticisms offered by Jeffrey Pfeffer charges that the so-called “leadership industry” is overrun by self-anointed experts. Without any barriers to entry, what distinguishes a quack from a luminary?

That question should warrant a healthy dose of skepticism. But Pfeffer, being a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, has the qualifications to ask. In “Leadership BS,” he brings evidence and data from social science research and offers practical solutions in questioning many commonly accepted “truths.” Take the lip service paid to the desired traits of modesty, relatability and honesty in leaders. Most businesses emphasize such characteristics, Pfeffer argues, while many people who reach an organization’s upper echelons are anything but. Immodesty and narcissism certainly can be useful traits in certain situations. But a business needs to be honest and not incentivize behavior it claims to discourage.

Besides the problems in much of the advice from other experts, “Leadership BS” has plenty to say about businesses themselves—and how many companies are inept in developing people for leadership roles. Too often failures in leadership, which can pollute the entire workplace, result from one person’s mistakes or imperfections. Pfeffer argues that businesses should be structured so the system is stronger than the individual. Leaders are important, of course, but they shouldn’t be too important.

Another of Pfeffer’s criticisms applied to both the leadership industry and leaders themselves. Frankly, in both instances, individuals are rarely held accountable for their actions. Pfeffer argues that books and seminars can spread advice, but how do you measure positive results? The experts don’t have to face their audience after a certain point. Similarly, “Leadership BS” argues corporate leaders aren’t as accountable as they should be, citing numerous instances of golden paracutes when in the wake of disasterous performance.

“Leadership BS” attacks large concepts, but the critique remains on point and the suggested fixes are practical. You will look at your business and the leaders in it differently after reading this work. It’s also a relatively light read, considering the nuance to its message, so the benefits of “Leadership BS” aren’t buried in bulky footnotes or dry textbook copy.

Delivering the contrarian’s message can be a tricky proposition, but Pfeffer is successful in his critique of popular opinion in the business world. His points merit consideration, whether or not you agree, and the purpose of this book is to make you think.  

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