What do you think of when you think of a great leader?
Most likely you have a picture of those who exude virtues such as honesty and integrity, always putting their own people first as they bear their authenticity as an armor against the slings and arrows.
Yeah, forget all that. Jeffrey Pfeffer says the most effective leaders don’t act that way. Jeffrey is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and he has been paying attention to the science of leadership for more than 40 years.
Jeffrey wrote 15 books on business and leadership, but one book in particular — Leadership BS — caused a bit of a stir. In that book, he said everything everyone prizes in leadership is wrong. He came to understand this point when he saw so many talented students leave school and fall flat on their faces in the business world.
That’s when he decided to examine what effective leaders actually do rather than what they say they do. Because when successful leaders stand in front of a crowd to talk about themselves, they are going to put on a suit of virtue and valor. Meanwhile, those who really know the leaders do not recognize who’s up there speaking. They know who really gets things done even when the going gets ugly.
In this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman, Jeffrey reveals what effective leaders actually do.
FELDMAN: What’s wrong with leadership today?
PFEFFER: I’ll give you three answers to what’s wrong with leadership today. What’s wrong with leadership today is that leaders are losing their jobs at unacceptably high rates.
There’s a bunch of data that shows CEO turnover is higher than it’s ever been. It’s not just CEOs. People lower down in the organization also are facing many career challenges and job stresses and turnover, and having to leave their jobs.
No. 2, the state of the workplace, around the world, is dire. The Gallup survey of employee engagement, The Conference Board survey of job satisfaction, asked people, “What would you rather have, a substantial raise or fire your boss?” Thirty-five percent said, “I’d rather fire my boss than have a big raise.”
Measures of various kinds of workplace well-being show that most employees are not doing well. They’re unhappy, dissatisfied, and they don’t feel they’re being led well.
No. 3 is when leaders are asked to think of their own leadership, most managers say, “We’re failing to build the leadership competencies we need. This has constrained our ability to grow. This has constrained our ability to perform well.”
So senior leaders think that leadership development is failing, leaders are losing their jobs, and the workplace is in pretty bad shape. That all suggests to me that leadership is a mess.
FELDMAN: What’s wrong with leadership training today?
PFEFFER: What’s wrong with leadership training is almost everything.
It’s evaluated in the wrong way. So as you go to one of these programs, at the end of the program, they give you a happy sheet and ask you how much you enjoyed this.
Research shows this is irrelevant to whether you’re going to improve on any of the measures that we care about — employee engagement, turnover, organization performance, etc.
We’re evaluating leadership development as a form of entertainment. That leads to, of course, giving very entertaining talks, but not necessarily talks that have changed anything, which is why nothing has changed over the past 40 or 50 years.
The second problem is that the people chosen to do the training are often good entertainers, but have no particular expertise in the substance of what they’re doing.
We go to these big auditoriums, and somebody gives an inspiring speech. Almost none of the speech is true, and that’s particularly true if they’re describing their own behaviors as a leader. Then, everybody leaves.
Since people are told stuff that they know'is not really consistent with what the person who’s told it to them has done himself, and it’s not consistent with their own observations, it produces an enormous level of cynicism.
I turn on the news and look at leaders in political and corporate life who don’t bear any resemblance to what I’m being told to do. That produces a large level of skepticism and cynicism. That’s how I think leadership development is failing.
FELDMAN: What comes to mind is the servant leader. What are your thoughts on that?
PFEFFER: A lot of the principles that many of these leadership programs espouse are, in fact, good principles. I thank servant leadership is a great thing. I think the idea that Leaders Eat Last, the book by Simon Sinek, is a good idea. It would be nice if leaders were authentic and truthful.
These would all be very desirable leadership qualities, but you have to ask why so few leaders have them. If we don’t understand the answer to that question and we don’t understand how we as people participating in an organizational life are complicit in producing the leadership that we now have, nothing will ever change.
Yes, it would be nice to have a servant leader, and I know a few; there aren’t many. It would be nice if leaders told the truth, but — as I tell my students all the time — apparently the most important quality of a leader is the ability to lie with great effectiveness.
It would be nice if leaders could be more authentic, but they probably can’t be and they certainly aren’t. It would be nice if leaders were modest, but narcissism, in fact, predicts who gets into leadership roles and who keeps them.
We need to understand the realities of the world in which we live, as opposed to continuing to tell ourselves these stories, most of which bear no resemblance to reality.
FELDMAN: So authenticity and telling the truth are not important qualities for great leaders?
PFEFFER: People say they want their leader to be authentic and to tell the truth. No, they don’t.
There was a survey done by a human resource consulting firm, and they asked HR professionals the following question:
Some people in your organization are doing good work, but their odds of getting promoted are relatively low. You don’t want to lose them because they’re doing good work; it’s just that they’re not going much further in their careers. Do you tell the people who aren’t going anywhere the truth about their promotion opportunities? In about 75 percent of the cases, the answer was no.
By the way, this is not part of the survey that they did, but if you had asked the people who aren’t going to get promoted, “Do you really want to know what your organization thinks about you, or would you like to be told, ‘Wow, you’re doing great! Keep doing this!’” I suspect most people would have said, if they’re being honest with themselves, “I would really like to be told how wonderful I am. I don’t want to be told that I have no chance of being promoted here.”
If you tell everybody their real promotion chances, the place is going to empty out and you’re going to have more turnover than you want.
That’s one example.
People want to be told how wonderful they are. They want to be told how great their company’s doing. Nobody wants to hear a CEO tell them, “The company is having trouble. I and my top team frankly don’t know if and how we’re going to be able to fix this.” People want to hear, “We’ve got troubles; we know what to do. Do X, Y and Z and everything will be fine.”
FELDMAN: People want confidence from their leadership.
PFEFFER: They want confidence. I’ve had people come speak to my class who were running temperatures, having had crises in their personal lives or in their companies. When you show up in front of the students, the students don’t really care about whether your daughter is involved with the wrong person, or your wife has left you for somebody, or you’ve been told that you’ve got some disease or something, or your back is hurting, or all this other stuff.
When you show up in front of your employees, they don’t want you to tell them your problems. They want you to be there for them, and they want you to be helping them with their problems. So leaders need to be authentic to what the employees need from them. They don’t need to be authentic to their own needs.
FELDMAN: Do you think we should, as leaders, be more honest with our feedback and the truth with our employees even though they don’t want to hear it?
PFEFFER: Certainly, if you want to develop your employees, you need to tell them the truth. But you need to tell them the truth in a context in which they’re not afraid that they’re about to be fired.
If they’re worried about every consequence, they’re not going to hear what you tell them because they’re so frightened that they don’t hear anything.
Part of the question I think is implied in your last question, and in several of your questions. When I was writing this book, I gave it to a friend to read.
He said, “This is all interesting, but what would you tell me to do if I wanted to be a better leader?”
The reason why that question is interesting is we assume that leader effectiveness is unidimensional. How are we going to measure leader effectiveness? Is it your ability to stay in your job a long time? Your ability to make a lot of money? Your ability to improve measures of employee engagement, measures of organizational performance? All these measures themselves are relatively weakly correlated.
My famous example would be Stan O’Neal. Stan O’Neal ran Merrill Lynch into oblivion, and it was sold to Bank of America. Stan O’Neal left with $140 million. Was Stan O’Neal a successful leader? If you’re Mr. and Mrs. O’Neal, he did great. If you’re a Merrill Lynch employee who faced the rounds of layoffs after Bank of America bought the company, he wasn’t such a great leader.
Whether someone is a good or bad leader depends on one’s perspective. Is Donald Trump a good leader? Well, he won the presidential election. By some standards, he’s a good leader. There are some people who can’t stand him. The people who are making the most money are not necessarily having the highest levels of employee engagement. They may not even be doing the best for their organizational performance, since we know CEO compensation and organizational performance are relatively weakly correlated. As we think about the qualities we want in leaders, we need to be much more precise and nuanced, and think exactly of the constituencies who we believe the leaders need to serve.
FELDMAN: A lot of leaders do what you call sermons and pep talks. Does that produce change at a company?
PFEFFER: The best way to produce change is for us to take the lessons of the quality movement very seriously, which is to measure your baseline levels of performance so you know where we are, how we are doing. That could be sales performance or service performance or some measure of manufacturing performance. Or, in the case of airlines, on-time performance or whatever.
Because what we measure gets attention, and that’s true in organizations of any size. It’s just human nature that when something is measured, we pay attention to it. If it’s not measured, it gets ignored.
Identify the most important dimensions of your operation. Measure them repeatedly, and try different interventions to improve them. That’s how you drive change.
FELDMAN: Part of your book is about trust. I found it really interesting that having blind trust in your leader is not necessarily a good thing. Nor should leaders always have open trust in their people.
PFEFFER: The foundation of trust is honoring your commitments. But circumstances change, and promises that you may have made at one point you can’t honor if you want the business to survive at some other point. The easiest example of that is layoffs. Sometimes you don’t necessarily want to tell people exactly what is going on because they’ll be too worried, or depressed, or fearful or whatever.
If you look at entrepreneurs — people starting companies of whatever kind — one of the things you need to start a company is to have people sign up with you and for you. You must have people who are willing to come to work for you. You must have people who are willing to invest in you. You must have customers who are willing to do business with you.
Often, the only way you can get people to do that is to paint a picture about your chances of success that is not completely true.
Who’s going to invest in a company if you say, “Most all businesses fail, so why don’t you put your money in and give me your business and come work for me?” Nobody’s going to do that.
So you have to inspire people. You have to give them a sense that you’re going to be more successful than maybe you even think you’re going to be. But that then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because if everybody believes you’re going to be successful, then the best people come to work for you, and the investors invest money in you, and customers want to do business with you, and you become successful. I think we downplay the extent to which life is about creating this virtuous circle of the self-fulfilling prophecy, and sometimes you have to not be completely honest in doing that.
FELDMAN: You wrote a book called Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t. How does that work with leadership?
PFEFFER: Leadership BS is the prequel to the book on power, even though Power was written before it. Because the Power book talks about how to become powerful, people would come up to me and say, “The principles in your Power book disagree with what I’ve been told about what good leaders do.”
But the first job of a leader, as Machiavelli pointed out 500-plus years ago, is to keep your job because you will get nothing done if you’re not in a position of power.
If you want to change the Army, you need to be secretary of the Army or a general in the Army. The day you get fired from that position, you’re not going to be able to get anything done.
The first process in keeping your job is to understand that everybody has a boss. I don’t care if you’re the CEO. I don’t care if you’re the founder of the company. As a matter of fact, I see founders losing their jobs all the time.
You may have outside investors. You may have a board of directors. You may have a chairman of that board. You may have whatever. Everybody has a boss. Keep your boss happy. If you don’t keep your boss happy, you’re probably not going to keep your job.
FELDMAN: Besides helping you keep your job, why else is power important?
PFEFFER: Power is the ability to get things done against opposition.
In most situations, what you want is not necessarily aligned completely with what everybody else in the situation wants. The individual who has power is the individual who is able to get that decision to come out the way that he or she wants it to. That’s what power is. Power is the ability to get your way in contested decisions.
Most decisions are contested, including simple decisions like what movie are we going to watch this weekend on Netflix, because Kathleen likes chick movies and I like movies with more angst. Simple things like that.
Some of the disagreements are trivial and small; some of them are big. Where are you going to live? How much are you going to spend on a house? The person who has power, or unit that has power, is the unit that is able to get its way.
Why is this important? Because these decisions are all important, and the ability to get things done is the fundamental task of leadership. Since decisions seldom will be agreed upon 100 percent by everybody, your ability as a leader is the ability to get things done, and getting things done requires power.
FELDMAN: What are some of the personal qualities that bring power?
PFEFFER: Energy. The ability to work long hours, which is related to energy. Emotions are contagious. Energy is contagious. If you have a lot of energy, the people around you will tend to work harder and feed off your energy. Conversely, if you’re a low-energy person, they will feed off that.
A second quality that’s important is this ability to put yourself in the other person’s place. Empathic understanding. Understanding where they’re coming from so that you’re able to build relationships with them, and you’re able to see what moves them and what motivates them, and so on and so forth. Therefore, you’re able to take their interests into account as you formulate plans.
Persistence and resilience. There is nobody who doesn’t face rejection and failure and setbacks. So, the question is, are you tough enough and resilient enough, persistent enough, to keep going?
Focus. I think I’d much rather bet on somebody who’s not so talented but who’s focused on one thing than on somebody who’s more talented but whose efforts are more dispersed.
What is a laser? A laser is focused light. In the olden days, you did a science experiment. Maybe you put a bunch of dried grass outside, put a magnifying glass over it and lit the grass on fire.
That’s about focusing the sun’s rays. When focused, the sun’s rays focused heat up a lot more than when they’re unfocused. So focus is clearly a very critical component of people being successful.
The ability to tolerate conflict and not worry about how much everybody likes you. Most of the successful leaders I’ve seen, particularly the big senior leaders, don’t worry about being liked. In the words of one of my good friends: If you want to be liked, get a dog.
Your job as a leader is not necessarily to be liked, but to make the tough judgments and decisions that will make the organization successful.
FELDMAN: Another key thing for leaders is speaking, both one-on-one and one-to-many. What are some strategies to speaking with power and how important is that in leadership?
PFEFFER: I think speaking and acting with power is very important in leadership. Even though she’s become quite controversial, I highly recommend people looking at Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, which is the second most viewed TED Talk in the world.
She talks about power posing. You want to take up space. You want to command the room. You want to look taller than you are. You want to speak with a strong voice. You want to make statements rather than ask questions. You want to make eye contact. You want to show people that you know what you’re talking about.
You don’t want to be like poor Tony Hayward of BP at the congressional hearings. The first thing that happened when he started his testimony, they said, “Can you speak more loudly?” which is always a bad sign.
You want to do things in your voice and in your posture that display power and confidence. That is standing up straight and taking up space, speaking loudly and not hemming and hawing. Not raising your voice at the end of a sentence, which turns the statement into a question.
FELDMAN: What are some good strategies for dealing with conflicts in leadership?
PFEFFER: To use Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase, you need to lean into conflict. You can’t assume that your job is to avoid conflict. If people are disagreeing with you, you need to understand the basis of the disagreement, but you need to not back down. You need to be firm and strong, explain what your point of view is and why it is that way, and indicate to people that there are benefits from cooperating and collaborating with you, and there are costs if they don’t.
FELDMAN: Is there a price to power?
PFEFFER: Oh, there’s a huge price. Power takes time. Power makes you visible. If you become president of the United States or CEO of General Motors or General Electric or General Mills, or another company, you will be under tremendous public scrutiny. Everything you do will be watched and parsed. That, of course, exacts a huge toll.
Other people are going to want a piece of you. People are going to want pieces of your time. If you’re a university professor like me, you can do whatever you want. But if you become dean, you can’t do anything you want. Now you have responsibilities to the school.
You have to go talk to the alumni, and you have to go talk to the students, and you have to go talk to the various constituencies of the school. Many people other than yourself are keeping your calendar for you. In the words of a friend of mine, you can have autonomy or you can have power, but you cannot have both.
Power takes a lot of work. One of the reasons why people lose power is that after a while, they get tired and they let their guard down. Then, somebody will take them out.