The leaders of publicly listed companies are prone to lying, self-aggrandisement, bullying and narcissistic behaviour.
This is the damning indictment of US chief executives by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, in his book Leadership BS, fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time.
Pfeffer’s contention is that the public, investors and employees tend to be fed good news stories about senior leadership of publicly listed companies and ignore their bad behaviour. In making his case he uncovers some of the less –than-honourable practices of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in their rise to power.
Pfeffer states: “Individuals are reluctant to accept, let alone seek out, stories of failure or imperfection among the leaders who have come to be venerated, [this] lack of due diligence produces an inability to see, let alone learn, from failure and setbacks.”
But Pfeffer’s main focus is on the ineffectiveness of the $14 billion leadership development industry in the US, which he accuses of teaching myths about the worth of modest, authentic and honest leadership.
He says: “The leadership industry presumes that if people follow all its feel-good prescriptions, unit performance and employee morale will be higher and that leaders, in turn, will be more successful. But neither of these premises is correct.”
He backs his argument by citing the stubborn and persistent data on “dismal” levels of employee engagement, job dissatisfaction and trust in leaders.
The leadership industry, he contests, lacks the balanced evidence-based training that medical students undergo and to rectify this much of Leadership BS is devoted to evidence on why leaders ‘eat first’, frequently lie, make a virtue out of being inauthentic and are rarely modest.
He says such traits are rife partly as leaders statistically face little punishment for such behaviours.
Furthermore, he contests that leaders who are narcissists are often more entrepreneurial, take bolder and more aggressive strategic actions and have better communication skills, creativity and strategic thinking.
He cites a study of 392 CEOs during the financial crisis that found leaders with narcissistic traits tended to do worse at the start of the crisis, but their stronger bias for action and risk taking meant they bounced back more successfully.
In conclusion, Pfeffer says that regular occurrence of expensive leadership failures at large companies can be solved by building work systems that are less leader dependent and devolve more power to employees or employee councils.