Have you ever wondered why organizations keep spending thousands of dollars on leadership programs and the evidence actually indicates that our workplaces are filled with distrustful, disengaged and dissatisfied employees? Have you noticed that the qualities we select most leaders for in an organization are unlikely to produce leaders that are good for employees or long-term performance? Maybe its time to tell the truth about leadership – and the shadow side of organizational life. Jeffrey Pfeffer knows of what he writes. He teaches at the Stanford School of Business and has authored or coauthored fourteen books on topics such as power, management people, organizational design and evidenced-based management.
It may sound like a depressing topic but I find it somewhat comforting.To build a science of leadership you need reliable data. I am tired of the ‘feel-good’ stories of incredible companies that never seem to reside in my backyard. I teach a course in how to survive organizational politics for change agents. Every individual so far comes to me battered and bruised from the realities of organization life. At conferences, I am frequently asked to speak on building corporate cultures that support innovation. The topic discussions quickly come to shadow side of leadership and how to survive until trust can be rebuilt. Many people, maybe most people, have soul-crushing jobs. That is the reality in which we live. Pfeffer is blunt, yes. He states that if we don’t have baseline measurements of leader and workplace conditions it is simply impossible to know what to do to make any improvements. So … do you want to be the one to ask for 360 reviews on your leadership team? Me neither.
Research tells us that people who deliver bad news sometimes suffer adverse consequences. If we want to change the world of work, Pfeffer claims that we need to act on what we know rather than what we wish and hope for. Great leaders are rare. So what to do? What is the implication for the average person in an average organization? Pfeffer recommends becoming a skilled and unbiased observer and pay attention to what your leaders do, NOT what they say. The most fundamental principle of learning theory is behaviour is a function of its consequences. What behaviour is rewarded in your organization? Leadership for the people or leadership for profit?
This is not a feel good book about leadership. But, if you are looking for confirmation of workplace reality and some solid suggestions on evidence-based management, this book is for you. It balances the heroic tales of exceptional leadership and organizations on my shelves and gives practical advice on how to survive until you can find one (or build it yourself). Consider this book a practical survival manual if you are not in the enviable position of working with a great leader and/or a great organization. I truly believe we can get there. But, not just yet.