Have you ever attended a leadership seminar? For Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, it makes no difference whether your answer is yes or no. Because these training courses are useless. He claims that this is proven by the fact that what he calls the “leadership industry” continues to prosper, while business leaders remain as ineffective and as dissatisfied with themselves as ever.
What is the reason for this state of affairs? For Pfeffer, there is no doubt that these seminars deliver a series of lies. They advise participants to be modest, authentic, cooperative, and to build trust, when we should be facing up to the unfortunate fact that real leaders are the exact opposite. No, major companies are not run by humble, selfless people; and someone whom nobody ever notices is unlikely to be chosen for an important job.
Hence the role of marketing, explains Pfeffer, in building a career and raising awareness. To improve your social status and become more influential, it is not sufficient to be self-confident; you need to be overconfident. Not only that, you also need an abundance of energy, charisma and a certain sense of superiority, as the summary of 187 studies on this issue clearly reveals.
Contrary to the fanciful precepts of the servant leadership concept that has developed in certain circles, in real life leaders ‘eat first’.
In short, leadership trainers are on the wrong track. They forget to consider the tension that always exists within a social group between individual interests and the maximisation of the group’s well-being. Pfeffer assures us that contrary to the fanciful precepts of the servant leadership concept that has developed in certain circles, in real life leaders “eat first”. That is, they always help themselves first and foremost. Leaders have an unquenchable thirst for dominance; the possession of power is the rule. To illustrate this, Pfeffer cites the legendary tantrums of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, and his management approach based on the medieval rules used by the samurai centuries ago.
In fact, desire for domination certainly inspires many leaders. Who could disagree that so-called leaders sometimes do the exact opposite of what they claim to be doing, often out of weakness, or akrasia as the ancient Greeks used to say? This is what Blaise Pascal, long ago, was alluding to when he stated that “discourses of humility are a source of pride in the vain,” adding that “few men speak humbly of humility, few chastely of chastity, few sceptically of scepticism.”
However, our author – apparently an ardent admirer of Ayn Rand and her theses on the passion of rational egoism – is not making a clear distinction between judgements based on fact and judgements based on value. Pfeffer warns us that self-honesty, concern for others and generosity in leadership are all “bullshit”. To this, however, we could retort that never before have young graduates been so ardently in search of meaning, as all recent surveys show, and that the desire to cooperate is fundamental given that, to use an image proposed by Yuval Noah Harrari, this is what has enabled humans to fly to the moon while chimpanzees throw stones at visitors in zoos.
This is something that future leaders must consider. For as Søren Kierkegaard rightly pointed out in a short note, “it is only when one is clever enough to want to devise a system without ethics that everything works well, that one has a system that has everything, and all the rest, but from which one has omitted the only thing that is really necessary.”
This review was previously published in French by Xerfi Canal.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the position of ESCP Business School.
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