How Can We Hold the “Leadership Industry” Accountable?

SUMMING UP This month’s reader comments provide little hope that the leadership-development industry can achieve its goals, says James Heskett. So why does the leadership industry continue to thrive?
by James Heskett

Why Does the Leadership Industry Continue to Thrive?

The unstated assumption underlying most of responses to this month’s column is that the leadership industry has done little or nothing to improve leadership behaviors or to deter unproductive leadership actions. However, suggestions for ways of correcting this largely leave us with a frustrating sense that there is every reason to think that the industry will continue to grow and prosper without significantly affecting the quality of leadership in the world.

Our readers shared blame for the situation widely among academics, the leadership training they provide, market pressures, corporate governance shortcomings, and even the nature of leadership itself.

John led the charge by saying, “Having taught within business schools for 20 years, I’ve had instructors talk about ‘cash is king, it’s all about the bottom line, it’s all about the stock holders’ but seldom ‘it’s all about the employees and customers.’” Bruce Lloyd argued that there has been too much emphasis on power and too little on values in leadership literature and training. “Leadership … is much more concerned with how that power is used rather than how much power you have in the first place,” Lloyd wrote. Bealeader commented: “… leadership training is too often: (1) an infrequent, if not one time, event, and (2) offered to a select few.” In citing the pressures of market norms, Clark & Associates suggested that “Leadership is based on the relationships between humans. It is undermined by any company that tries to justify decisions based on market norms…. Academics and training alone will not create leaders. Life creates leaders.” Bill C., in pointing to corporate governance as an issue, said that “Leadership will continue to utilize the ‘corporate vessel’ for personal enrichment at the expense of all other shareholders until there is a change in the process of selecting board (members) …” Nisha Advani cited the nature of leadership itself in saying “Leadership, though grounded in fundamentals, is ultimately situational…”

Suggestions for dealing with these leadership industry issues varied. Pradip commented: “In a competitive industry there are many who want everyone to ‘buy in’ (to) their half baked research as ‘new truth.’” He called for a “rigorous research methodology” like what is used to test pharmaceutical drugs. Regarding breadth of training, Bealeader put it this way: “(If) leadership of some kind is taught organization wide, it can become part of the organization’s culture and something that everyone will understand and respond to when they see it.”

Others suggested new ways of thinking about organizations and leadership. For example, Pilgrim commented that the need for leadership is highly overrated. “We build structures with a slot at the top and the result is an implied need for leadership.” If our organizations were more fashioned like a networks, “leadership would emerge where needed and dissolve when another arose. Much of successful leadership is recognizing when it is not needed… And what is almost always not needed are the dozens of books on the shelves in the leadership section …” Sherri Holland added to this a thought-provoking notion of leadership when she said, “When individuals (not just leaders) commit to do all they can to uplift the performance of others, the focus changes and the behaviours improve. This is a collective responsibility. Leadership is a position you collectively occupy on the excellence ladder, not a person or a role… “

These are interesting ideas for thinking about leadership in the context of organizations. In total, however, this month’s comments provide little hope for change of the kind that will enable the leadership industry to become more effective in fostering enlightened leadership around the world. This leaves us with the question: Why does the leadership industry continue to thrive? What do you think?

Original Column

Jeffrey Pfeffer is tired of seeing billions spent on leadership programs that are taught with the usual small number of examples that extol the leadership virtues of “modesty, authenticity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and concern for the welfare and well-being of others.”

He thinks these virtues are not often reflected in what actually happens in real organizational life. Instead, the leaders he sees commonly exhibit immodest, inauthentic, dishonest, untrustworthy, and self-serving behaviors. They are rewarded if they produce short-term profit for shareholders and directors.

Pfeffer is also tired of seeing so-called leadership development services offered in a sanitized vacuum by a “leadership industry” under “brands” such as authentic leadership and servant leadership, brands that have been lauded by the very readers of this column in the past.

He’s so fed up with these notions that he has written a book titled Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. It would be easy to write off his book as a rant based on a non-scientific set of personal experiences if it wasn’t the product of someone who has a long list of academic achievements.

The irony here is that Pfeffer, a Stanford Graduate School of Business professor, and others of us, including me, are part of the leadership industry he criticizes. Give him credit, then, for seeking the kinds of messages he can impart to colleagues and students he believes will be useful to them, and allow him to live with himself. They include advice to aspiring leaders and those who would help develop them to, among other things:

  • Stop relying on examples that describe what should be rather than what is
  • Focus on what leaders do rather than on what they say
  • Reconcile yourself to the fact that sometimes leaders have to “behave badly” to do good
  • Recognize that leadership situations and the qualities they require are idiosyncratic—one size does not fit all
  • Recognize that leadership is a matter of “both/and” rather than “either/or” or “good/bad”
  • In dealing with leaders as they really are, forgive the inevitable transgression but file it away for future reference

Pfeffer attributes the abysmal levels of trust in which employees hold their organizations’ leaders (levels of trust, he fails to note, that are much higher for one’s immediate boss) to a series of disconnects between theory and reality, such as what leaders say and what they do. Such experiences may help account for the relatively small proportion of employees globally that are satisfied with their jobs. He doesn’t see it getting better unless we can find some ways “to restore the … linkages between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality.”

How do we restore those linkages? Are shareholders, particularly large institutional shareholders, in a position to do so through, for example, opportunities to exercise “say on pay” votes? How about boards of directors concentrating their attention on leadership behaviors that, at least in theory, should provide the basis for long-term performance rather than the behaviors exhibited by many leaders who are short-term optimizers and well rewarded for it through so-called performance-linked reward systems? How can aspiring leaders raise their voices when they see dysfunctional behavior at the top but fear losing the opportunity to have a shot at the top job? To what extent are the kinds of performance measures used—largely financial and short-term—the culprit?

Are Pfeffer’s suggestions likely to be more effective than what is studied and practiced now? How can we hold the “leadership industry” accountable? What do you think?

Selected References:

Bill George, Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003)

Robert K. Greenleaf and Larry C. Spears, Servant Leadership: A Journey Into the Nature of Legitimate Power & Greatness, 25th Anniversary Edition (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 2002)

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (New York: HarperCollins, 2015).

Post A Comment

In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.