Machiavelli Is For Losers – Not Leaders

“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.”―Cervantes, Don Quixote

Stanford Professor Jeff Pfeffer is reading me on LinkedIn – that’s a good thing!

His response to my most recent post on effective leadership begins with a picture of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He goes on to claim that my “fact-free” views on leadership are responsible for “nothing improving” in the “leadership industry” – whatever that is.

I respect Professor Pfeffer, as both colleague and controversialist – a prolific, stimulating and dedicated teacher. But he has never been a leader, met a payroll, founded or run a business. Indeed, rarely has one so clever been so consistently wrong, in my view. As a long-time leader who has lived a topic Pfeffer has merely studied, I could not disagree more with his pronouncements.

Consider that his so-called facts rest on three impossibly contradictory biases:

Bias #1: Leadership Doesn’t Matter. From his 1977 review of research, Pfeffer concludes that “leadership does not make a significant difference to outcomes,” noting that leadership rarely explains more than 10 percent of the differences in performance between the best and the worst organizations. So, if leadership is virtually irrelevant, who cares about leadership principles anyway?

Bias #2: Behaving Badly Works. Since leadership doesn’t matter, the imperative shifts to seizing power as a personal possession. For the squeamish, Pfeffer assures that “Once you’re powerful, people will forget how you got there.” Thus, he instructs students to “break rules,” “make credible threats” and “self-promote,” even closing his 2010 book, Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t, with the breathless directive to grab power “as if your life depends on it – because it does.” After all, he asserts, we live in a culture in which “not only do the good not get rewarded and the bad punished, but the reverse is true.”

Bias #3: Leadership Matters After All – and It’s FUBARPfeffer’s third fact is a reversal of Bias #1 and a result of Bias #2. He now claims that leadershipdoes matter. And, alas, he’s come across leaders who’ve bought into Biases #1 and #2 to bully people, grab power, and ignore performance, thus creating awful work environments. So, in his new book, Leadership BS, he promises to help readers navigate the toxicity generated by the “fables” of those in “the leadership industry” who promote honesty, trustworthiness and authenticity as de rigueur.

Now that’s real leadership B.S.

As the son of a scientist, I’m very familiar with actual scientific studies – and familiar as well with how they can prove something that is simply false. To be fair, many social scientists are attempting to measure something that resists real measurement and by its very nature is heavily influenced by bias.

Under the guise of social science research, Pfeffer seeks to prove that a tyrant’s methods are the only ones that work, be they in government or business. Thus, as Pfeffer’s dubious facts make their way from the journals of academic obscurity into the mainstream press, I feel a duty to point out that the emperor has no clothes, no matter what his studies show.

But don’t trust either of us about how 21st-century leadership really works. Just conduct your own thought experiment: Imagine you have a prized skill set and are being heavily recruited. You can either work for a Pfeffer-trained “leader,” versed in the ways of ruthlessness, bullying, and stealing the limelight. Or you can work for a leader so “naïve” that she empowers you, tells the truth, and gives you credit when things work out. Which one would you follow?

In this modern marketplace, people always choose to follow authentic leaders over Pfefferians who have grabbed power instead of becoming leaders. And yes, great leaders are rare, but anyone who has been around them can attest that they make all the difference. They are worth studying and emulating – even when they’re flawed.

Power is not the same thing as leadership, and Machiavelli’s path to power is the opposite of leadership. Armed with nothing but what the professor calls “pablum,” I, and so many others, will gladly go into marketplace battle against the mean-spirited, selfish, dissembling jerks who give leaders a bad name.

By Joel Peterson