Business and corporate life is a cutthroat world, where perceptions of popular and successful leaders have been created in fiction. While there is no doubt that these leaders have presented phenomenal leadership learning’s for the rest of the world, their climb up the ladder has always been documented in a positive light, leaving the negatives in darkness.

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (2017) by Jeffrey Pfeffer lifts the veil off the rosy picture that most leadership books and biographies put forth, and gives us an alternative insight into what a nasty business the way up to the top really is.

Mythical Storytelling

Who doesn’t want to tell an inspiring tale of a person who rises from the ashes of struggles, only to shine at the top of the business ladder? Well, everyone does, especially since everyone wants to listen! Heroic stories make books sell. Yet they do not give the true picture.

Take the example of Jack Welch, well-known CEO of General Electric. Books often tend to leave out terms such as ‘GE Jerks’ and ‘rank and yank’ – the former being a name for a type of workers that existed under Welch’s leadership, and the latter, being a system of ranking all employees and firing the bottom 10% year-on-year, irrespective of overall career performance.

Additionally, literature never mentions the number of pollution lawsuits GE has faced, the price-fixing schemes, or the cases of fraud registered against Welch.

Such doe-eyed authorship results in two main problems – 

  1. Flawless biographies create utopian legacies. People looking for inspiration from such books give up due to the fact that they can never imagine living up to their legacies.
  1. With this feeling, real change never takes place, because people never realise that successes can be achieved despite imperfections
Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer
Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Narcissism and Self-Promotion Are Leadership Traits

Books and leadership gurus talk about qualities such as thirst for knowledge, strong personalities, ambition, trustworthiness, drive to succeed, listening skills, empathy, etc. However, one will never see narcissism or self-promotion as virtues of great leaders. 

Yet, research has proven that effective and successful leaders have a streak of narcissism and are prone to self-promotion to an extent. Research also suggests that some leaders are not only confident but also arrogant, and believe that they hold a special power over others. 

Let’s take Donald Trump for example. As a successful businessman and leader, his self-promotion has attracted people to his positive qualities than the negatives, despite the negatives being clear enough for all to see – right down to electing him as the President. 

It is the bold actions, risk-taking, and overconfidence of such leaders that make people respect them. A similar observation of characteristics can be seen amongst the other presidents of the United States. A study suggested that out of 41 former presidents, those with fearless dominance, narcissism, and persuasiveness received the best evaluations for leadership.

Phony Over Authenticity

Another fact that leadership books slide over is that the decision-making process requires heartless decision making too. Leaders need to block out their emotions while making certain decisions, need to play a phony act in some cases, and fake their beliefs in many.

Helen Rubin, who has worked with many leaders to write biographies, believes that leaders have to put up an act. Sooner or later this act comes naturally to them. Take for CEO of Intel, Andy Grove’s wolf school. It was a workshop designed to toughen up shy managers and involved managers conditioning themselves to be brutal to face.

Leadership can need ‘a fake it till you make it’ attitude if it takes you up the ladder, keeps you there, and most importantly if that is what is needed for the business to succeed. Authenticity can take a backseat!

Lies, Lies And More Lies

It is hard to believe that all leaders follow the principle of truth. George Washington’s famous cherry tree confession is an example that we learn early on in life. However, it has been proven that lying has brought success to many leaders of the past.

A study showed that people at the top could easily lie, and lie often. This is because people in power have a lesser chance of facing the consequences of lying. Additionally, conflicts can be smoothened over by lying.

Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, many employees claim had a distorted vision of his company and often invented his own reality.

Trust Needs To Be Broken

No literature list of ‘must-have’ leadership qualities can be complete without trust. Yet, trust is a virtue that many leaders lack, and disregard often. 

A study conducted amongst American workers on trust in 2014 showed paltry results, where only 7% of the study group believed that the senior management was truthful about their actions, only 10% trusted managers to make correct decisions, and only 14% thought that their leaders were ethical and honest.

Not all breaches of trust can be attributed to the evil schemes of the evil leader.  In fact, it is common knowledge that leaders have to undertake brutal breaches of trust due to unavoidable circumstances in business. Breaking alliances, spying on competitors, dealing with competitors, making abrupt changes in the organization structure, mass lay-offs, etc. are only a few sins committed in the name of business.

Maintaining The Top Position

Care and concern for the team and the employee below them is another quality of leaders that gets glorified in books. However, in reality, leaders often use their power to stay in power.

As discussed earlier, leaders need to appear to be confident and self-promotion is of vital importance. This very fact proves that as a leader, one has to appear flawless – even if it is at the cost of making an innocent person a scapegoat.

Leaders often tend to deceive, trample, place blame, and slash careers simply to maintain their positions on the top.

No Reason For Loyalty

In the corporate world, the top management will almost always protect their power, without any consideration to employees. Mass layoffs are better than the organization losing face by scaling down on office space – is a general perception. Essentially, there is not much credit given to loyalty.

Moreover, reciprocity and loyalty don’t hold much value in the corporate world. Most organizations put themselves before their employees and consider that loyalty and hard work gets paid for every month-end in the form of a paycheck. This attitude towards loyalty and reciprocity can be attributed to the belief that in business, everything is a transaction, and even loyalty is a move towards some personal gain in the future.

Observing The Ugly Truth

Playacting’ is a term in sports such as football or basketball, where players fake injury to simply gain a free kick/throw. Leaders are conditioned to tune in with the benefits of playacting. They know to focus more on observing behavior patterns along with listening to what is being said. This is the reason why socializing outside the workplace has become an essential tool for leaders.

Machiavelli’s The Prince is a prime example of the protection of the virtuous by immoral means in the name of the greater good. Leadership works on similar principles, especially, finding the least dubious methods to achieving success.

For example, in Apple, the phrase, ‘You’ve been Steved’ was commonplace for employees who had gotten bullied and/or threatened by Jobs. While it is disconcerting, maybe the ugly truth lies in the fact that Apple’s success wouldn’t have been much without many getting ‘Steved’.

The Crux Of The Matter…

The crux of the matter is, while we all have had books on leadership to inspire us, most create flawless, utopian characters that are too hard to follow truly. This literatures completely miss out on reality and often hide the ugly truth behind the CEO’s desk.

Aspiring leaders of today should, therefore, keep their eyes, ears, and minds open to the fact that leadership isn’t all virtuous and has its fair share of Leadership B.S!!