Work As It Is
Leadership BS

Work As It Is

Best-selling management expert Jeffrey Pfeffer knocks the stars out of your eyes in this hard-nosed, cynical breakdown of management myths.

Jeffrey Pfeffer – since 1979 the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and author or co-author of 14 books – is among the world’s foremost management experts. With credentials like those, you might not expect Pfeffer to be an hilarious, cynical, hard-nosed debunker of management-expert truisms – but he is.

From his first paragraph, Pfeffer stakes out his ground in no uncertain terms: Legends and heroic stories, he says, cannot generate real change. He finds that current, widely held notions about leadership derive mostly from wishing they were so – not from empirical data. Pfeffer impatiently rejects the current vogue that claims the best leaders are the most compassionate. Amusingly, he argues that narcissistic leaders pose less of an obstacle to success than does the fantasy that collaboration and charitable behavior fuel success.

Pfeffer offers quite accessible, workable, contrarian advice. He shares his distaste for the leadership industry, and his articulate contempt will make you laugh. His most revelatory revelations address the considerable delta between what business propaganda tells you leaders should do and what they actually do. And, as Pfeffer makes clear, leaders on all levels can learn a lot by exploring that delta.

Pushy People Win Promotions

The most valuable skill great leaders possess, Pfeffer posits, is a genius for creating their own personal reality. His avatar of this genius is Steve Jobs, whose brilliance manifested in convincing talented, sought-after employees that working at Apple would be the pinnacle of their career. Pfeffer dispassionately dissects how narcissism helps narcissists attain their goals, pointing to Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Michael Eisner and David Geffen as exemplars. Today’s business students, studies say, are the most narcissistic in history, which, Pfeffer believes, will help them succeed.

Immodesty in all its manifestations – narcissism, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, unwarranted self-confidence – helps people attain leadership positions…and positively affects their ability to hold on to those positions, extract more resources and even helps…aspects of their performance on the job.Jeffrey Pfeffer

Pfeffer argues that leaders mustn’t hog all the glory or their best staffers will feel that they’re not getting the attention they deserve – which leads to resentment, disengagement and high turnover. He believes one reason pushy people win promotions is that those who do the promoting notice them. So, he urges, in today’s world, you must self-promote. Finally, Pfeffer says, narcissists make more money. Period. Modest people in the same positions will earn less.

Starry-Eyed Dreamers

When Pfeffer speaks at conferences, he urges his audience to embrace tough realities. Evidence that most workers are “distrustful, disengaged, dissatisfied” and “despairing” leads him to suggest – as he does throughout – that inspiring tales of empathetic, humane, compassionate management are meaningless at best and destructive at worst. He argues that coming into a workplace expecting a paradise of communication, shared goals and common purpose leads deluded workers to cynicism.

In most offices, starry-eyed dreamers encounter ruthless ambition, constant betrayal, and few links between effort and reward. A rational person shouldn’t cling to unrealistic optimism when facing the reality of today’s workplace. To cope with a work situation’s true nature, accept what exists around you and act accordingly.

It might be great if leaders looked after employee well-being and ‘ate last,’ but, to continue the metaphor, if I were in a food line, and I was very hungry, I would not count on most leaders to care much about how much food I had on my plate.Jeffrey Pfeffer

Pfeffer recounts that Apple employees coined a phrase for the inevitable moment when Steve Jobs would summon, berate and fire them. They called it “being Steved.” Linda Wachner, ex-CEO of the clothing company Warnaco, cursed and yelled at her associates in public. Oracle leader Larry Ellison could go on for an hour once he started haranguing his staff in meetings. And, nearly lifelong FBI director J. Edgar Hoover illegally wiretapped people. He kept his job for decades by taping his superiors at the Justice Department. To cling to power, he routinely blackmailed them.  

A Clear-Eyed Realist

Pfeffer closes his aggressive debunking of management mythology with nuggets of worthwhile, brief advice: Don’t listen to descriptions of a work situation. Study it for yourself, accept it the way it really is and figure out how to deal with it. Be a clear-eyed realist. Never trust what you are told. Study your boss and your employees.

Pfeffer cites David Kelley, founder of the influential product design firm IDEO, with admiration. Kelley tells students and clients that to learn how to design “user-oriented” solutions they should observe how people work through life’s tough situations.

One of the reasons leaders lie is that they seldom face serious consequences for doing so.Jeffrey Pfeffer

Accept that, at times, you will perform unpleasant tasks to get the results you want. You may have to be ruthless and put your own interests first to instigate positive change, make work situations more efficient, accomplish difficult tasks or succeed in offices where competition is fierce. As John T. Scott and Robert Zaretsky’s analysis of Renaissance political genius Machiavelli and his seminal work The Prince indicates, virtue doesn’t get the job done. Owning tough truths and acting on them does. Embrace tough choices, and take the road that leads to accomplishment.

Hard Reality

Pfeffer offers a bracing, intelligent dose of reality intended to subvert the pervasive gooey hogwash that interferes with the cold-blooded pursuit of profit. Pfeffer likes bald assertions and very, very, very long sentences. Unlike 99% of other leadership writers, he wastes no time over explaining the links between the data he presents and the conclusions the information suggests. Pfeffer lets you draw your own conclusions. He has no patience for self-delusion or claptrap masquerading as common knowledge. This is an insightful, unsentimental appraisal of the dark underbelly of leadership and a masterwork in its field.

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s other books include Managing With Power: Politics and Influence in Organizations; Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t; and Dying For a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – and What We Can Do About It.

Share this Story
Show all Reviews