by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development Lead International USA

How do leaders get it so wrong?

I found myself getting more depressed as I visited with family members at a recent gathering.  Conversations around the question, “So, how is your work going?” followed a similar pattern. An initial expression that said, “That is the last thing I want to talk about” followed by a grudging indirect comment that things could be better, leading to a tidal wave of complaints. The conversations also had one other thing in common. The complaints didn’t relate to the type of work performed but all related to the work environment with the primary culprit being the manager. Perhaps I am biased since these are family members, but from all I have observed they are hard working, competent professionals who want to do a good job. More than that, they are well adjusted, emotionally mature people who would naturally contribute to a positive work environment. As my relatives described one fundamental leadership mistake after another, I kept thinking, “How do leaders get it so wrong?” 

Self Interest

Having spent most of my career teaching leadership, I felt somehow responsible for the pain that leaders seem to be creating in work environments around the globe. My feelings of responsibility were not eased after reading Jeffrey Pfeffer’s latest book, Leadership BS, Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. Pfeffer lays a good part of the blame at the leadership development industry and its focus on inspirational and uplifting accounts of positive leadership. Leadership qualities like modesty, authenticity, honesty, trust and service are all wonderful things but, according to Pfeffer, just not very realistic in how leadership is practiced. And by making these qualities the focus of leadership training, we (the leadership development industry) set people up to fail. Pfeffer is not trying to lower the standard of leadership and would no doubt like to live in a world where leaders are selfless and noble. He just doesn’t believe that is the world we live in and we need to be talking about leadership structures and practices that reflect that leaders and followers are generally motivated by self interest. According to Pfeffer, the key is to shape behaviors through changing the environment rather than encouraging leaders to do the right thing.

Like most good leadership books, Pfeffer’s is meant to get the reader to look at a problem differently and move towards a different set of solutions. I could not find fault with his description of the current leadership situation. In most organizations, even those whose values and purposes align more closely with noble leadership, leaders act in their self interest. Pfeffer argues that modesty and humility which Jim Collins (Good to Great) cites as an important leadership quality in companies that become great, seem more likely once people get to the top. Climbing the corporate ladder is often dependent on making sure others in the organization take notice of your accomplishments. Quiet and humble leaders tend to fade into the background when compared with aggressive leaders who know how to draw attention to their successes.

Leaders Eat Last?

Pfeffer cites the military’s practice of having officers eat last as an example of more noble leadership. However, he cites the reality that CEO and executive pay have increased dramatically in recent years while their employees have seen stagnant wages. Corporate downsizing often sees the executive team remain or senior executives leave with attractive severance packages that are dramatically different from the rank and file. Pfeffer attributes part of the reason to the distinctively different lifestyle and nature of work experienced by senior leaders and their followers. This situation is made worse when leaders are brought in from outside the company because they don’t share common history with their followers. Organizations like the military where leaders must rise through the ranks tend to create leaders who keep the needs of the followers in the forefront. 

Lower Standards

Even honesty which seems so fundamental to good leadership apparently is not so important anymore. According to Pfeffer and the studies he cites, leaders can get away with a lot of marginal truth telling because as followers, we have lowered the standard. Lying is common and accepted in all aspects of life and we have a greater tolerance for it in organizational life than we do in our personal life. Similarly, trust building approaches such as honoring loyal employees and customers can have an economic downside. Laying off older, more expensive employees just makes “good business sense” as does diminishing higher (and expensive) levels of customer service once customers have been acquired.

Getting Real

Pfeffer is not advocating that we need more lying, selfish leaders but, if we realize the realities of the world we must navigate, we are more likely to develop strategies to get where we want to go. So, where does that leave those of us who believe there is great value in pointing leaders, especially the next generation of leaders, to a higher standard of leadership?     

Part of Pfeffer’s argument is that bad behavior gets rewarded or at least not punished enough to prevent it from being commonplace. However, there are also examples of leaders who get passed over for promotions or derail once they get to the top because they lacked the more “noble” leadership skills.  More importantly, the world labor market is changing in terms of age, geography, and technology. The future is on the side of enlightened leadership that is consistent with the preferences of the younger workforce and the technological advances that will change work and working relationships.

Better leaders, anybody? 

One of the big disconnects in leadership development according to Pfeffer is between what people want to hear (good news, nice stories) and what they need (the truth.)  I agree. But I believe the truth is that people need to be reminded that there is a better way and it is possible for leaders to follow that path. Perhaps it will not be common and Pfeffer does a great job of detailing why, but enlightened leadership built around creating an environment where followers can do their very best will be the one that leads to success. The examples of those companies who make this kind of leadership an organizational norm are heralded for their achievements.

The great irony is that the leadership style that seems to give away the most to followers will actually return the most to the leader.

I can’t imagine that any of the folks burdened by bosses who are making everyone miserable would not want the message of a different kind of leadership to be promoted as a better way forward. I know it would make a lot of family gatherings more enjoyable.