Leadership: Connections And Disconnections

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time by Jeffrey Pfeffer is one of the best books I’ve read on leadership. This book is one for your bookshelf. Below is an excerpt from the book.



The problem with leadership is at its core a story of disconnections:

  • the disconnect between what leaders say and what they do;
  • the disconnect between the leadership industry’s prescriptions and the reality of many leaders’ behaviors and traits;
  • the disconnect between the multidimensional nature of leadership performance and the simple, noncontingent answers so many people seek;
  • the disconnect between how the leadership industry is evaluated (happy sheets that tap inspiration and satisfaction) and the actual consequences of leader failures (miserable work-places and career derailments);
  • the disconnect between leader performance and behavior and the consequences those leaders face;
  • the disconnect between what most people seem to want (good news, nice stories, emotional uplift) and what they need (the truth);
  • the disconnect between what would make workplaces better and organizations more effective, and the base rate with which such prescriptions get implemented.


And there are even more disconnects-such as the disconnect between the leadership industry and the leaders whom that industry serves, and the disconnect between the people who bear the consequences of leader behavior and the leadership industry’s manifest and many failing.

Framed in this way, the remedy for the many leadership failures seems simple, and it is: to restore the broken connections, the linkages between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality.

But this task will not be easy. The disconnections serve many powerful interests, and they serve those interests extremely well. The leadership industry rolls along, profiting from the disconnect between its prescriptions and what gets done, a disconnection that means not only problems remain but also the business opportunities from speaking, writing, blogging, and so forth about those problems. Leaders love the disconnect that leaves them unaccountable for the workplaces they mess up and their poor performance and bad behavior. And worst of all, lots of people are complicit in the disconnect between the reality that exists and what they would prefer to believe and the stories they want to and often pay to hear.

It is possible to restore at least some of these connections, some of the time. One way to begin might be to reconnect with the real world. One of the important but troubling phenomena that occur in organizations of all types is that the higher you rise, the more that people will tell you how smart and right you are, and the less connection you will have to the realities of organizational life. So good leaders seek to keep themselves grounded in the realities of what they are doing and, more important, why they are doing it.

When Rudy Crew was in the process of being forced from his position as chancellor of New York City’s schools by that other Rudy, Rudy Giuliani — who, no surprise, has also written a book on leadership — Crew decided he needed to reconnect with the essential reality of why he was doing what he was doing, a reality embodied in the one million children in New York’s schools, many of whom could not read at grade level. These children looked like a young version of himself and represented the reason Rudy Crew went into education in the first place. So Crew decided to go to a school.

As Crew told the story to a class I taught, he went into a classroom, maybe it was second or third grade, and there was an African American child working on a math problem. He was not having a lot of success, as after he did the problem, the eraser would come out and the kid would rub out the answer and start over. Crew came up to the boy and asked him what he was doing and how it was going. The child replied that he was doing math and having trouble doing it. “Keep at it, you’ll get it,” said Crew.

As Crew and those accompanying him were preparing to leave that classroom a while later, the child came up to Crew and asked, “Mister, who are you?” Crew replied that he was the chancellor, the person in charge of all of the city’s schools. “Wow,” said the boy, “you’re the man.” And then, in the way
that only small children can, with complete openness and lack of malice, the kid asked Crew, “Are you any good at your job?” “Some days I think I am,” Crew replied, “and some days I’m not so sure.” The pupil looked up at Crew, smiled, and said, “Well, just keep at it. You’ll get it.”

I am not sure what will make a difference in the leadership crises that cost leaders their careers and provide too many employees with enervating work environments. But I am quite sure what will not work: more of the same inspiring sentiments based neither in the social science research about human behavior nor in the facts about the state of play in the leadership industry. In the end, people can handle the truth, and the sooner they confront those truths, the better off everyone will be. And until then, everyone, not just leaders, but everyone, will have to keep working away, until we get it.



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