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Leadership Failure. . . And What Can Be Done About It

Jack-NicholsonIn his masterful study, Leadership BS: Fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time, Jeff Pfeffer forces his readers to deal with the actual realities of leadership. The picture is not pretty. His description is both highly analytical and comprehensive, dealing with both leadership practice and thinking.

Acknowledging the truth of his description will be painful for most and often dismissed. Indeed, the core of Pfeffer’s argument is that the “qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees or, for that matter, for long-term organizational performance.”

Of course, you can’t change reality unless you see it clearly. So to riff off Jack Nicholson’s infamous statement, “you can’t handle the truth,” I’m laying out what Pfeffer sees as the core problem of leadership–disconnection.

  • 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 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 workplaces 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 make workplaces better and organizations more effective, and the base rate with which such prescriptions get implemented.

It’s actually possible for you to restore some of these connections. The beginning place might be to reconnect with the real world. Effective leaders work hard to keep themselves grounded in the realities of what they are doing and why they are doing it. And the sooner you and I confront these truths, the better off we’ll all be.


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