Le AD ersh I p
Embrace Hard Truths to Develop Effective Leaders
Good leadership goes beyond popular qualities such as being inspirational, or aspirational traits such as modesty. Instead, effective leadership is about being able to use the resources at hand, in an appropriate way, to create lasting change By Jeffrey Pfeffer & Dr. M Muneer
Quite often we hear corporate honchos saying they need a more “inspirational” presentation on leadership to motivate their senior management team. According to them, content based on the realities of organisational life and related social science research isn’t uplifting enough.
Such views are common in the leadership development and training industry. Many leadership development programmes feature well-known speakers telling compelling life stories about overcoming various physical or economic challenges. There are also events that feature engaging speakers narrating examples of leaders who “apparently” are modest, authentic, taking care of others, telling the truth, and building trust, among other virtues. We say “apparently” because leaders are often quite successful at creating public personas that differ significantly from the reality of actually working with them.
As an expert on power leadership, Jeff’s work has established how power and influence skills are essential to getting things done. Power is the organisation’s last dirty secret, but it is also the secret to individual and organisational success. Telling inspiring fables doesn't develop either the knowledge or the skills that help people become more effective in getting things done – and there are examples galore, whether in politics, MNCs, SMEs, or less prominent sectors.
The pervasive “feel-good" approach to leadership development may explain
why such development is not effective. A Gallup study over two decades says that on average just 30% of employees are engaged at work. 17% are actively disengaged and the rest (53%) are “not engaged”. A 2018 survey reported that 80% of employees could do their jobs without their managers and only 53% thought their managers cared about their wellbeing, while an Edelman report found that 63% of executives felt their CEOs were somewhat or not at all credible. Another study says a mere 7% of senior managers think that their companies develop effective leaders. Much more research abounds with similar findings.
The leadership development industry is worth billions of dollars but quite often it is a waste of enterprise resources. Isn’t it time to change this and do things differently?
Inspiration will not necessarily create lasting change
Inspiration is a goal of many leadership development agendas, but the problem with inspiration is that it is a poor method to achieve lasting change. The temporary motivational high wears off rapidly.
Social psychology research evidence shows that social environments affect behaviour. Changing behaviour, be it in a 12-step abstinence programme or any other effort, requires altering the people in one's social network. Moreover, changing the physical cues that influence behavior is another important intervention. And as the quality movement taught us, the measurements that provide people feedback about what they should be doing and how well they are meeting edutainment – and instead assess the programmes against important objectives such as increasing engagement, decreasing turnover, ensuring sufficient numbers of leaders, and so forth.
The qualities that leadership programmes relentlessly advocate, albeit wonderful, are frequently absent in contemporary political and corporate leaders
their objectives is a third potent way of accomplishing behavioural change. Inspiration – not so much.
A new venture is designing applications to push people to engage in “better” – based on the evidence – leader behaviours, under the theory that cuing appropriate behaviour will drive productive change. At the lowest level, leadership development efforts should stop measuring how much people enjoy a programme – a process that reinforces Most leaders don't walk the walk
The qualities that leadership programmes relentlessly advocate, albeit wonderful, are frequently absent in contemporary political and corporate leaders. Modesty and many contemporary political or business leaders – Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, even Howard Schultz – don't seem to go together.
Decades of research shows that narcissism, not modesty, is correlated with being hired, being promoted, job tenure, and even sometimes group performance. The disconnect between what leadership development programmes advocate and what people see, often in their immediate environments from their own senior leaders, produces a high degree of cynicism and a reluctance to accept the lessons being proffered.
All leadership development efforts would be well-served by changing the emphasis from aspirational qualities that are not only rare but often not helpful, to a focus on pragmatic skills such as the abil-
ity to exude presence, build useful networks, create valuable resources, and tolerate not being liked. These skills are associated with many success metrics.
Isn’t "leadership" as a term ambiguous?
The concept of "leadership" and what we mean by effective leadership overall remains too ambiguous. There are many dimensions to leadership effectiveness: employee engagement, employee health and wellbeing, productivity, ethical compliance – the list goes on. These aspects are far from perfectly correlated with each other. Leadership development initiatives would benefit greatly from more focus. Organisations need to decide what the most important aspects of leadership are, and recognise the realities of trade-offs.
Leaders Must Master Organisational Politics
Leaders need to get things done. Period. An important focus of leadership development efforts needs to be teaching people in leadership roles how to understand and use the principles of power and influence that are invariably essential for making things happen.
Jeff has coached scores of people in the social science that permits them to understand power dynamics and principles of influence, practice using those ideas, and then make them do amazing things in their careers. Years later they still remember, and use, their knowledge. Retention of learning should be an important part of any leadership development effort so that resources aren't wasted on transitory effects.
Gerald Ferris, co-author of Political Skill at Work, has developed a political skills inventory and conducted numerous studies showing how political skill is associated with career success and leadership effectiveness. Those skills, and the influence tactics described by Robert Cialdini in his masterful books Influence and Pre-suasion, can be learned and practised.
Leaders who don't master organisational politics don't stay in their roles very long, and many career derailments occur when people reach organisational levels where jobs entail much more interdependence and the ability to influence others.
Power and influence concepts do a much better job of helping people understand what they see in the organisational and social world around them and becoming more effective at making things happen. Far from Jack Nicholson's famous line in the movie, A Few Good Men, not only can people handle the truth, educational efforts that are rooted in the hard truths of leadership, even if occasionally challenging or unpleasant, are much more likely to produce lasting improvements in leader effectiveness.
JEffrEy PfEffEr is chair professor of organisational behaviour at GSB, Stanford University; and M MunEEr is co-founder at the non-profit Medici Institute and management consultant/ advisor. Twitter @MuneerMuh