Book Review: Leadership Development BS by Ginny Vanderslice

January 14, 2019

Leadership Development BS, Jeffrey Pfeffer, 2015, HarperBusiness

First, Pfeffer makes some important points in this about which we would agree. He makes a case, early in the book, that if all you are doing is teaching people “leadership” concepts such as “tell the truth,” “be authentic,” etc. and even skills then the leadership training won’t be successful. He says that there needs to be organizational supports (much like cohort groups) as well as organizational requirements, clearly articulated and measured, supporting people to use the skills and behaviors they are taught. Without these, people will quickly revert to behavior that is most comfortable for them. For example, if you teach people to develop others and then don’t require evidence that they are doing so (e.g., tracking if their direct reports each have development plans and if those plans are being effectively implemented), then it is unlikely that people will develop others given the other demands on them that are being measured and evaluated. Similarly, a serious assessment every year or two that includes behaviors that are taught in a leadership development program – with consequences if people are not improving – will also make a difference.

We completely agree with the concepts of ongoing organizational support and measurement/assessment of the effective implementation of the behaviors that are taught.

Second, on specific topics such as authenticity, he makes some very good points, mostly about understanding these concepts in a more nuanced way, with an appreciation of what he calls “politics and power.” He does not seem to be saying LD programs are teaching people to be authentic, and that is bad; rather he is saying that there are times authenticity is not the best choice for a leader – such as when the leader is worried about a business downturn and yet her/his job is to keep people positive and generating solutions. In that case, what you feel and what you say may not be the same.

Finally, in sections such as the section about Telling the Truth, he makes the case that not telling the truth is the business and cultural norm – and sometimes may be required when, for example, you are marketing against other companies that are not telling the truth. He basically suggests it is naive to think that telling the truth will win the day. Again, he is right that we may need to ‘stretch reality’ in some cases, and I don’t think he’s advocating lying. I think he is suggesting there is a more a nuanced reality and that LD programs that proclaim that leaders should ALWAYS tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, are doing participants a disservice. Personally, I think this is one of his weakest chapters. I actually agree that we need to use judgment, to assess a situation and power dynamics that exist, and then make a choice about what we say, but I do not agree that because the norm is to lie, we should just all agree to lie, which is a bit how this chapter reads to me. I also think he makes far too little of the many examples of negative consequences of lying (I particularly disliked the segment where he suggested it’s okay to tell people they have career opportunities that they don’t really have – that crosses way over the line for me).

So, in sum, I was pleased to find that some of the points he makes early on – about the organization supporting the behavior it is teaching its people and then measuring and assessing – is part of what we attempt to get our clients to do. Those that do this, not surprisingly, have better results.

His case about the specific concepts only makes sense to me if we think about behavior being nuanced, understanding power and politics (this book is his precursor to his book about power), and making informed choices for the greater good – as opposed to one’s own personal gain.

Ginny Vanderslice