Leadership and its discontents

There’s plenty of advice available about how to be a great leader. Be wary.

In most large bookshops, there are many shelves in the sections on business. Nearly all the books are oriented to managers, with an occasional one addressed to workers.

Many of these books are about “leadership.” In principle, anyone can be a leader, offering vision, guidance and mentoring for others in a team, the others being “followers.” In practice, most of the writings about leadership are aimed at managers, those who have formal power within hierarchical organisations, and who might also be called bosses. “Leader” sounds more high-minded than “boss.”

            Recently, I came across Jeffrey Pfeffer’s 2015 book Leadership BS. The title alone indicates that this is not another treatment designed to inspire managers. The book is about US corporations, but many of Pfeffer’s observations apply more widely.

            For years, Pfeffer has been observing the leadership industry, which is most active among US corporations. There is a thriving business in providing advice and inspiration to managers. All very well, except that Pfeffer gives plenty of evidence and examples showing that the performance of US business leaders hasn’t improved. Workers are dissatisfied and companies aren’t doing well. The quality of leadership seems unaffected by the efforts of the leadership advice industry.

The explanation, Pfeffer argues, is that the advice is wrong. The consultants commonly recommend that leaders be modest, authentic, truth-telling, trustworthy and put their workers first. Pfeffer says these are nice aspirations and gives examples of successful leaders who display these traits. But he also says these sorts of leaders are exceedingly rare and gives numerous examples and arguments why these traits are not the route to great leadership.

            According to Pfeffer, modesty can be attractive in a leader, but few modest individuals ever rise to senior management. To get ahead, touting one’s talents and achievements is a more reliable route, and exaggerating helps too. Narcissists thrive in hierarchical systems.

It is not always clear what being “authentic” means in practice. If it means displaying outwardly what one feels internally, it is risky. If a CEO is feeling deflated and pessimistic, it is unlikely to be helpful to the workforce to display these emotions. Instead, a great leader will show just the emotions needed to help followers do their best.

Pfeffer’s chapter on truth-telling presents the case for lying and deception. These are common in everyday life. Telling the truth can be disastrous for a leader. Everything Pfeffer says about lying and truth-telling accords with what I have read and written about the prevalence and usefulness of deception, in arenas ranging from politics to activism.

Should leaders be trustworthy? Pfeffer says not necessarily. There are numerous examples of when betraying trust is the way good leaders actually proceed. Why do leaders get away with this? The answer is that there are few penalties for betraying trust. Because others need leaders for their own purposes, they commonly continue to deal with them even after brutal betrayals of themselves or others.

When those at the top look down, they see only shit.
When those at the bottom look up, they see only arseholes.

            Leaders commonly look out for themselves at the expense of their followers, as illustrated by the CEOs receiving massive salaries and bonuses while their companies go downhill. As Pfeffer puts it, leaders “eat first.”


The implication for ordinary workers, Pfeffer says, is not to put yourself at risk by trusting or believing leaders. Don’t expect leaders to tell the truth, be authentic or look out for you.

“The bottom line: If you have a beneficent environment and a leader who actually cares about you, enjoy and treasure the moment, but don’t expect it to be replicated elsewhere or to even persist indefinitely where you are. The world is often not a just or fair place, our hopes and desires notwithstanding. Get over it. Take care of yourself and watch out for your interests. If others do as well, all the better. To the extent you develop self-reliance and cease relying on leadership myths and stories, you will be much better off, and substantially less likely to confront disappointment and the career consequences that devolve from relying on the unreliable.” (pp. 191-192)

What are the implications for leaders? Pfeffer mainly gives a negative view: don’t be taken in by the preaching of leadership consultants and gurus. Instead, seek to understand the way organisations actually operate, without the blinders of unrealistic just-so stories. There is not likely to be any advice that is universally applicable. What to do depends on the circumstances, and knowing what attributes to display given the organisational culture. Keeping in touch with front-line workers is important.

Although lying is sometimes advisable for the greater good, one of the realities of companies is that top managers look after themselves at the expense of subordinates and the company itself. Pfeffer doesn’t recommend that CEOs pay themselves millions while sending their company broke, even though this frequently happens. He would prefer managers to do the right thing, but without succumbing to the blandishments of leadership consultants.

Jeffrey Pfeffer

            This sounds quite depressing, but some context is important. Pfeffer writes about US companies, most of which are toxic workplaces, but the situation can be different elsewhere. The US has the highest level of individualism of any country. In more collectivist societies, there can be a greater level of community and workplace solidarity. The US is the most economically unequal post-industrial society. Economic inequality can be both a cause and consequence of exploitative behaviours in workplaces.


In some sectors, such as teaching, engineering and healthcare, bureaucratic hierarchy is moderated by the system of professions, with training and standards that promote a different mode of interaction. (However, many of these sectors are increasingly bureaucratised.) A strong trade union, responsive to the rank and file, can be a counter to exploitative managers. A policy of having leaders serve short terms and then return to their previous positions can limit the corruptions of power.

            Then there are alternatives to bureaucracy. One workplace model is the cooperative, in which there are no bosses. Decisions can be made by consensus, a informally or using a formal process. In social movements, many groups aspire to operate in a non-hierarchical fashion, devoting effort to fostering supportive group processes.

Another option is to select decision-makers randomly. This approach has been widely trialled for policy matters; it can also be used within workplaces. Yet another economic model is commons-based peer production, exemplified by the creation of free software and Wikipedia. Bureaucracy is not the only way to organise work.

Anyone with experience in egalitarian groups knows there can be all sorts of challenges and problems. Working in such groups is more likely to be satisfying but, because expectations are higher, failures can be more damaging. In some future society in which non-hierarchical systems have become commonplace or even dominant, no doubt it will be necessary for some critic to write Egalitarian BS.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Anneleis Humphries and Jolin Tian for valuable comments on drafts.

PS There is a promising beginning to studies of egalitarian BS. A classic analysis is What a Way to Run a Railroad.

 Appendix: why I’m interested in books on organisational dynamics

When I mentioned to a new colleague that I was reading Leadership BS, he asked why I was interested in such a topic. Good question. My interest goes back many years. In the 1980s, I wrote a book titled Uprooting War in which I analysed several “roots of war”. One of them I identified as bureaucracy, referring to an organisational form based on hierarchy and the division of labour, in which workers are interchangeable cogs. Bureaucracy is the dominant mode of organising work in government bodies, large corporations, militaries and in some churches, trade unions and other organisations.

            Also in Uprooting War, I presented several alternatives to the war system. One of them is “self-management”, in which people collectively organise their work and lives without bosses. In the workplace, this alternative is called workers’ self-management or workers’ control. Self-management is not just hypothetical. There are many self-managing enterprises. As well, there are historical episodes of society-wide self-organisation, most famously the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s.

To understand the nature of bureaucracy and its antithesis self-management, I read many articles and books. In Friends of the Earth Canberra, we did a project on bureaucracy, interviewing members of the Department of National Development and Energy. Later, in Schweik Action Wollongong, a group of us carried out a project on Challenging Bureaucratic Elites, linking ideas about nonviolent action to struggles within bureaucracies. As well, I became involved in campaigns against workplace sexual harassment, and then in advising whistleblowers, who are often targets of workplace bullying.

To address these issues, it’s useful to better understand how organisations operate. Hence, when I visit a large bookshop, I check out the business section, even though there is usually little available from the worker’s point of view and even less about self-management.