Maybe ‘authentic leadership’ is total bullshit

Authentic Leadership is BS

From here:

“Leaders need to be true to what the situation demands and what the people around them want and need,” he says. “Each of us plays a number of different roles in our lives, and people behave and think differently in each of those roles, so demanding authenticity doesn’t make sense.”

This is from Jeffrey Pfeffer, who’s a professor at Stanford. I’ve quoted him a couple of times before, including in this post about why companies don’t operate according to moral norms. He’s got a new book out called Leadership BS.  The whole idea is that “the leadership industry” — let’s say “training,” give or take — is worth about $70 billion, with 35% of that (about $25 billion) being spent on leadership/management training.

Pfeffer argues that the whole industry is kind of BS (hence the title of the book) because of all the reasons you’d expect:

  • See/hear only good things about leaders (think “Iceberg Theory”)
  • Too much of a focus on buzzwords like “being authentic”
  • No real metrics on what makes a good leader
  • We want stories out of the leadership industry instead of real focus on what works and what doesn’t
  • The evaluations are mostly around “Did you like the session?” as opposed to anything deeper
  • We focus too much on the normative

The quote above is interesting, though, because “authentic leadership” has been all the rage recently. I’ve written about it a little bit too. But that quote above is powerful/makes sense. We all do play different roles in life — I’m the same core person at base, but I’m different as a son, a husband, a co-worker, a friend to X-person, a friend to Y-person, etc. — and one of the big keys is adapting to the specific role you’re in.

It is, logically, hard to be a manager if you’re the same in all situations — and also logically hard to be a manager if you’re authentic across the board. There’s two issues on that: (a) most people aren’t capable of being authentic across the board (sad but true) and (b) most people, when they rise up in an organization, they get really excited by “knowing certain things” (proprietary information) that they didn’t previously know, so they don’t want to report that back down a chain to rank-and-files lest they lose some of their influence/power by doing that. People are limited.

The other thing I think often makes no sense about leadership training is that people always forget that organizations are different, but most “leadership experts” come in with the exact same advice for each organization. You see this in the marketing space all the time — experts come in and say “Do this!” as if it’s gospel, but every single brand is unique. You can’t say that. Every brand/org has a different way to attack marketing, just like every leader and senior leadership/C-Suite team is different in terms of what challenges they face and how they need to come together (and work individually with their units) to tackle them.

It’s amazed me for years how many millions of dollars we probably burn in jet fuel flying people around the world to talk about “leadership” or “management,” when in fact they’re offering one-size-fits-all solutions that probably don’t immediately benefit the org in question. I’m glad someone wrote a book about that.

Ted Bauer

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