Book Review: Leadership BS by Jeffrey Pfeffer

  |   Books Print Friendly and PDF

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at A Time is a great title. Is Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book as great as the title? I don’t think so, but it could be a great book for you. Start by understanding three things before you plunk down your hard-earned cash for this one.

This is a rant, not a reasoned presentation. The author has points he wants to make, and many of them are important, but don’t expect to hear the other side unless it’s in a derisive tone.

When Pfeffer uses the term “leader” it refers to a senior leader or CEO in a large company. He makes some points that apply to leaders in other situations, but this is a book for people who aspire to senior leadership in a giant corporation. If you’re a front-line leader in any size company, or if you’re a leader in a small company, be wary of some of Pfeffer’s advice.

Before I get to my third point, let me describe what Pfeffer says is the purpose of the book. It’s at location 2015 in the Kindle version

“But by ignoring the evidence, the social science facts about deception, or, for that matter, any other topic pertaining to leadership, by pretending that common behaviors aren’t really that common, we miss the important opportunity to understand the social world as it is—the first step on the road to changing it.”

There may be one purpose, but there are really two books here. If you’re thinking about buying and reading Leadership BS, you should be attracted to one or the other, or both.

A Book About What’s Wrong with The Leadership Industry

The first and last chapters of the book concentrate on what’s wrong with the leadership industry. There are a lot of important points here. Take, for example, the fact that the effectiveness of leadership training is mostly measured by participant satisfaction surveys. There’s very little follow-up to see if the training made any difference on the job. And there’s very little evidence to support many of the prescriptions promulgated by leadership gurus.

Those, and many other points, are important and hardly anyone else is making them. If you want a good critique of the current leadership industry with some ideas about how things could get better, read the first and last chapters. You may or may not want to read the rest of the book.

A Book About “Real Life”

Chapters two through seven are about “real life,” the way it is and not the way we think it ought to be. I remember earlier in my career that I was puzzled by some of the things that happened around me. I thought that people should act a certain way, and many of them didn’t. That’s what chapters two through seven of this book are all about. Chapter two, for example, is about why leaders aren’t modest. And chapter three is about authenticity, whatever that means. There’s a discussion of whether leaders should tell the truth and another one about trust.

For my money, this part of the book is more about human nature than it is about the leadership industry. The observations are all accurate and they conform to Pfeffer’s statement of what the book is about, but I don’t think you’ll find many surprises or penetrating insights. There may be value here for you, but I think that Machiavelli did it better and in fewer pages.

Should you read the book?

If reading a rant bothers you, or if you’re put off by the seeming assumption that the only leaders worth writing about are in large, corporate environments, or you think that a book about how things are in big corporations isn’t relevant for you, don’t buy or read Leadership BS. You’ll just get angry and feel like you’ve wasted your time and money.

On the other hand, this can be a great read if you want a clear-eyed view of the leadership industry and its prescriptions. You’ll find that in chapters one and eight. If you find yourself puzzled by things that are happening around you in the workplace, chapters two through seven might be a good read for you.


What’s the fastest way to learn the big ideas from a great business book? Book summaries. Check out summaries from The Business Source, where you can watch, read, or listen to the big ideas from a great book in under 20 minutes.

The 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

Join The Conversation

What People Are Saying

There are no comments yet, why not be the first to leave a comment?