Sometimes, It Takes the Opposite Approach: 5 Keys For Building Better Leaders

Too many leadership failures and career derailments; too many toxic workplaces filled with disengaged and distrustful employees.

What’s the solution?

Leaders looking to solve the problem and advance their careers should do the opposite of what most leadership experts tell them.

The Leadership Disconnect

“The qualities we actually select for and reward in most workplaces are precisely the ones that are unlikely to produce leaders who are good for employees or, for that matter, for long-term organizational performance,” says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Pfeffer’s provocative comments are from his new book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, where he criticizes the leadership development industry for being naive about the harsh political realities of the workplace, and for promoting behaviors that are aspirational rather than practical.

Pfeffer argues that much of the standard wisdom about leadership is based largely on beliefs rather than science, and advocates for a more evidence-based approach to leadership education, and for a stronger form of organizational governance that makes organizations less dependent on the whims and personalities of a single leader or a small group of leaders.

I agree that an evidence-based approach to leadership development is a necessary and worthy goal.  Likewise, we need congruency between the behaviors and traits for successful leadership and how (and for what) those leaders are actually evaluated and rewarded in the marketplace.

A great starting point is for leaders to invest the time and attention to genuinely understand the realities of their organizations and of human behavior. Acknowledge and accept the truth, and then use those facts to change yourself and your company for the better.

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A little advice for current and future leaders

From an organizational perspective, Pfeffer offers the following advice as a prescription for current and future leaders:

  1. Power and leadership are inextricably connected — you can’t be a leader without having power and understanding power dynamics. Training aspiring leaders in the principles of power and influence is a worthwhile endeavor. Ask yourself if aspiring leaders are psychologically tough enough to handle not being liked and to bear the responsibilities that come with power.
  2. Act on what you know rather than what you wish and hope for. Fix the disconnects between behavior and its consequences, words and actions, prescriptions and reality by ensuring more psychological identification with, and contact between, leaders and those they lead. Measure and incentivize leaders for what they really do and for actual workplace conditions and objectives.
  3. Manage your own leadership career – make sure you maintain good relationships with your boss and keep your options open.
  4. Build work systems that are less leader-dependent (e.g. employee ownership) rather than continuing to try to develop fallible human beings into being selfless, competent and modest.
  5. Change defective leadership development systems to enrich businesses and the people within. Eliminate behaviors that enhance organizational performance but are in conflict with existing organizational incentives and basic human nature.

Fortunately, there are many leaders who are guided by more noble purposes than power and status. They strive to wield their power while keeping their self-serving instincts in check in order to serve as a force for good.

These leaders are consciously making trade-offs and striving to choose a noble path.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




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