Why Leadership Training is Mostly B.S.

Sept. 28, 2015
U.S. businesses spend billions of dollars on leadership training annually. A leading educator says most of it is "useless."

U.S. industry spends billions each year on leadership training. So it should follow that the current corps of leaders is better than ever and employees who work for them happier and more productive. Unfortunately, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, after 60 years of effort from an "enormous" leadership industry, workplaces in the United States are "horrible."

"Employee engagement is low by every measure. Job satisfaction is low. Trust in leaders is low. Leaders are turning over at an amazing rate," says Pfeffer. In developing his new book, Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time (Harper Business, September 2015), he sought to find out why.

Pfeffer marshals a large body of social and psychological evidence to support his claim that much of leadership training is an exercise in telling inspiring stories about leaders and their organizations that does little to actually produce better leaders.

At the heart of the problem, he believes, is that there is little correlation between what helps a person get ahead in business and what characteristics help organizational effectiveness.

The prescriptions for better leaders call for them to exhibit attributes such as authenticity, modesty, transparency, truthfulness and benevolence. Trouble is, Pfeffer says, those attributes don't usually correspond with promoting your own career and leaders who exhibit these traits make up a distinct minority in the business world.

Take Donald Trump. Pfeffer points out that Trump, the leader in polling for the Republican nominee for president at this writing, provides plenty of fodder for comedians mocking his immodesty. But Pfeffer notes that Trump's inflated ego has been instrumental in him "building a brand that is worth a fortune."

While at first blush we may wish our leaders to be modest, Pfeffer writes that there is plenty of research to suggest that "immodesty in all of its manifestations -- narcissism, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement, unwarranted self-confidence -- helps people attain leadership positions" and then hold on to them.

In one analysis of 187 studies looking at leadership effectiveness, the authors found that four of the seven traits associated with effectiveness were energy, dominance, self-confidence and charisma. Research shows that narcissists exhibit more of these traits than do others. And, Pfeffer notes, there is a higher proportion of narcissists in business schools than in the general population.

Pfeffer says there is plenty of reason for stressing inspirational stories in the burgeoning leadership training industry. People come away from such training feeling good and recommending the courses. Inspiration sells.

But a steady diet of inspiration fables, Pfeffer warns, also misleads and does little to improve organizations. Instead, it breeds cynicism as people are taught one thing and see leaders and companies operate quite differently in the real world.

He contrasts the state of leadership training with medical education, which strives to base its teaching on carefully measured studies and their results.

"No wonder medical science has made significant strides in treating many diseases while leadership as it is practiced daily all over the world has continued to produce a lot of disengaged, dissatisfied, and disaffected employees," he writes.

What can businesses do to improve their leadership development efforts? Pfeffer told IndustryWeek that companies first need to change their evaluation criteria. Too much development work either is not evaluated or evaluated on the basis of enjoyment of the course.

"What are we trying to accomplish in leadership development? If we are trying to attain higher levels of employee engagement, higher levels of trust in leaders, higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of turnover, more people succeeding and having more people ready for leadership positions, then those are criteria you ought to use to evaluate your efforts," he stresses, "not whether or not people had a good time, whether or not they liked the donuts, whether or not they thought the speaker was inspiring."

Companies must also have people teaching these programs who have at least some expertise in leadership, he adds. He recalled reading an article about the top 50 leadership experts. He researched the top 20 people in that list and found that only four had a degree "in anything remotely related to leadership." The top leadership expert on the list, he noted, was John C. Maxwell, who has a degree in theology.

Pfeffer says that discovery was entirely consistent with his view that most leadership training has nothing to do with science or knowledge, but rather with "lovely, inspiring preaching which at the end of the day is completely useless."

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

Focus: Leadership, Global Economy, Energy

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An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine,, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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