Leadership BS: Summary & Review

leadership bs book cover

Leadership BS (2015) is a leadership book in which author Jeffrey Pfeffer states and shows that much of the conventional wisdom about leadership is baseless, overly optimistic, and ineffective for those who want to climb the hierarchy and become actual leaders.

Exec Summary

  • The leadership industry spreads naive self-help falsehoods based on virtues that are neither present in the real world, nor helpful (and sometimes actively harming)
  • The truth is that narcissistic and Machiavellian leaders over-represent selfless ones. More often than not, they gain more than selfless ones, and they look after themselves first
  • The solution for you is to take care of yourself first, stop believing in reciprocity in the workplace, and stop thinking that leaders and organizations care about you
  • The solution at a systemic level involves accepting the current reality, changing the incentives, and holding people accountable for the new performance measures


About the Author:
Jeffrey Pfeffer is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.
According to Wikipedia, he received his BS and MS degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and his Ph.D. from Stanford University.
He is also the author of the even more popular book “Power: Why Some People Have It – And Others Don’t“.

The Leadership Industry Failed

Pfeffer says that the leadership industry has failed for two reasons:

  1. Leaders are failing the people they lead (Sutton, 2007), and society at large. Often, they fail themselves, too
  2. Leadership training fails learners to teach what actually works, settling instead for platitudes, motivation, wishful thinking, and plain bad advice

Some reasons why the leadership industry failed include:

The Leadership Literature Never Looks At The Traits That Really Matter: What Makes The Leader Himself Successful

Leadership stories and much leadership research seldom explore the leader’s qualities, behaviors, and characteristics that affect the well-being of the leader, rather than the organization. Leader well-being includes outcomes such as job tenure, salary, and getting into a leadership role in the first place.

Pfeffer says that the leadership literature fails because while leadership research is more interested in group or organizational well-being, leaders almost always are more interested in their own well-being.

We strongly agree with it.
De Mesquita did a fantastic job analyzing what’s good for the (political) leader.
And, spoiler alert, it’s often bad for the citizens:

The Logic of Political Survival: Summary & Review

Diverging Interests: Do You Assess Leaders’ Or Organizational Success

Pfeffer says that the individual and the company’s interests have little overlap.

And the leadership literature fails in good part because it never acknowledges there is a trade-off or, sometimes, a total divergence.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe -and, moreover, one of the core foundations of much leadership thought- there is far from a complete correspondence between what is good for a company, or for that matter, a unit within that company, and what is good for the company’s or unit’s leader.

Also read:

21 Conflicts of Interest (Your Boss Doesn’t Want You to Know)

Motivation Is Useless (& False)

There is little data and fact-checking in the industry.

Instead, leadership training and development have become more like lay preaching and inspirational.

Everyone prefers myths, fables and motivations, starting from the leaders themselves:

leaders describe what they want to believe about themselves and the world and, more importantly and strategically, what they would like others to believe about them

For example, says the author:

You can read Jack Welch’s books about General Electric and his management approach and never encounter the phrase “GE jerks.” Yet that is a term I first heard from a now-retired GE senior executive who reported directly to Mr. Welch. He used it to describe the kind of workers GE’s hard-driving culture created with its politics, competition, and forced-curve ranking.
Nor do Welch’s writings about his management approach and accomplishments dwell on (or even mention) the pollution clean-up suits, price-fixing, or defense contract frauds that occurred at GE during his tenure.

Nice Sounding But False…

Pfeffer says that conventional wisdom shares many “nice-sounding” qualities that the best leaders possess.

However, they’re simply not true.

He says:

These are all wonderful qualities, and if leaders consistently displayed them, workplaces and the employees who fill them would undoubtedly be doing better.
But in each instance, I show first that few leaders, even some of the most prominent and successful, exhibit those qualities or do these recommended things.
Then I lay out the evidence for and logic of why sometimes doing the opposite of what has been prescribed makes sense, at least for leaders seeking to advance their own careers.

Pfeffer says this is not good.
He says that the qualities that most workplaces select for and reward produce leaders who are bad both for employees, and for long-term organizational performance.

Naive Advice -Or Lies- Cost You

the predominant cause of the firings: people believed in the world described to them in business school and in the prescriptions for leader behavior. Consequently, they were surprised by and completely unprepared for what they actually encountered at work.

Also read:

Naive Self-Help: 10 Popular But False Self-Help Myths

Useless Trait #1: Modesty (Narcissism Is Better)

Consider Donald Trump…

Obviously, Trump proves that modesty is at least not strictly necessary to succeed in life.

Still, Pfeffer concedes, the case for modesty seems to make sense.
Modest leaders would give subordinates more ownership and encourage them to work harder when they’d let them take full credit for their work and ideas.

And indeed there is some research to support the role of modesty.
For example, reviews of leader effectiveness often show that narcissism, the opposite of modesty, correlates with poor performance as assessed both by the affective reactions of subordinates and also actual group performance.

And Collins in the book Good to Great provides much data to support the validity of modesty.

However, the author raises several good questions about Collins’ data, including the fact that those “winning companies” were a mere 1% of the sample.

And on the other hand, there is also much research to show that self-promotion is positively correlated with interviewers’ evaluations of job candidates as well as with hiring recommendations, that overconfident, and not just confident individuals achieve higher social status, respect, and influence in groups, and that narcissists are more likely to be chosen as leaders and to be seen as having leadership potential.
As the author says, this is not surprising for anyone who knows anything about psychology -and narcissism-.

And sums up the author:

The extensive and ever-growing research evidence is overwhelmingly clear: narcissists are more likely to be selected for leadership roles and also to seek such positions in the first place.

Instead of Modesty…

So, for a more data-driven overview, consider this:

  1. Modesty is rare in the real world because it doesn’t help reaching the top, no matter how helpful it may be for the organization (not for the individual).
    In fact it’s not a concidence it’s rare: it doesn’t help to reach and stay at the top!
  2. Immodesty (including self-promotion and narcissism) helps attain leadership and hold onto it
  3. Narcissistic CEO extract more resources for themselves: CEO narcissism is significantly correlated with CEO total compensation (O’Reilly et al., 2014)
  4. Narcisssitc CEO last longer in their leadership position, even in high-technology companies
  5. Narcissists may even perform better in some domains, they are great at selling their ideas and vision, effective in attracting the support of others (particularly outside others), good at getting attention and its attendant benefits, and often effective at getting things done.
    • Innovation may require far more narcissism than modesty since it can require disdain for the status quo. “the most celebrated leaders are particularly likely to be narcissistic and immodest, which is one of the reasons they became so well known and celebrated in the first place!

Also see:

The Art of Self-Promotion: 9 Effective Techniques

Why we talk-up modesty, but elect narcissists

Rather than chalk up this discrepancy to simple hypocrisy, I attribute it to a fundamental ambivalence. On the one hand, people understand the desirable and socially desirable and approved qualities in leaders, and they articulate those views and values when asked about them. On the other hand, people are attracted to the grandiose and the unusual.

Also read:

How to Be A Leader: 13 Laws From Social-Psychology

Useless Trait #2: Authenticity

Pfeffer says that the “authentic movement” epitomizes the leadership industry generally for being unrealistic and idealistic.

It’s also unfeasible at the extreme levels, since the definition is to be in tune with our basic nature and “owning it”.
In that vein, sending pictures of one’s private parts if that’s one feels like may as well be “extreme authenticity”. And, obviously, you may not want to do that.

Instead, says Pfeffer, getting along with others and being successful in the world often requires a large amount of inauthenticity and self-regulation.

Hence, leaders need to be able to put aside what they feel like, and sometimes do what their followers and society require -or what’s best for them-.
Even in interpersonal relationships, your personal feelings are irrelevant sometimes and you simply need to make a relationship work.

Useless Trait #3: Telling The Truth

Authentic leadership is a popular concept in the leadership industry.

Books such as Radical Candor sang its praise and framed it as one of the best approaches for high-performance teams.

In reality, powerful people lie more, and better.
And they use lies to acquire and maintain power.

Says Pfeffer:

Research consistently demonstrates that “powerful people lie more often and with more ease.” Leaders prevaricate with greater aplomb because “power, even when minimally endowed in the laboratory, mitigates the impact of stress associated with dishonesty (…) Finally, high-power individuals are less sensitive to societal norms; e.g., norms that condemn the use of deception.”
Thus, powerful people—leaders—are able to lie more successfully, and they do so.

Lying is also useful to acquire power.
Says the author quoting Lindsay et al.:

manipulative ability is a foundation of social power and the ability to lie successfully is an important skill linked to personal and professional success

Advantages of Lying

  • Smooth over otherwise difficult situations
  • Smoother relationships and interactions
  • Keep employees happy (for example, about their chances of advancing)
  • Lies can become truth (especially when told often and convincingly enough)
  • Fake positive feedback can lead people to perform better
  • Improve returns or share prices by inflating future prospects
  • Galvanize and rallying the troops convincing that success is possible and even likely (even when the odds are very slim)
  • The “liar’s high” of getting away with it

Also read:

The Myth of Emotional Intelligence: Machiavellis At The Top

Useless Trait #4: Being Trusted

The social science literature demonstrates that leaders who inspire trust and workplaces in which employees trust their leaders perform better.

However, Pfeffer no longer believes that trust is essential because numerous organizations are operating despite a lack of trust in leaders.

  • People are unable to spot untrustworthy leaders
  • There are little sanctions for leaders who violate trust
  • Power matters a lot more than trust. “Trust-breakers for the most part retain their networks and social relationships because others in their orbit haven’t been harmed by their actions, so they don’t feel compelled to redress the harm. Trust-breakers frequently maintain their financial resources.”
    My note: this was so good that it ended up in PU
  • Destroying past trust can pay handsomely. For example, a new business owner may cut all expenses on new development but keep milking existing customers because of high switching costs. He destroys past-earned trust, but he can profit from it.
    So save up these old articles and reviews if one day TPM had to be acquired 🙂
  • Gaining trust and then betraying it once you’ve got the power and opportunity may pay off better. For example, some corporate giants today started off as contractors. But once they learned how to do it, they stopped working as contractors and started doing it under their own brand (ie.: Lenovo and some Korean electronic companies).
    Don’t be an “entrepreneur in residence”: don’t start your startup in a bigger ecosystem or parent company. If it works well, they’ll take it over or replicate the exact same thing and you’ll get short-changed
  • Fluid alliances work better than keeping the same ones forever. And sometimes that may mean breaking a bond that someone thought would last forever
  • Commitments are costly, and interests can diverge

leaders go back on their word not because they are necessarily venal or evil, but because keeping commitments, a fundamental basis of trust, constrains their behavior. When circumstances change, so do people’s behaviors, objectives, and needs. Leaders shed commitments all the time.

Why Power & High-Value Matters More Than Trust

It’s true that people want and sometimes seek to punish cheaters.

However, social research literature probably overstates the “punishment effect” because in laboratory settings punishing is much easier than in the real world.

In the laboratory, people can spend modest resources to punish people whom they will almost certainly never encounter again.

But in the real world people can ill-afford to punish the cheaters when those cheaters are business partners who can still add value or who may even be necessary for business operations.

And that’s why powerful people stay powerful, well-connected, and keep on making money even when they break trust, or when they behave like aholes.

Useless Trait #7: Taking Care of Others (Leaders Eat First)

The idea of selfless leadership is appealing.

And it also sells well.
We reviewed Simon Sinek’s book here “Leaders Eat Last“, and his inspirational videos garner millions of views with a similar message:

“The secret of the top performers was to put others first”

And says Pfeffer:

Much like other forms of leadership that have attracted attention, such as authentic leadership, the idea of putting others first and taking care of and being responsible for those working for and with a leader appeals to most people’s values as well as their intuitions about what leaders should do.

However, again, it’s just not how things work in real life.

For example, one study showed that power leads to job protection for those in power—for the leaders, but not the followers.
And one meta-analysis shows that CEO pay is largely unaffected by corporate performance. So while company size accounts for about 40 percent of the variation in CEO pay, performance explains a paltry 5 percent of CEO’s pay.

And albeit there are a few exceptions, it’s exceptions in a landscape in which most leaders mostly take care of themselves first regardless of what they should do.

Why leaders don’t care for others

  • They have no incentives. If they had, it would help a lot, but most leaders have incentives to increase share prices or bottom-line results, not people’s well-being
  • Leaders of big organizations have no real contact with those they lead, and the nameless and faceless people are a lot more likely to get the short end of the stick
  • Many leaders are hired from outside with the expressed remit of cutting costs or increasing bottom line, which means not only their incentive, but their own job goes against many employees’ interests

Bottom Line: Take Care of Yourself

Don’t over-trust company sloganeering or any ethical and moral obligation.

Companies and even nonprofits and government agencies are faceless entities.
And their internal dynamics generally mean that companies look after themselves and their own interests first.
And so do individual leaders.

The obvious conclusion is that when everyone else is looking after themselves first, you should do the same.

The reciprocity principle is out, the self-interest norm is in

How did we get here?

Reciprocity as explained by Robert Cialdini is real.
But it works mostly between individuals.

The rules change in organizational settings.
There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that, as Pfeffer’s own experiments showed, the reciprocity norm is more readily and frequently breached within organizations.
At work the norm of self-interest beats the reciprocity principle.

So you may think your employer owes you something for your loyalty, past contributions and good work.

But most employers don’t see it that way.

The question the counterparty asks itself is not “what have you done for me in the past that deserves repayment”, but rather, “what can you do for me in the future that justifies me spending any time or resources on keeping you”.

Better safe than sorry: prepare yourself

Adams Grant says givers are a relatively rare breed.

And the reciprocity principle is often misplaced in organizations.

That means you may set yourself up for a painful and costly bargain if you believe that there is some implicit contract of honoring your good work and loyalty for reward and recognition or even job security.

Even if such an exchange would be fair, don’t expects those unwritten agreements to be honored. Data show that companies violate implicit contracts with their employees all the time.
And that’s especially true in poor workplaces because once individualistic values come to dominate, trust and cooperation are difficult if not impossible to rebuild.

Hence, generally and particularly in “non-exceptional workplaces” presume that others are acting on the basis of their self-interest, and you can better forecast and understand their actions.

To prepare yourself always:

  1. Keep an eye out for new jobs and opportunities (and learn to be a good interviewee)
  2. Constantly work on the relationship with your boss

Be Bad To Be Good

We had an early article with exactly this title.

And Pfeffer says the exact same thing.

In the fall of 2013, the world celebrated the five-hundred-year anniversary, more or less, of the appearance of Machiavelli’s The Prince. One commentary on this important and still-relevant work noted:
Machiavelli teaches that in a world where so many are not good, you must learn to be able to not be good. The virtues taught in our secular and religious schools are incompatible with the virtues one must practice to safeguard those same institutions… Machiavelli has long been called a teacher of evil. The author of “The Prince” never urged evil for evil’s sake. The proper aim of a leader is to maintain his state (and, not incidentally, his job). Politics is an arena where following virtue often leads to the ruin (…)


winning in very competitive environments, often requires being willing and able to engage in behaviors and exhibit qualities that some people might find repugnant. Maybe that’s why there is such a leadership shortage and why the leadership industry, with its failure to acknowledge this fundamental truth, continues to fail.
to do good things, even great things, people need to be willing to take whatever actions are required, and to not shy away from tough fights, unpopularity, and, yes, even decisions that skirt the edge of illegality

If You Want To Become A Leader…

You need more truthful information, like the one in this book.

And you need to learn how to apply it, with concrete behavior, strategies, and techniques.

To learn real-world strategies to become a leader you may want to consider an investment in Power University.

leadership bs book cover


Learn office politics and social skills

As Matt jokes about failing upward, he relates how he lost his previous jobs, essentially by focusing on doing a great job technically but being largely oblivious to the political dynamics and particularly the requirement for managing his relationships with his bosses

Reviews of training and courses say little about the usefulness of those courses

Says Pfeffer:

a recent review of the evidence concluded that there is a very small and statistically insignificant relationship between student evaluations and learning, and that the more objectively learning is measured, the less likely it is to be related to the evaluations.
Another review also concluded that “teacher’s ratings and learning are not closely related”

The reason is that most students rate how much they enjoyed reading or attending, rathen than how much they learned.

Learn presence and exec skills: the only cure to the glass ceiling

Says the author:

women and other ethnic minorities, such as Asian Americans, are on average more modest and self-effacing and less narcissistic than typical white males, in part because of gender roles and cultural expectations, which may help explain their worse career outcomes.
One factor affecting these outcomes is the importance of executive presence, which, the report noted, often requires behaviors seemingly at odds with Asian (and female) behavioral norms.

Learn more here:

17 Tips to Exude Exec-Level Confidence at Work

Watch out for whistleblowing: you may pay the consequences

Quoting a paper aptly called “nobody likes a rat”, he says:

Whistle-blowers in settings ranging from the government to private industry are shunned and often have trouble finding subsequent employment. In an experimental study, researchers found that even though some individuals are willing to report lying, when “groups can select their members, individuals who report lies are generally shunned, even by groups where lying is absent.

Look at past behavior to assess future behavior

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. People who have reneged on commitments, stolen intellectual property, sued or forced out their partners, failed to fulfill promises, and moved on to greener pastures in the past will do so again

Be optimistic, but not overly optimistic as in “blind to reality”

The Stockdale Paradox says that over-optimism can turn into over-pessimism once the overly optimistic belief fails to materialize.

Quoting the book:

it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it.

To change the system, avoid attacking the powerful ones so that you can stay just enough within the system

Elizabeth Warren received precisely such advice to avoid criticizing powerful others from Lawrence Summers, a former president of Harvard University and U.S. treasury secretary: “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas… But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.


On how useless most leadership books are:

Go home and throw out the numerous leadership books—or better yet, give them to career competitors.

On leaders taking care of themselves first:

Or as a former student told me one evening at a dinner accompanied by a little too much wine, “We live in an era of shared sacrifice. The employees sacrifice, and I share in the money they give up.”

On taking responsibility for yourself and becoming an adult:

Encouraging people to seek and then to follow benevolent leaders to put their trust and faith in these individuals who, because they are human, will nevertheless be invariably flawed, strikes me as seeking to in some measure infantilize otherwise competent working adults.


Leadership BS is fantastic and we largely agree on everything.

So take these “cons” as “opportunities to be even better”, rather than true major cons:

Did Leaders Largely Fail?

Pfeffer says that “Leaders fail their people, their organizations, the larger society, and even themselves with unacceptable frequency”.

I’m not sure that is the case.

Or, at least, it may not be any truer for leaders as it is for everyone else.

The “Selfish Individual Advantage” Missed The Benefit of Win-Win

The author says that individuals maximize their interest by acting selfishly, while the group depends on individuals NOT acting selfish:

Individuals maximize their own survival chances by acting selfishly to acquire, at all costs, the resources necessary for their survival. Group survival, however, often depends on individuals sacrificing their own well-being for that of the group, such as soldiers throwing themselves on hand grenades to save their colleagues’ lives, or parents forgoing food so their children can live.

Leaders BS is a great book, but this was a generalization that, in my opinion, isn’t fully true.

In truth, altruistic behavior could not evolve if it wasn’t also good for the individual -such behavior would have been quickly rooted out if altruistic individuals lost out-.

Altruistic behavior instead evolved because win-win is possible, and win-win sometimes entails at least some altruism.
And some forms of win-win also entail that an individual acting in his selfish interest can also add value to others, or to the group -that’s also the basis of capitalism, and despite its flaws, look how it advanced our civilization-.

For more, see:

The Origins of Virtue: Summary & Review

Some Opinions As Statements of Truth

For example:

One reason why lying is common is that the ability to lie or deceive others offers evolutionary benefits and, as a consequence, has increased over time.

And who says that it increased over time?

It’s tempting to come up with an evolutionary psychology reason to justify an opinion (including sensible opinions).
However, that’s not a scientific approach to evolutionary psychology -and, incidentally, it’s one of the reasons why the discipline has such a bad reputation-.

Pfeffer himself shows exactly how it’s done when he says a little later in the book that “possibly for evolutionary reasons those who were best able to… “.
That’s how you properly preface an opinion or conjecture.

The “ever-growing cycle of trust-breaking” that may not take over the world

Similarly, the author suggests that trust-breaking is on the rise as part of a vicious cycle:

Because commitments constrain, people and companies break them (…) Because there are few sanctions, such trust-violating behavior becomes more frequent. Because the breaking of promises becomes more frequent, it becomes more “normative” in the sense that more entities do it (…) it provokes less moral outrage and comes to be seen as how business is done (…) the absence of moral outrage then leads to more breaches of agreements and promises, and the cycle continues

However, there is absolutely zero data to show that trust-violating behavior is on the rise.
And it’s entirely possible that a virtuous cycle in a couple, group, organization, country, or even world, may go in the opposite direction.

Some Explanations Felt Far-Fetched

The author had a tough job to explain why some popular myths are largely unfounded.

And that holds true even if, as I believe it’s the case, the author is right.

For example, to explain that trust is not that important for leaders, the author says that when the trust-breaking is publicized, the crooked leader gains with notoriety.

That may be true in some cases, but certainly not all.

And I’d even say that common wisdom is correct here: it’s often better not to be on the front pages for having lied and stolen.

This may be a case where the author felt he needed to add more reasons to back up seemingly counter-intuitive claims.
But it’s usually better not to add an explanation, than to add a shakier explanation.


Leadership BS is a fantastic expose of naive self-help within the leadership industry, a fundamental read for any driven and aspiring leader, and a much-needed wake-up call for many.

It’s also very much in line with TPM, including our “enlightened cynical” stance, and with our “you need to be bad to be good”.

Many reviewers of this fantastic book missed the point because they over-focused on the cynicism in the book.
And yes, Leadership BS is cynical at times.
However, that’s only because it needs to address and undo the endless stream of naive self-help that leads people astray.
Only people who prefer to keep the wool over their eyes would ignore Leadership BS -or give it a low rating- for that matter -and people who profit from that naivete, of course-.

In today’s terminology, Leadership BS is part of the red pill, and some people would rather never take that red pill to remain in their fake fantasies.

Finally, Leadership BS also enlightened me on a few concepts that ended up in Power University, and that’s the biggest compliment I can pay to any author or resource.

Check the:

or get this book on Amazon.

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