Inspiring leadership excellence

Think about your last discussion about leadership. Did it end with an inspirational message?

Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer argues “leadership as inspiration” doesn’t accomplish change. In fact, inspiration creates unrealistic expectations, he says.

During The Leadership Lunch, an inaugural event hosted by the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence at Indiana University, Pfeffer asked the audience to think differently about leadership.

“This a tough talk in some sense,” Pfeffer told the crowd of 200 local professionals, as he discussed a few points from his latest book, Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time, which was a finalist for the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year. Pfeffer served as the keynote speaker for the event.

Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and he is recognized as one of the top 25 management thinkers by Thinkers 50.

“We were honored to have Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer here in Indianapolis for this event,” said Julie Manning Magid, director for the Tobias Leadership Center and professor of business law at the IU Kelley School of Business on the IUPUI campus. “He is known for offering provocative ideas that are different from those you typically hear when you think of leadership and leadership education. This is what we encourage and promote—a positive space to consider different perspectives. That’s what the Tobias Leadership Center endeavors to do: To be a resource and to think critically about ways to move organizations forward.”

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Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer presents at The Leadership Luncheon.

Jeffrey Pfeffer proclaimed leadership is an enormous enterprise, explaining you can find more than 777 million results from a Google search using the term “leadership.” He added, billions of dollars are spent annually on leadership training in the United States.

Pfeffer argued the leadership industry (leaders and leadership development) is failing, and he says leadership programs are ineffective. So, he asked, why? What are the causes? How could you fix this problem?

Pfeffer’s first argument: There’s no particular expertise needed for people to be known as “leadership experts,” and he explained he believes there is a misleading measure of program effectiveness.

What is the correlation between ratings of instructors and objectives of learning, he asked. The answer, he said, is zero.

“If you reward entertainment, you will get entertainment,” he explained.

Pfeffer also said one of the problems in leadership education is the thought of “leadership as inspiration.”

The problem with inspiration, he explained, is that often people use rare or unusual examples to produce uplifting narratives. The search for inspiration tends to lead to a search for relatively unusual or rare examples, he said.

Pfeffer argues rare is fine, but he added, your job is to showcase things that are replicable and scalable. Inspiration, he said, is a poor way to accomplish change, explaining that inspiration raises motivation for a short time, and it creates unrealistic expectations.

He left attendees with several recommendations, including a recommendation to face what he called the “reality of effective leader behaviors.” Most of the celebrated leaders over history act completely outside of the strategy that most leadership programs teach.

He also discussed modesty, saying most leadership programs teach that leaders should be modest. But, he said, evidence suggests that immodesty, narcissism and unwarranted self-confidence reliably predicts attainment of leadership positions. How can this be?

“We say we want modesty, but what we really want is confidence,” Pfeffer explained.

“We love to be associated with winners,” he added, saying that people are attracted to people who demonstrate confidence and self-assurance. “Good work may be sufficient, but it may not be noticed.”

In one of his final points, Pfeffer discussed authenticity and truthfulness.

Authenticity is about being true to your inner self, but leaders need to be true not to themselves, but to what others around them need them to be.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University

According to Pfeffer, telling untruths is common. One study found the average person lies twice a day. For example, it’s done to smooth over relationships or gain advantage in negotiations, he said.

“One of the qualities of an entrepreneur is to express confidence even if you’re not sure what is going to happen.”

“We in leadership business have done a terrible thing,” he said. “We tell them [leaders hoping to receive education] how we would like the world to be rather than how the world is, and therefore, we will never make any progress.”

To get from point A to point B, it is fundamentally essential that you know where you are, where you want to go and what obstacles and barriers stand in your way, he said. Wishing and pretending accomplishes nothing.

“One fundamental difference between management and medicine that helps explain the progress in one and the absence of progress in the other is the willingness to accept, even embrace, evidence and science and eschew wishful thinking.”

The Leadership Lunch was designed to engage Indianapolis leaders by discussing the advancement of leadership in organizations and throughout the community. Attendees included business, nonprofit, academic, community and faith-based leaders from throughout central Indiana. Through this event, organizers hoped to foster ongoing discussion to build individual leadership connections and resources.

We wanted to provide a setting for leaders to interact and to conduct a discussion around the question: What is leadership and how do we define it?

Julie Manning Magid, professor of business law and director of the Tobias Leadership Center

“We hoped to consider the goals and best practices in leadership, and also to discuss how to encourage and empower people to be better leaders,” explained Magid.

The Tobias Leadership Center’s primary mission is to prepare seasoned leaders for continued success in both their careers and the organizations in which they serve. The center offers a distinctive learning environment where leadership scholars conduct research and develop pioneering curricula and teaching strategies. Through this research, the program disseminates leadership knowledge through opportunities like the Hoosier Fellows Program, the Leadership Engagement and Discovery Conference and the Hazelett Forum.

The Leadership Lunch coincided with the Tobias Center’s Leadership Engagement and Discovery Conference, a two-day conference designed to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and facilitate the exchange of ideas.

For more information on the Tobias Leadership Center and the programs it offers, click here.