ay 2013, and I am at the closing dinner for an executive program in Barcelona, Spain. As with other such programs, I have taught material on power in organizations—mastering organizational dynamics. The topic of power remains, unfortunately, much as the Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter described it more than thirty years ago, the organization’s last dirty secret—something that nice people don’t talk about, let alone teach to executives.1
And my approach, describing organizational reality as it is
rather than as we wish it to be, can be particularly challenging. As Publishers Weekly
commented on a book I wrote on power (a description that also applies to my classes), “The book has a realpolitik analysis of human behavior that isn’t for everyone but its candor . . . and forthrightness are fresh and appealing.”2
A participant, who over the course of the evening has had too much to drink, decides to come over to the table where I am sitting. His inhibitions sufficiently lowered, he begins to berate
me for the material I have taught, but mostly to complain about what I have failed to do. “I want to be inspired,” he says. “Sure, I understand you have taught us what the research literature says and how to navigate organizational reality, but I came to this program for inspiration. It is the job of teachers to inspire their students.” My reply: “If you want inspiration, go to a play, read an inspiring book, listen to great music, go to an art museum, or read some of the great treatises on religion or philosophy. I am a social scientist, not a lay preacher.” “No,” he insists, “it is your job, as a teacher of management, to inspire me.” Or, as a former MBA student put it slightly differently when we had dinner, “I have a soul-crushing job. I need hope.”
As the data reviewed in the last chapter demonstrate, many people have soul-crushing jobs and work for ineffective or even abusive leaders, and they apparently think the job of business schools and professors is to provide inspiration and hope. So many leadership players provide what the “customers” want. For instance, if you go to the website of the Belgium-based Vlerick Business School, there, on the very first page, is the headline “Looking for an Inspiring Management Course?”3
Vlerick isn’t alone. The Australian Graduate School of Management, part of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, also highlights on its website the fact that “we create inspirational learning opportunities.”4
“Inspiring” (or “inspirational”) seems like an unusual and possibly surprising adjective to describe a class or a program of study. I don’t see many medical schools, architecture programs, physics departments, engineering schools, law schools, or computer science departments advertising their classes as “inspiring.” Useful, rigorous, well-delivered, innovative, scientifically based courses and programs that provide a foundation of knowledge for effective professional practice—certainly. But “inspiring?” Probably not.
If you are a leader seeking to actually change a workplace’s conditions so as to improve employee engagement, satisfaction, or productivity, or if you are an individual seeking to chart a course to a more successful career, inspiration is not what you need. What you need are facts, evidence, and ideas. Cheering may be helpful at sporting events, but not so much in the nitty-gritty job of fixing workplaces and careers. This chapter lays out the many reasons why inspiration is not only a poor basis from which to attempt serious organizational change but also useless for figuring out how to have more personal success inside work organizations.
My view about inspiration is clearly in the minority. Inspiration of the sort that participant in the executive education course was seeking is precisely what the leadership industry mostly delivers—providing good feelings if not always enlightenment, entertainment if not invariably education, and, most important, (at least to the consumers thereof), hope rather than despair. And why not? Real life is difficult and depressing enough. Who wants to attend an executive program or hear a speech or read a blog post and not feel happier and more enthused as a result? So the leadership industry delivers what the customers want. Whether it is what they need is an entirely different matter.
MYTHS AND FABLES, AND WHY INACCURACY IS INEVITABLE
To build a science of leadership, you need reliable data. To learn from others’ success, you need to know what those others did. The best learning, simply put, comes from accurate and comprehensive data, either qualitative or quantitative. But the leadership business is filled with fables. In autobiographical or semiautobiographical works and speeches, in the cases and authorized
biographies leaders help bring into existence, and in their prescriptions for leadership, 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. The stories leaders tell or have others tell about themselves on their behalf are primarily designed to create an attractive legacy. Sometimes such accounts are, to put it delicately, incomplete. Because these tales are designed to build an image and a reputation, they do not constitute qualitative data from which to learn. In fact, they aren’t data at all, any more than advertising is data or evidence. There are many examples of this phenomenon. Here are some.
Some years ago, the former Medtronic CEO and now Harvard Business School professor Bill George wrote True North
with the former Stanford MBA student and now consultant and speaker Peter Sims.5
This bestselling book, like many in the genre, advocated the importance of authenticity as a leadership trait. At the time the book came out, I was serving on the board of directors of a publicly traded company with someone who had been quite senior in the financial function at Medtronic. When I commented to this individual on the publication and success of True North
, fully expecting to hear how its principles were reflected at Medtronic, the person replied that the Bill George and the prescriptions in the book and the Bill George who had worked his way up the corporate hierarchy and then ran Medtronic were not quite the same.
Another person with long experience in the pharmaceutical industry, an individual who knows Medtronic and Bill George well, commented that the principles laid out in True North
probably held more for the culture built by George’s predecessors than for George himself. And then he made another insightful statement: “Bill George today [as a Harvard faculty member teaching
leadership] is probably closer to the principles in the book than he was while he was at Medtronic. The ideas in True North
are undoubtedly closer to what he currently believes than to the behavior he engaged in while he was there.”
This example is not meant to criticize Bill George, who is a sincere and talented individual genuinely interested in making the world a better place and improving leadership. He is scarcely the only leadership-industry figure who has described a more aspirational than veridical version of himself and the company he led.
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. The phrase and that description of GE were shared by this former executive’s wife, someone who had worked in GE in a very senior role in human resources for many years. And it is an observation I have heard frequently from others who worked at General Electric. 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.6
Motivated cognition is one factor that explains the unreliability of the stories we read. Not surprisingly, people are motivated to think well of themselves. Therefore, not only do individuals perceive themselves to be above average for most positive attributes and believe that the qualities in which they excel are the most important—the so-called above-average effect7
—but individuals will also selectively remember their successes and forget their failures or shortcomings. In general, leaders want to remember their accomplishments and not remember some of their most
negative behaviors, let alone disclose such things even if they did remember them—so they don’t.
But it’s worse than that. Even in the absence of motivational reasons to misremember and misreport, people invariably recall past events with considerable error, even if they try to be as honest and accurate as possible. The large literature concerning the unreliability of eyewitness accounts of accidents or crimes attests to the fact that even when people want to recall and report things accurately and have no incentive to do otherwise, memory plays tricks and makes recall frequently unreliable.8
Moreover, for the leaders who talk or write or blog about their leadership experience, the problem becomes even more pernicious. In telling their stories, leaders create and re-create their own reality so often that soon it becomes almost impossible for them to distinguish the actual truth from what they recall as being true, even if they wanted to do so. As the writer Ben Dolnick perceptively commented:
And there is another potential process that works to make the leadership stories told by leaders unreliable. An extensive research literature in evolutionary psychology speaks to the advantages—and therefore the pervasiveness—of self-deception. The evolutionary benefit of self-deception is clear: if you can
deceive yourself, you can much more easily and convincingly deceive others, and thereby obtain the benefits that accrue from being able to successfully fool people. Summarizing this research and these theories, Robert Trivers, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, and William von Hippel, a psychologist, noted, “Our biased processing perspective suggests that the individual can self-deceive in a variety of ways, some of which prevent even unconscious knowledge of the truth.”10
What this means is that the stories one hears from leaders (or, for that matter, from anyone) may be untrue but not known to be untrue by the person telling the tales, because that person has so successfully deceived him-or herself. Between motivation to self-present and the unconscious ways in which people misremember and self-deceive, believing the accounts of leaders or anyone else without a lot of fact-checking would seem to be singularly unwise.
In spite of these cognitive biases, we nevertheless accept and indeed embrace the fables about leaders and leadership because the stories are so consistent with what most people would like
to believe about the world. Many of the stories are consistent with the just-world phenomenon—a social science idea that, to paraphrase a wonderful line from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
, things will be all right in the end, and if they aren’t all right, it’s not yet the end.11
Many of the stories offer morals that fit what we want to believe, and many offer hope. We often engage in astonishingly little due diligence to assess the accuracy of what we hear.
The problem isn’t the storytelling per se. Indeed, as Chip and Dan Heath remind us, stories are often much more memorable and persuasive than cold statistics.12
The problem is that the leadership stories are often exaggerated or fabricated out of whole cloth, and their listeners don’t bother to do any fact-checking.
If the morals and the heroic nature of leadership stories remind you of myths, as they should, they might also remind you of many aspects of religion. For good reason: just as religion seeks to provide believers a sense of personal control, a belief in the fairness of the world, and a feeling of meaning and purpose, so, too, do the leadership myths and fables passed off as truth, often using remarkably similar means. That’s why I refer to these activities as a form of lay preaching.
In his essay about religion, Sigmund Freud commented on religion’s functions in ways that nicely parallel how and why the myths of leadership are created and persist whether or not they are true:
But believing in the myths and stories about leadership and leaders has few positive consequences and lots of negative results. Understanding these costly consequences can help us understand why and how so much of what goes on in the omnipresent feel-good talks, books, and blogs makes things worse—in many cases much worse—for both workplaces and the people who lead them.
ONE CONSEQUENCE: CYNICISM
Does it really matter if leaders and others who tell their stories burnish the truth? Actually it does, in several ways and for a variety of reasons. First of all, as already noted, inaccurate accounts of leader behavior constitute a poor foundation from which to offer advice. And there are other problems as well.
At a cocktail party, someone who knows many leadership teachers quite well, an entrepreneur and a former business case writer, pulls me aside to relate instance after instance in which one particular individual, an experienced senior executive who also teaches classes on leadership, has presented himself, his companies, and his interactions with peers and subordinates in ways that are demonstrably false. When I ask this entrepreneur the same question I just posed, “What difference does this make?” the reply is immediate. The entrepreneur, seeing the enormous discontinuity between the espoused behaviors and what this person actually does, is, first of all, deeply disappointed and upset. More than that, he argues that the all-too-frequent examples of people who profess one set of behaviors and act the opposite produce cynicism on the part of those who see the hypocrisy. His telling conclusion: In our quest for inspiration over insight, we wind up with neither. We get no inspiration, as we learn that the leadership stories are more fiction than fact. And we obtain no insight, because we do not gather the data on which to build an understanding of effective leadership.
And there is yet another adverse consequence. Confronted with a leadership industry that promulgates a set of prescriptions that many employees come to see in their daily lives as having little resonance with the reality they experience, people become tainted and cynical, not just about the leadership industry but about social science research and i...