There’s an epic battle being waged on LinkedIn, of all places, between Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer and JetBlue chairman Joel Peterson, who also happens to teach at the same business school, interestingly enough. I’d be happy to referee a cage match if they like. Just throwing it out there.
In any case, these two heavyweights are fighting over nothing less than the soul of business leadership in America. The question they pose is this: Are tomorrow’s executives better off as virtuous do-gooders or narcissistic jerks?
Peterson has a problem with Pfeffer’s claims that “honesty, trust and authenticity are overrated,” and his guidance that up-and-comers should focus on “smart power plays” like eliminating rivals, being rude and bullying, self-promoting, faking emotions, and playing politics to get ahead. Peterson calls such advice “harmful and out-of-touch.”
He says that “best-of-breed leaders,” on the other hand, care about their people, stay true to their fiduciary duty, and know that “they must be at the center without being the center.” And I could be wrong, but I suspect that his post’s image of Darth Vader may be more about Pfeffer turning to the dark side than tomorrow’s leaders.
Pfeffer’s response? That Peterson is living in a “fact free” fantasy land and, while the vision he advocates may be inspiring and uplifting, the data Pfeffer has uncovered and presumably presented in his new book, Leadership BS, demonstrates that such a utopian world does not in fact exist.
He says, “Research shows that narcissism and associated behaviors such as displaying overconfidence and self-promotion are positively related to being chosen for leadership positions.” And he argues that “confusing aspirations with reality” is a key factor in the sorry state of leadership, these days.
Now for the big reveal: Who’s right and who’s wrong. May we have a drum roll, please? The answer is they’re both wrong.
Anyone who’s been in the trenches as a senior executive and management consultant for as many decades as I have knows that both these guys are either out of touch or have ego issues of their own. The truth is, there are successful CEOs who are self-aware with solid ethics, abusive a–holes with planet-sized egos, and everything in between.
That’s how it is and that’s how it should be because that’s how people really are in this world. By definition, organizations of man are reflective of the human condition. You may wish for leaders to be different but that would be wishful thinking. They’re no more dysfunctional or virtuous than you and I are. There’s a bell curve of behavior and performance for every job function, and that includes the top job. That’s the simple truth, like it or not.
In terms of guidance we should be giving tomorrow’s leaders, Peterson is definitely on the right track, but if he had advised a young coder named Bill Gates and Gates had taken the advice to heart, there may never have been a Microsoft. That said, I doubt if Gates would have listened.
Likewise, if Pfeffer had advised a young Herb Kelleher and he was impressionable enough to follow it, Southwest Airlines might never have existed, let alone become the breakout success in a dysfunctional industry. But again, I seriously doubt if Kelleher would have paid attention to such nonsense.
The truth is, neither of these guys has anywhere near the influence over the behavior of future leaders that they think they have.
My advice? You’ll do your best work and go the furthest in your career by being the genuine you. Yes, you should be ethical, law-abiding, and respectful of others, but let’s face it, the rest is up for grabs.
And if you start out as brutally competitive and abusive as Gates was back in the day, you may someday become the world’s most generous philanthropist who’s grown up and made us proud. And yes, that would be the same guy.
People grow. They change. And that’s also as it should be. Like the rest of us, real leaders grow and adapt as a result of their own experience. And you know what? They really couldn’t care less about any of this nonsense.