Jeffrey Pfeffer on Leadership BS: An interview by Bob Morris

Pfeffer-JJeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, where he has taught since 1979. Prior to Stanford, Pfeffer taught at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard Business School, London Business School, Singapore Management University, and IESE in Barcelona. He has given talks in 39 countries around the world and received an honorary doctorate from Tilburg University in The Netherlands. Pfeffer currently writes a twice-monthly column for, and in the past has written for Business 2.0, the CEIBS Business Review (China), Capital Magazine (Turkey), and for numerous other blogs in the U.S.

Here is an excerpt from my latest interview of Jeff.

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Morris: You teach a course at Stanford during which you and your students explore various “paths to power”? Which (if any) seems to be the best to follow? Please explain.

Prefer: The best path to power combines two things: 1) a path that not many are taking and 2) something that you are capable and comfortable with doing. Many of our students want to do what they have done and that has made them successful thus far in their lives: play by the rules, and do what is expected. But as much social science research and writing by Malcolm Gladwell, among others, make clear, the rules are mostly created by those already in power so obtaining power often entails standing out and breaking rules and social conventions. Witness Donald Trump’s current presidential campaign. So first people need to find the white spaces, the unexploited or underexploited niches where there is less competition and more opportunity.

Second, the class focuses intensely on making people more comfortable with doing a wider range of things—such as networking, self-promotion, building their own personal brand, cleverly acquiring resources, getting known—that they may have been less comfortable with before.

Morris: Your also have a great deal of value to say about all this in Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t (2010). For those who have not as yet read this classic work, why do some people have it and what lessons can be learned from that?

Pfeffer: I am increasingly convinced that people who have power are not necessarily smarter than others. Beyond a certain level of intelligence and level in the hierarchy, everyone is smart. What differentiates people is their political skill and savvy. Florida State professor Gerald Ferris has done numerous studies both measuring political skill and also showing how political skill relates to career success. So the simplest answer to your question is that those who have power a) understand that the world is not always a just and fair place and accept that fact, b) understand the bases and strategies for acquiring power, and c) take actions consistent with their knowledge in a skillful way. Skill at anything requires practice, and power skills are no different.

Morris: Here’s the inevitable follow-up question: How do you explain the fact that others don’t, or at least don’t have power sufficient to their aspirations?

Pfeffer: People who don’t have as much power as they would like often begin by attributing their difficulties to the environment—competitors, bosses, economic circumstances, and so forth. But in reality people are customarily their own biggest impediment to being as powerful as they would like. One cannot control the actions of others, but we are responsible for what we do. People say things such as, “I can’t do this,” “it is not really me,” “this makes me uncomfortable,” etc. People, simply put, opt out of playing the game or doing so in a way that will make them successful. So get over yourself, and do what you need to do—and what, by the way, others around you are doing, to become more powerful.

Morris: Most business thinkers focus on what leadership is and does. In your opinion, what is leadership [begin] not [end italics] and what does it [begin] not [end italics] do?

Prefer: Almost no one as I think most leadership books are a joke. They are, as I note in Leadership BS, frequently based on wishes and hopes rather than reality, on inspiring stories rather than systematic social science, and on “oughts” rather than “is.”

Morris: OK. What about non-bushiness books?

Prefer: I have a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly in which I call out some books that are excellent primers on leadership. All of Robert Caro’s biographies are exceptional, in part because of Caro’s fundamental ambivalence about power. He sees its necessity and use for getting things done, even as he is often repelled by watching power at close range. His masterpiece on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, describes the evolution of Moses from idealist to pragmatist as he became one of the most powerful figures in the 20th century.

Volumes in the series on Lyndon Johnson, including Master of the Senate and The Path Power, describe how Johnson created resources out of nothing and built a substantial power base. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is instructive in painting a realistic portrayal of Lincoln and his methods for accomplishing his objectives. In fact, many good political biographies are useful in learning about power, strategy, and decision-making.

Morris: Of all the films you have seen thus far, which one — in your opinion — best illustrates some of the harsh realities of the business world? Please explain.

Pfeffer: People tell me the Netflix series, House of Cards, is sort of like my class come to life. The movie Margin Call portrays the realities of hierarchical relationships and rivalries beautifully, and how people respond when under pressure. Gandhi and Long Walk to Freedom both have the virtue of presenting larger-than-life figures in a more realistic way, showing their flaws and contradictions—their humanity—in a way that is very helpful.

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To read the complete interview, please click here.

For your information:

Jeff’s website link

His Twitter link

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