‘Getting Beyond the BS of Leadership Literature’ – A Reply

Today’s blog post, from Centre Director Simon Robinson, is a response to this article – Jeffrey Pfeffer (2016) ‘Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature’, McKinsey Quarterly, January. 

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, is clearly frustrated. His article wants to get beyond the BS of leadership literature, and tell us what leadership is really about. I guess the frustration he experiences accounts for the bluster that he passes off as an article of some weight.

What are the signs of bluster? First, there is the use of logical fallacies. His attack begins with a classic straw man argument, characterising much of modern leadership literature as ‘morality tales’. The term, of course, is pejorative, often associated with naïve narratives from junior school. Lurking behind this straw man is the fallacy ad hominem. Pfeffer contrasts the pliers of morality tales with the smaller number of empirical researchers. These are clearly the tough scientists who ask real questions. By implication the moral narrators simply make up uncomplicated stories… the wretches.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela, 1990 South Africa

The second sign of bluster is confusion, and Professor Pfeffer is very confused. He leaps from an important assertion, that leadership is faced by complex dilemmas (I can buy that), to the assertion, from one source (a commentary on Il Principe), that sometimes it is necessary to do bad things to achieve good objectives, and then supporting this with Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy, all of whom he asserts were willing to do what was necessary to achieve important objectives. He doesn’t tell us what this involved or what we might count as bad things, or how the leaders in question decided to do the necessary.

Not surprisingly, the third sign of bluster is incoherence. Pfeffer in his next strand suggests that the leaders he refers to were not always consistent, indeed, ‘At times, they acted in ways inconsistent with their authentic feelings’. His use of the term authentic clearly shows that he does not understand much of the literature in this area. I am not clear what acting inconsistently with authentic feelings actually means. It seems to assume that the mark of integrity is to be consistent with authentic feelings. I have yet to read a book or paper which argues this.  But at least this section gets him out of the undergrowth, with the following:

‘Human beings are complex and multidimensional, so not only do bad people do good things and vice versa but the whole idea of good and bad can also be problematic when you consider the knotty dilemmas leaders face deciding whether the ends justify the means’.

What he means is still not all that clear, but at least we can now pin him down as a utilitarian. He doesn’t like any idea of good and bad that is not connected to consequences. Some of my best friends are utilitarian, but at least they make an attempt to give a coherent account of what a good end looks look and how they decide between ends- and whilst they are it they don’t slip into the moral fallacy of making the ends justify the means.

Abraham Lincoln

The final part of the argument takes a stab, I think, at virtue ethics. I hasten to add not a stab at understanding. Pfeffer seems to think that ethicists divide leaders into good and bad, each conditioned by virtues which remain constant. ‘But life isn’t like that!’ comes the cry of the realist Pfeffer. I’ll say it isn’t – and I know of few, if any, writers who try to argue that it is. So once again we are back to the straw man, which the good Professor might run through, if only his rapier were not so blunt. Hence, he relies on the testimony of a number of different leaders to drive home his point.

Some of these I have no quarrel with. Lincoln, for instance, showed an immense capacity to handle ambiguity and complexity. Though, I am not clear that he lacked integrity. Perhaps the most chilling lesson of artful leadership comes from Robert Caro. In Pfeffer’s words:

‘Caro brilliantly explains how Moses decided to pursue immoral or at least questionable actions, such as letting the political bosses and their friends profit from inside information on the proposed paths of parkways and providing these insiders with some of the construction contracts, to accomplish public good, including the creation of Jones Beach’.

This is chilling for three reasons. First, it is a blast from the past, to be precise Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics (SCM 1966). Fletcher was a theologian who argued for utilitarianism. One of his more interesting examples was that funds raised from prostitution are acceptable if used for public goods…. and I am sure the creation of a public beach would count as that. But the thing about Fletcher is that he was arguing not so much for these extreme examples as against the simplistic use of moral principles. He rightly wanted to argue for the use of responsibility in making ethical decisions. Sadly, like Pfeffer he dealt in straw men and spent too much time trying to prove that moral principles have no substantial weight.

Second, Pfeffer’s argument show that he is unaware of the discussions around leadership, governance and values over the last two decades (if not back to the 1960s). This shows good and feisty debate which embraces complexity and ambiguity, with ideas like integrity focused in the practice of responsibility. The point is that to practice such responsibility needs to get beyond the trivial examples used by Pfeffer.

This brings me to the real reason for chill. Pfeffer’s example of from Caro suggests that

Jeremy Bentham

corruption can be acceptable, if the consequences are for the greater good.  At this point Pfeffer is hoist with his own petard. There is something wondrously naïve about this elevation of corruption. How are we to weigh the corruption of public services against the provision of public service? How are we to weigh the absence of fairness, erosion of trust, and the effects of these upon an institution, against the pleasure gained from building sandcastles and swimming?  Far from helping us to engage with complexity and reality Pfeffer takes us back to the familiar debates about utilitarianism (not least from Jeremy Bentham). The real issue is that those debates don’t even begin to help us to engage complexity, to practice responsibly, or to address the reality of corruption.

Professor Pfeffer needs to tell us:

  • The nature of the goods that would make the means of corruption acceptable
  • At what point might corruption be unacceptable (and how he decides)
  • What the limits are of any consequences he takes into account (and how he decides)
  • How he decides between different kinds of goods
  • Who decides what a significant good is

…And so on. And that will mean, like all good leaders, he will have to take responsibility for moral meaning and practice.

Rev. Dr. Simon Robinson

Director of Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility

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