Professor Pfeffer on Leadership: Being Curious to Learn from Experience

Jeffrey 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. He is the author or co-author of 14 books including:

Dr. Pfeffer received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and his Ph.D. from Stanford. He began his career at the business school at the University of Illinois and then taught at the University of California, Berkeley. Pfeffer has been a visiting professor at the Harvard Business School, Singapore Management University, London Business School, Copenhagen Business School, and for the past 10 years a visitor at IESE in Barcelona.

Jeffrey Pfeffer has published extensively in the fields of organization theory and human resource management. His current research focuses on the relationship between time and money, power and leadership in organizations, economics language and assumptions and their effects on management practice, how social science theories become self-fulfilling, barriers to turning knowledge into action and how to overcome them, and evidence-based management and what it is, barriers to its use, and how to implement it.

AH: Thanks again for doing this interview!

To start off, my wife is going to do an executive leadership course this year. And when I was reading through the brochure I saw it mostly talked about “authentic leadership”…

JP: Ugh…

AH: …this is a very strange concept to me. I continued reading but things got only more weird.

So it made me think… what exactly is a good leader, and how do we measure the effect of leadership?

JP: I can not actually answer that question. But I can tell you what not to do.

Most of leadership courses that are taught, mostly in the US and Europe, are based upon fiction, they are based upon aspirations of what people think leaders ought to be.

By the way where people get the idea of what leaders ought to be is also not very clear.

In any event current leadership courses are taught on the virtues of leaders, you ought to be honest and you ought to tell the truth, you have to take care of others and you ought to be authentic.

But this is completely unrelated to two things:

  1. what actual effective leaders do
  2. what a leader should do to be effective

Current leadership courses are teaching mythology. Compare it to Roman and Greek mythology for example, it’s interesting, a lot of people like to read it, it makes people feel good but it has no relationship with any reality in the world and therefore it has absolutely no effect.

AH: a comment I get often is that organizations and management in particular is messy. This is why experiments or evidence have little role in it. How do you comment?

JP: I don’t think it’s messy. We have learned a lot over the years and continue to learn. You only need to read up on that work and you don’t have to look much further than the New York Times to do so.

There is an enormous accumulation of social science literature. It is a social science, and not a physical science, it’s not a 100% like the force of gravity or the speed of light, but there is certainly a tendency to say when you do A, B will follow. You can learn this observationally and by running experiments.

The proliferation and the amount of research that is done in the social sciences has just been tremendous, some of it is better than others, but all in all we know a lot more than we did 15–20 years ago and nowadays we can demonstrate things that we couldn’t demonstrate 15–20 years ago.

Most of the empirical social science research is being ignored. Only in a very few cases when there was a particularly provocative finding, or some particular good science writer happened to pick it up.

For most part, if you look at the stuff that your wife will get in her leadership course, it is 50 years old. It doesn’t look like it is 50 years old because it has gotten more recent references, but the basic ideas haven’t changed in those 50 years.

AH: I have been applying social science for quite some time now. It’s my work. And to me it’s only logical that you run experiments to see whether you reach your goals as an organization. For example; you implement incentives and test the effect they have. This all just seems like common sense.

But is this it? Is this what leadership is all about?

JP: Yes. I think good leaders have two qualities:

  1. Leaders have to be intellectually curious.
  2. Leaders have to be willing to try stuff.

You have to be curious to learn from experience. But if you look at most leaders they are neither curious nor do they learn from experience. Take our current presidential candidate, there is no intellectual curiosity and he learns nothing.

But I think that’s true for corporate leaders as well. Many of them are not very intellectually curious. They are more into ordering people what to do then trying to figure out how to do it better.

AH: That’s very interesting. From the beginning of my career I experienced the thing you mention. Not only with leaders, I had it with almost all my colleagues, and it didn’t matter in which department they worked.

When I read the most recent (mostly professional literature, not even scientific) literature in their field of expertise, say communication or marketing, and I confronted them with this literature I always got the same reaction: “What are you talking about?” They had never heard of it.

JP: Yup, that’s right.

AH: Another topic I am interested in is targets. Leaders often give people targets. Good leaders give good targets.

I have worked at an university of applied sciences, the most important target there is the number of students that get their degree. The government rewards the universities based on this number. This target had a large influence on how managers worked.

The managers that ran the programs got very creative in persuading lecturers to let students pass their exams. The outcome was that many students got their degree, without fully mastering the content of the programme.

JP: That makes “perfect sense” to me…

I have written a chapter with Bob (Sutton) in Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management; where we talk about the dangers of measurement. You need to be careful with what you measure, because you are going to get it, and often you don’t really want it.

AH: Exactly! This is another common argument against an evidence-based approach, or business experimentation for that matter. “You should not want to measure everything. Because than things go wrong.”

JP: That only means your measurement system is wrong. You haven’t put in a sophisticated measurement system yet. You have put in single-item measures that can easily be gamed and that’s why you got in to trouble.

The alternative is to have nothing. And that’s not a good alternative.

AH: Well put! As many readers know, I have worked at Booking.com as well. And there they have very interesting targets. Their main target is the number of (online) experiments the department runs. Only as secondary target the quality of experiments matter.

During a normal day people come up with their experiments in the morning, they code/design whatever is needed and put their AB tests ready at the end of the day.

The next day they could analyze the results of experiments they started in the past and learn from it. But most of the time they don’t. They will start thinking about a new experiment. Because in the end this is the main target they have to reach.

So I do recognize the struggle, or the refinement that is needed when you have incentives and targets in place, you are measuring outcomes and you want to improve.

JP: You need to have judgment in place as well. Everybody wants to substitute simple measures for judgment. You should never do this.

AH: Agree. So, online experimentation is clearly here to stay. But do you see other disciplines that are willing to adopt business experimentation?

Next to medicine, which is the most emperical science that has the least of the problems we talked about (not that it doesn’t any), I think product design is probably going to embrace this approach as well.

If you look at how engineers build a plane, they are very much into using up to date knowledge and running experiments on different designs and different materials and different whatever. You need the physical component.

AH: Thanks again for doing this interview. As a last thing, do you want to share a lesson with the business experimentation community to close this interview?

JP: No, I think the message is that we have to get better.

There hasn’t been enough progress the last 40–50 years and if we keep doing things the same way we are not getting any better.