If you were to stack up all the books that have been written about leadership in the past fifty years, that stack would reach at least halfway to the moon. Looking across this half-century of research, from Munson to Stogdill to Fiedler and beyond, you’ll notice a common theme: All of these management philosophers were trying to identify the key skill, competency, or behavioral attribute that the best leaders display. Some identified business acumen as the trait that defines great leaders, while for others it is innovation, for others charisma, and most recently there has been a focus on collaboration as the effective differentiator of great leaders.
But what if effective leadership is defined not by what skills you have, but by something else entirely? Several recent studies have suggested that the performance and productivity of leaders and their employees is not necessarily about their competencies or on-the-job activities: Instead, their lifestyle and behavioral choices seem to make the bigger difference.
By now, it is firmly established in the conventional wisdom that good leadership today is all about honesty, transparency, and even radical candor. Millennials value open and honest relationships with their bosses, so the thinking goes, and being an up-front and straightforward manager will make you more trustworthy, more respected, and ultimately more effective.
But Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer still believes “that the ability to lie convincingly may be the single most important management skill.” Writing at Fortune, Pfeffer argues that the virtues of deception are not to be discounted. Pointing to decades of research into the power of high expectations to improve performance, he stresses that leadership sometimes means convincing people that you have more faith in their abilities than you really do:
In many cases, for positive expectations to improve performance, leaders or teachers must deliver false or bogus information to the targets. If poor performers are going to improve because they are told they are expected to do great, leaders may have to say things they may not believe. …