An almost infinite number of recent books, blogs and seminars on leadership equate being efficient with being virtuous, arguing that traits like authenticity, modesty and concern for others are paramount. Meanwhile, Donald Trump leads the race for the Republican nomination, and the world’s most lauded business leaders include Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and many others who display few, if any, of these prescribed qualities. What gives?
In essence, we’re confusing good stories with good advice. The most cited example comes by way of Jim Collins, whose 2001 book Good to Great included a study of so-called Level 5 leaders–successful executives who were both driven and demure. But while these tactics may have worked for the small group of leaders Collins studied, they’re exceptions, not rules. The vast majority of research shows that narcissism, rather than modesty, predicts being selected for and surviving in leadership roles.
Of course, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read Machiavelli’s The Prince–or the New York Times piece published on its 500th anniversary, “Why Machiavelli Still Matters,” which draws from centuries of history to conclude that “following virtue often leads to … ruin … whereas pursuing what appears to be vice results in security and well-being.” Sometimes, the best bosses have to lie and manipulate to save money and jobs. Often, they have to disregard concern for others. These truths may not be as inspiring as the latest wave of leadership fables, but they’re backed by social science and knowledge of contemporary organizations–and they’re likelier to help people lead.
Pfeffer is the author of Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time
This appears in the September 28, 2015 issue of TIME.