Lie No. 9: Leadership is a thing.

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall debunk eight other "lies" before calling it a day with that one. Buckingham is a Gallup veteran who currently runs the people and performance side of ADP Research Institute. Goodall is senior vice president of leadership and team intelligence at Cisco. Their new book is Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World (Harvard Business Review Press). Their thesis, which won't surprise anyone who's noticed the growing media coverage of toxic workplaces and disengaged employees, is that organizations act on deeply held beliefs that often turn out to be wrong.

In the case of leadership, companies spend $14 billion a year developing their high-potentials, according to McKinsey Quarterly. They also devote endless time and resources to recruiting so-called rock stars who promise to drive the business to glory. This despite the fact that leadership can't be measured and defining it is akin to blind men trying to describe an elephant.

For decades pundits have larded the concept of leadership with adjectives. There are servant leaders, charismatic leaders, transformational leaders, transactional leaders, visionary leaders, Level V leaders, and many more. Each type is identified with a series of traits, of which few people possess all.

And no one possesses everything on the more bountiful list of traits considered desirable for leaders as a class. George VI, who was celebrated for his leadership during World War II, could barely speak in public, Buckingham and Goodall point out. Courageous, disciplined George Patton slapped a couple of soldiers with PTSD. Visionary Steve Jobs wasn't above ethical shortcuts, like buying a new car every six months so he didn't need tags. 

"You can't find a leader anywhere who has all the characteristics we think they need to have," Goodall tells Inc. "What you find, in the real world, are people who can attract followers." The key to understanding leadership, then, is to examine followership. "If you want to be practical," he says, "the question to ask is, 'What draws us to somebody?'"

The one universal: Fear of the future

That "us," though, is problematic. A major theme of Nine Lies is the individuality of employees, which companies typically ignore in the interest of reducing complexity. So, for example, one lie is that there is a common culture to which everyone belongs. Another is that an amorphous thing called "potential" exists, for which everyone can be evaluated. Feedback doesn't work because it presumes everyone aspires to the same type of excellence. "You cannot define excellence in isolation from the person being excellent any more than you can define humor in isolation from the person being funny," Buckingham says. "That person can be as different as Chris Rock, Eddie Izzard, or Sarah Silverman."

Certainly employees differ in what they want from their leaders. Some of that is a matter of temperament or style. But more profoundly, leaders choose "the hill they are trying to take," the authors say, and followers mass behind the hill that excites them. "If what appeals to you is 'what can this software be made to do,' then you follow Bill Gates," Goodall says. "If you are excited about the experience--giving the world lick-able technology--then you follow Steve Jobs."

But there are some common things that followers want from leaders, studies of high-performing teams conducted by the authors show. Those include providing a sense of connection to the mission, clarifying what is expected of them, surrounding them with people who share their definition of excellence, and challenging them to keep getting better. The big kahuna of universals that employees want addressed is apprehension about a future that is unknown. "Successful leaders all do the same thing," Buckingham says. "They turn our anxiety about the future into confidence."

How they accomplish that varies. But those who excel, the authors say, are extreme counter-examples to another of the book's "lies": that the best people are well-rounded. Hewing to their theme of individualism, the authors argue that, in fact, the best people have one or two well-honed abilities, or what they call "spikiness." Effective leaders, they say, are the spikiest, the most idiosyncratic of all. Their extreme ability, developed over time, to do one thing, like dream up exciting products or rally people around a social mission, "creates a sense in the follower that you can see around corners, so I am going to take very seriously the direction you are setting," Buckingham says.

Paint us a picture

The other thing that encourages confidence is "vividness," the authors say. That is the ability to create a detail-rich picture of where the team or company or country is going, or the hill they will climb together. Donald Trump did that very well in 2016, Buckingham says. Hillary Clinton, less so.

To be vivid, you must begin by asking yourself, whom are you serving and why? "Elon Musk has got a million things he is excited about," Buckingham says. "But his whole thing about Tesla isn't sell more cars. It is put up more charging stations. Because he wants to make us fossil-fuel independent. That is what he is going to talk about all the time."

Goodall puts it another way that harks back to Buckingham's famous earlier work about discovering and playing to your strengths. "The question I tell aspiring leaders to start with is who are you, in a super-detailed, granular, colorful, specific sense," he says. "Because that is what you have going for you."

Published on: Apr 2, 2019