If a business book teaches me something new—and offers a fresh perspective on leadership—then I know it’s a rare find in the category. Nine Lies About Work is just such a book. It’s so thought provoking, I contacted the authors to speak with them directly.
Bestselling leadership author, Marcus Buckingham, and Cisco Vice President of leadership and team intelligence, Ashley Goodall, present data, evidence and insights to debunk many of the myths that surround corporate leadership models.
When it comes to leadership, the authors find that one size does not fit all. No two leaders perform the job in the same way. No leader is perfect. No leader has all the abilities we’d like them to have.
Leaders are simply people with followers and that’s why the authors study followers as closely—if not more so—than the leaders themselves. And when Buckingham and Goodall studied followers, they found one overarching reason people choose to follow a particular leader—a universal observation across corporations, cultures and countries.
We follow leaders who make us feel a little more certain about the future.
“One thing every human on the planet has in common is that we are slightly fearful of the future. We don’t like uncertainty,” Goodall told me. “The barter at the heart of followership is if you—the leader—can reduce my anxiety about the future, then I will follow you.”
Goodall and Buckingham say that excellence is a fear reducer. We follow people who are really good at doing something that matters to us. We follow mastery. As the authors write in the book, “We follow a leader because he is deep in something, and he knows what that something is.”
Steve Jobs wasn’t a perfect leader—nobody is. But he was really good at what mattered to his followers—creating hardware and software that was delightful to use. According to Buckingham, Jobs’ actions throughout his career were consistent with a no compromise approach to design that integrates beauty and technology. Jobs was so deeply invested in that area he was far ahead of his peers or anyone on his team. “Excellence is a beautiful certainty booster,” Buckingham says.
In Nine Lies About Work, the authors take a deep analysis of Martin Luther King Jr.’s followers to explain King’s attraction. On February 22, 1956, King and eleven of his followers were arrested during the Montgomery bus boycott. A photograph shows all twelve men holding up arrest numbers as part of a mug shot. We don’t know much about the others, but we know that they had one thing in common—they put their faith and safety in a 27-year-old pastor.
Why did they choose King as the one to follow? “What makes us voluntarily place some part of our destiny in the hands of another human being?” the authors ask.
When the local ministers in Montgomery met to select a person to lead the boycott, they weren’t looking for someone with a perfectly balanced set of abstract qualities meant to measure leadership potential. King didn’t present a detailed plan to execute the goal. But they were all staring into a massively uncertain and unpredictable future. King—through his “clarion vision,” rhetoric, unswerving commitment and his personal actions—“helped them see into that future; helped them to perceive, however dimly, what its contours might be, and how they might be a part of it.”
We follow people who excel at what matters to us, leaders who give us certainty in the present and confidence in the future.
There’s no question that there’s a crisis of engagement in workplaces around the world. Buckingham and Goodall cite global studies that show a full 84% of workers are merely “coming to work” and are not fully engaged in the organization’s mission. Those leaders who understand universal human needs will be in the best position to build high-performing teams.