10 LIES ABOUT WORK/Lie Nr. 10 – Leadership is a feature.

That’s the way it simply is.

I could have written more about the fake life we have at workplace everyday. There is a lot o shit happening out-there but this is the last lie I write about.

If you would ask 1000 people: why they work for a company?, more than 80% of them will tell you that it’s because they have to, but not because they want so, and not because they do it with pleasure. And If I extrapolate this to the world population I guarantee you the a massive majority of people will tell you the same, they work because they have to. You don’t believe me?? Alright, then go ahead I provoke you to try and do the exercise. Ask randomly 1000 people why they work of a company? And draw your own conclusions. πŸ™‚ :-). But indeed, why do we behave like that? Well …it’s because many of us think that we must obey to those who lead, because we are also told that LEADERSHIP IS A FEATURE and we all must agree with that. Well ….I this post I will tell you that this is nothing but a LIE. Leadership is NOT a feature. Not even a little one.

But this post is not about leadership. And I can say a little more. I can say that there appears to be broad agreement that certain people exhibit a definable, consistent, and meaningful quality called leadership. That there are some characteristics of a person that are in some way above and different from that person’s technical skills (whether he or she can write good code, for example, or good English) and that also transcend that person’s interpersonal or “soft” skills (whether he or she can make the sale, or negotiate a deal) and that make the person a leader.

Steve Jobs had all of that.

I can also say that we tend to agree that all the best leaders possess this quality, or set of qualities – so, leadership is something that lives, specially, in those who lead and is in some way responsible for their ability to do so. And I can say that, as a consequence, most of us would agree that if you want to be a leader, you have to have this set of qualities.

There is a frustrating circularity to this argument – that there’s a feature called “leadership“, and we know it’s a feature because leaders have it, otherwise they wouldn’t be leaders. It’s like saying your cat has catness because he’s a cat: it might be true, but it’s hardly helpful to your hamster if he dreams, someday, of being a cat. This know-it-when-we-see-it vagueness explains, in part, why we can talk about leadership so much without usefully advancing our understanding of it, or “getting much better at it”. Perhaps to combat this vagueness, some go further and begin to try to specify some of the qualities that make up leadership. As for example:

  • Being inspirational seems to be important.
  • Being able to create and articulate a vision matters a lot.
  • The ability to formulate strategy is good, as is the ability to distinguish a good strategy from a bad one.
  • Sometimes mastery of execution makes the list – the art of getting stuff done.
  • Setting a direction for an organization is important, and, in concert with this, bringing people into alignment with that direction and motivating them to move ahead.
  • Decision making is high on the list, together with managing conflict.
  • Innovation and disruption usually put in an appearance.
  • Communications skills also rank highly, and having what’s commonly referred to as “executive presence” is also felt to be critical.

To this collection of long-limbed characteristics are added some personal traits. Leadership requires:

  • authenticity (the ability to come across as a “real” person) and often, too,
  • vulnerability (the courage to be imperfect in public, to relinquish the need to be right or to be the smartest person in the room).

These things, and a few others, are said to be needed so that our leaders can build effective relationships with others. And yet these characteristics are curiously circumscribed: authenticity is important, right up until the point when the leader, authentically, says that he has no idea what to do, which then fractures his vision.

Likewise, vulnerability is important until the moment when the leader’s comfort with his own flaws causes us to doubt him, and to question whether he is sufficiently inspirational. Apparently, we require authentic sureness and reassuring vulnerability, however contradictory those things may be. The personal qualities that make the list are Goldilocks qualities-they must be neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right.

These little inconsistencies, however, melt away in the face of our conviction that leadership is a great good at work – it is always better for a person to have more of it, and the more leaders an organization has, the better. This much, at least, appears settled – and as a result you will be told that the most important thing you can do to advance your career is to “grow your leadership.”

Apparently leaders use this grow pattern.

Now, some might choose other attributes for their lists, but those above are a reasonable summary of the theory-world view of leadership. And the reason that this isn’t a post on leadership is not that the qualities listed aren’t useful (they are) or that this topic has been done to death (it’s dose) but, rather, that when I look critically, I realize that we may well have misunderstood leadership altogether. Indeed, the lie that we encounter at work is that leadership is a feature. Well it is NOT.

As reference for leadership I can not find a better example – which for sure will be remembered forever in the leadership history- than the story of Martin Luther King.


This guy is an icon for real. What he did and the consequences of his actions have definitely changed the way we thing about leadership today. To make it short, seeing the story of Martin Luther King I can simply say that it’s a story about the other 11 men who followed him, and it’s a story that –in all the theorizing about leadership, in all the competing lists and competencies, in all the articles and surveys and assessments and books, in all the dissection and analysis and categorization – is sadly lost. For leadership does not live in the abstract, does not live in the average. It lives, instead, in the real world. And if we look at that world, this is what we see.

1st – the ability to lead is rare. It was not inevitable that Martin Luther King Jr. would emerge from the Montgomery bus boycott as a national leader whom millions would follow-there were other good people guiding the Montgomery Improvement Association, just as there were other, earlier bus boycotts a couple of years before 1956. But something about King in Montgomery was special. The fact that we lionize those who have this special ability; the fact that we spend so much time looking for it and trying to get more of it; and the fact that it plays such a prominent role in how we think about our organizations: these point not to its ubiquity but to its scarcity-and this scarcity, in turn, belies the supposed ease with which we’re all meant to be able to get better at it. If leading were easy, there would be more good leaders. If there were more good leaders, we might be just a little less focused on it.

2nd – leaders have shortcomings. Their skill set is incomplete. We don’t need extra surveillance files to reveal that King was not in possession of every quality the perfect leader should possess. And this is confounding, because it challenges the notion that there is in fact a list of leadership qualities, each of which is essential. For every quality on the list, we can think of a respected leader in the real world who lacks it.

Yep!! you must.

If leadership is about being inspirational or visionary, then what should we make of Warren Buffett, whose principal activities as a leader seem to consist of sitting in an office in Omaha, Nebraska, drinking Cherry Coke, and finding companies to buy?

If leadership is about creating a winning strategy, then what should we make of Winston Churchill, whose disastrous policies in the 1920s and 1930s led to his exile from government?

If leadership is about execution and communication, then what should we make of King George VI of Great Britain, who was revered for his leaders hip of that nation during the Second World War, but who could barely speak in public, and who wasn’t in a position to execute anything?

If leadership is about building a winning coalition, then what should we make of Susan B. Anthony, whose falling-out with her fellow women’s-suffrage leaders created a split in that movement that lasted twenty years?

If it’s about ethics, what do we make of Steve Jobs‘s buying a new car every six months to avoid registering it, so as to be able to park in handicapped spots whenever he wanted to?

If it’s about caring for those in your charge, what do we inake of General George Patton and his physically assaulting soldiers with PTSD?

If it’s about authenticity, where does that leave John F. Kennedy and his hidden illnesses and affairs?

What does it mean for all the models and lists if the things on them are optional? The lesson from the real world is not that there is any particular collection of qualities that every leader has, but rather that every leader we can think of has obvious shortcomings-that leaders aren’t perfect people, not by a long way.

And finally 3rd – it follows that leadership is not about being the most well-rounded of the well-rounded people. As I explained in Lie Nr. 6 The best people aren’t well-rounded. The same is true for the leaders we see in the real world-and even more so. As with some of the great performers I mentioned earlier – think Lionel Messi and his amazing left foot – we don’t see the most respected leaders spending much time trying to round themselves out, trying to develop abilities in areas where they have none. Instead, we see them trying to make the best use of what they already have, with the result that whenever we look closely, we see them going about the task of leading in very different ways. In this way, leading is the same as all other fields of human endeavor-high performance is idiosyncratic, and the higher the level of performance the greater the level of idiosyncrasy.

This is why the idea that “leadership is a feature” is a lie. When you take any of our definitions of that feature, and then try to locate it in the real world, you encounter exception upon exception upon exception. The very least I can conclude is that if there is some magical set of attributes, we haven’t yet figured out what they are, and that plenty of leaders are doing plenty of leading without many of them. And if that’s the case, then the things that supposedly make up leadership neither add to our understanding of it nor help us be better at it.

But if the real world shows us what leadership isn’t, does it give us any clues at all that we can learn from? Can we say nothing more than that leading is a free-for-all, a grab bag of different skills and attributes and states and traits that will remain ever mysterious? Or is there a different way to understand what’s going on?

What’s most remarkable about the events in Montgomery in 1956 is not that one individual took a stand and was imprisoned as a result, it is not what this one man said or did. It is rather that others chose to follow him. What is truly before us  is a story of a leader (M.L. King Jr.) and his followers – and it is because, on that day, the 11 chose to follow that 60 years later we know their names. In the midst of physical attacks and intimidation and firebombings, the 11 saw something special in King, something that they chose to follow, and because of what they did, and then because of what countless thousands and millions did in the ensuing years, we recognize him as a leader.

Martin Luther K.Jr. had a lot of them πŸ™‚

This is the true lesson in leading from the real world: a leader is someone who has followers, plain and simple. The only determinant of whether anyone is leading is whether anyone else is following. This might seem like an obvious statement, until we recall how easily we overlook its implications. Followers their needs, their feelings, their fears and hopes – are strangely absent when we speak of leaders as exemplars of strategy, execution, vision, oratory, relationships, charisma, and so on. The idea of leadership is missing the idea of followers. It’s missing the idea that our subject here is, at heart, a question of a particularly human relationship-namely, why anyone would choose to devote his or her energies to, and to take risks on behalf of, someone else?? And, in that, it’s missing the entire point.

This notion – that a leader is a person with followers – does not emerge from a list of skills, or tactics, or competencies; it doesn’t coincide with a person’s level within a hierarchy; and it doesn’t actually tell us very much about the nature of the leader him -or herself. But it does capture a condition for leading. And that condition is precise – it’s about the presence, or absence, of followers.

So the question we should really be asking ourselves is this one: Why do we follow? With its following additional sub-questions:

  • What is it that makes us work hard late into the night to go beyond what’s expected of us?
  • What makes us move someone to the front of our queue?
  • What makes us voluntarily place some part of our destiny in the hands of another human being?
  • What makes us give our breath to another?
  • What made those 11 men entrust their well-being and their hopes to Number 7089 (Luther King)?
That’s why we follow.

Broadly speaking, we want to feel part of something bigger than ourselves – the “Best of We” – while, at the same time, feeling that our leader knows and values us for who we are as a unique individual – the “Best of Me.” More specifically, we follow leaders:

  • who connect us to a mission we believe in,
  • who clarify what’s expected of us,
  • who surround us with people
  • who define excellence the same way we do,
  • who value us for our strengths,
  • who show us that our teammates will always be there for us,
  • who diligently replay our winning plays,
  • who challenge us to keep getting better, and
  • who give us confidence in the future.

This is not a list of qualities in a leader, but rather a set of feelings in a follower. When we say to ourselves that leadership is indeed a feature, because we know it when we see it, we’re not really seeing any definable characteristic of another human. What we are “seeing” is in fact our own feelings as a follower. As such, while we should not expect every good leader to share the same qualities or competencies, we can hold all good leaders accountable for creating these same feelings of follower-ship in their teams. Indeed, we can use these feelings to help any particular leader know whether or not she is any good.

The 8 items I’ve introduced in LIE Nr. 2 are a valid measure of a leader’s effectiveness. We need not dictate how each leader should behave, but we can define what all good leaders must create in their followers. And since we measure this by asking the followers to rate their own experiences, rather than rating the leader on a long list of abstract leader qualities, this measure of leader effectiveness is reliable.

Leadership isn’t a thing, because it cannot be measured reliably. Followership is a thing, because it can.

And it’s a lie that leadership is a feature because no two leaders create followers in quite the same way. What’s true in the real world is that leading is many different things. Your challenge as a leader is not to try to acquire the complete set of abstract leader competencies – you will fail, not least because the first hurdle you will fall at is authenticity. Instead, your challenge is to find and refine your own idiosyncratic way of creating in your team these eight emotional outcomes. Do this well and you will lead well.

Interestingly and happily – these two are linked. Your ability to create the outcomes you want in your followers is tied directly to how seriously and intelligently you cultivate your own idiosyncrasy, and to what end. The deeper and more extreme your idiosyncrasy becomes, the more passionately your followers follow-and while this is frustrating to us when we happen to disagree with the ends of a particular leader, it is so nonetheless.

When King was in jail in 1960 in Birmingham Alabama due to some accusations that he organized a nonviolent campaign against segregation he had written what is now known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It’s a long letter-an impassioned letter. It’s a plea against settling, against compromise, against the path of least resistance. And in it, King talks about extremism. “The question,” he says “is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be.”

Martin Luther King Jr. did the right thing. That’s why he was a leader.

Warren Buffett, the uninspiring Coke – drinker from Omaha, is an extremist. He’s exceptional at finding and buying companies. Winston Churchill, while he might have been a poor policy maker, was exceptional at inspiring uncompromising resistance. Susan B. Anthony was really good at focusing her energies, and those of the people around her, on a specific goal. Steve Jobs was really good at creating hardware and software that was delightful to use. George Patton was really good at fighting, with his whole being, whatever was in front of him on any given day. And John F. Kennedy was really good at making the future feel universal and morally uplifting. What each of these leaders had in common was that they were really good at something – each was, in their different way, an extremist.

We have seen, already, that the best people aren’t well-rounded, but are instead spiky – they have honed one or two distinctive abilities that they use to make their mark on the world. What we see in the best leaders is a similar extremism – a few signal abilities refined over time. But now, these abilities are so pronounced, and the leaders so adept at transmitting them to the world, that they stand out to all of us. And so this truth: we follow spikes.

This particularly human characteristic presents a challenge for you, the modern day leader. You are charged with rallying your team toward a better future, yet many on your team are fearful of this future. And this fear isn’t unjustified. It’s adaptive. Those of our forebears who lacked it, who paddled their little rafts toward the horizon, asking themselves “Ooh, I wonder where the sun goes to sleep?” often didn’t return to pass on their genes. Being a bit cautious can be a sensible thing. As a leader, you can’t be dismissive of this fear. You can’t tell your people to “embrace change” and to “get comfortable with ambiguity.” Well you can, but you will then get them thinking ever more deeply about change and ambiguity, which will, in turn, increase their anxiety and lessen your effectiveness as a leader.

M.Luther King never lost the connection.

The final characteristic of the best teams, as we saw in Lie Nr 2, is the feeling that, for each team member, “I have great confidence in my company’s future.” This confidence in the future, it seems, is the antidote to our universal uncertainty. And it explains why we follow.

The act of following is a barter-we entrust some part of our future to a leader only when we get something in return. That “something in return” is confidence. And what gives us confidence in the future is seeing, in a leader, some great and pronounced level of ability in something we care about. We follow people who are really good at something that matters to us. We follow the spikes.

It’s as if the spikes give us something to hook on to. We’re well aware of our own shortcomings, and we know that what lies ahead of us in life is unknowable. We’re aware, also, that our journey will be easier if we can do it in partnership with others. And when we see, in those others, some ability that offsets our own deficits, and that removes for us, even if only slightly, some of the mist of the future, then we hold on. We don’t necessarily follow vision, or strategy, or execution, or relationship building, or any of the other leadership things. Instead we follow mastery. And it doesn’t much matter how this mastery manifests itself, as long as we, the followers, find it relevant.

One of the lessons of all the lies I’ve wrote about is that when we blind ourselves to what’s around us, and instead theorize about how the world ought to be (or how we’d like it to be if only it were tidier), our people vanish. We stop seeing them. We mute our curiosity, and we replace it with dogma and dictum. The same happens with the people we call leaders-the moment we start theorizing, they vanish, too. And here are the truths that vanish along with them:

  • The truth that no two leaders do the same job in the same way.
  • The truth that as much as we follow the spikes, they can also antagonize us.
  • The truth that no leader is perfect-and that the best of them have learned how to work around their imperfections.
  • The truth that leaders are frustrating-they don’t have all the abilities we’d like them to have.
  • The truth that following is in part an act of forgiveness-it is to give our attention and efforts to someone despite what we can see of their flaws.
  • The truth that not everyone should be, or wants to be, a leader-the world needs followers, and great followers at that.
  • The truth that a person who might be a great leader for me might not be a great leader for you.
  • The truth that a person who might be a great leader for one team, or team of teams, or company, might not be a great leader for another.
  • The truth that leaders are not necessarily a force for good in the world-they are simply people with followers. They aren’t saints, and sometimes their having followers leads to hubris and arrogance, or worse.
  • The truth that leaders are not good or bad-they are just people who have figured out how to be their most defined selves in the world, and who do so in such a way that they inspire genuine confidence in their followers. This isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is.
  • The truth that leading isn’t a set of characteristics but a series of experiences seen through the eyes of the followers.
  • The truth that, despite all this, we reserve a special place in our world for those who make our experience of it better and more hopeful.

And the truth that, through it all, we follow your spikes. We spend vast sums of money, in the corporate world, on training and developing our leaders. We never ask why, given your particular jumble of characteristics, anyone would follow you. We never ask how-given that one-of-a-kind mixture of states and traits that makes you who you are-you would use those things to create an experience for the people around you, and use what you have to help them feel better about the world you’re all walking through together, and, while we’re at it, how we might give you some measure of that so you can adjust your course as you go.

That’s absolutely irrelevant. You don’t even evaluate anything by applying this model.

So we need to stop with the models. Stop with the 360-degree assessments. Stop with the minute and meaningless parsing of how to move your “effective communications” score from a 3.8 to a 3.9, while also figuring out why your peers gave you a 4.1 on “strategy” yet your boss gave you a 3.0. Stop with the endless lists of abstractions. Stop debating whether it’s authenticity or tribal leadership or situational leadership or level-five leadership or whatever the latest leadership nirvana thing is. Stop with the one-size-fits-all.

Instead, let’s get humble -the experience of the people on our teams and in our organizations is a true thing, and we don’t simply get to choose what it is. Let’s get curious about that experience and how our actions shape it. And let’s follow our own reactions to real people in the real world. When we feel uplifted by what someone does or says, we need to stop and ask why. When we feel a fresh rush of energy after talking with someone, we need to stop and ask why. When we feel, in response to another human being, that mysterious attraction tugging on us – like a fish on a line, or like a needle twitching in a compass, an attraction that says here, something is happening, something true and visceral and substantial, something that will change, however slightly, the arc of our future – we need to stop and ask why.

As Simon SINEK said and says many times : FIND YOUR WHY

We need to get to know real leaders in the real world, and we need to come to know them as followers ourselves. Then we can start learning. We follow a leader because he is deep in something, and he knows what that something is. His knowledge of it, and the evidence of his knowledge of it, gives us both certainty in the present and confidence in the future.

Leading and following are not abstractions. They are human interactions; human relationships. And their currency is the currency of all human relationships-the currency of emotional bonds, of trust, and of love. If you, as a leader, forget these things, and yet master everything that theory world tells you matters, you will find yourself alone. But if you understand who you are, at your core, and hone that understanding into a few special abilities, each of which refracts and magnifies your intent, your essence, and your humanity, then, in the real world, we will see you.

And we will follow YOU πŸ˜‰

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