You are a leader in your organization and the sum of the functions you perform is called leadership. The declarative nature of such a statement can often prompt heated debates between multiple constituents. Critics may dismiss leadership theory as dogma; humanists may advocate for the value of employee engagement over top-down control; and academics may deliver a lengthy treatise on whether leaders are born or made.
In their new book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall take a far more pragmatic position. For them, the statement that: ‘Leadership is a Thing’ is a lie – one of nine lies, in fact, that cause distortion, frustration, and fundamentally wrong assumptions about running a business.
Control and Uniformity
For the authors, much of this distortion and frustration arises from a benign intent to “exert control and impose uniformity.” By prioritizing process over people, the system ensures a perceived commitment to equality and the naïve belief that any data collected from the operation of that system is representative of each participant in that system. Unfortunately, that systemic approach also undermines the growth potential of most organizations. Yes, you need systems to manage hundreds of thousands of employees, but that doesn’t mean that each of those employees should be managed the same.
Six of the nine “lies” challenge the emphasis on control and uniformity directly by focusing on the needs of people. For example:
Lie #1: People Care Which Company They Work For is presented as a lie because the statement assumes a broad commitment to a brand. There are some organizations where the commitment to a culture is very strong––Patagonia, Apple, Chick-fil-A, for example––but the deeper emotional connection resides with the team that you work with on a daily basis.
Lie #4 The Best People Are Well-Rounded falls back on the persistence of uniformity as measured in competency models that drive generic job descriptions. Those competency models, the authors argue, are inherently flawed because they confuse states (as in state of mind) with traits that are inherent predispositions that drive “recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior.” In more blunt terms, “well-rounded people” are an excuse for not recognizing the individuality and potential of your people.
In this context, ‘freethinking’ becomes less about thinking outside the box, and more about being brave enough to challenge the status quo and put your people above the process. Focus on the cohesion of your team over some vague concept of culture for the organization as a whole.
Nine Lies About Work identifies nine ‘lies’ that deliberately undermine the growth potential of organizations. If you’re willing to become a freethinking leader, challenge accepted dogma, and disrupt the status quo by seeing these “lies” for what they are, your organization may be one of the very few to realize their full potential.