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Is Feedback Useful? Does Leadership Exist? This Executive Doesn’t Think So.

An interview with Co-Author of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World

This week, Harvard Business Review Press published Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World by Ashley Goodall, SVP of Leadership and Team Intelligence at Cisco, and Marcus Buckingham, head of People and Performance research at the ADP Research Institute. BRINK’s executive editor, Tom Carver, spoke to Ashley Goodall about what the authors discovered from their research.

Tom Carver: So first of all, the subtitle: “A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World.” How do you define a freethinking leader?

Ashley Goodall: If you spend time in large organizations, you find people who are not constrained by the norms in an organization or the customary ways of doing things. And if you look at these folks, they’re more interested in evidence than dogma, and they’re super curious about what actually happens in the real world: Beyond the company process and systems and what the company says, what do I see in front of me every day, and how can I engage with that? Those are the people we’re talking about.

Mr. Carver: You write about nine lies in your new book. Is there an overarching throughline between these nine lies that you can see?

Mr. Goodall: I think there are a few themes. Many of the lies start off as a small good thing which then turns into a big, bad thing. If you think about goals, for example, the notion that I can set a goal for myself when I want to is a really helpful thing for me to do. It allows me to focus my energy on something that matters to me and to express my values in the world by focusing my energy on a particular objective.

But take that to an organizational scale, as many companies do, with cascaded goal-setting systems, and all of a sudden, all of the goodness in that idea is overwhelmed and crushed by the systematization of it—it becomes about form-filling, not about manifesting each person’s values.

So one of the ideas is that small good things become big bad things if you’re not very careful. And a consequence of that is another theme of the book: that individuality and the very power of human nature—that each human’s nature is unique—is extinguished in big systems.

The third theme is that we have this habit of focusing on what doesn’t work and ignoring what does, or not paying enough attention to what works, and as a result, we miss out on the things that lead to excellence.

Mr. Carver: I was struck by the fact that you don’t believe in feedback. I think that would strike people as a very radical notion. So how do you get someone to do something that is needed for an organization, but is not one of their strengths or not something they’re naturally good at?

Mr. Goodall: The human race has actually come up with this amazing, magnificent technology for resolving that particular conundrum. And the amazing technology is called a team. We’re all weird in our own way. We’re all excited by different things. We’re all drawn to different activities. Teams take this wonderful weirdness and fuse it together to make it useful.

What happens if you are moved from a highly engaged team to a not highly engaged team? Your chance of voluntarily walking out the door increases by 45 percent.

So when somebody says, “I’m not particularly excited by this thing that the team needs to get done,” the first thing you can do is ask if anyone else on the team is more excited by it. And about half the time, the answer is yes, in my experience. I don’t have a data point on that, but it happens a lot. When you optimize at the level of team, not the level of individual, and not the level of company, you find yourself in the sweet spot in the organization.

Mr. Carver: You say in the book that people will stay in a bad company if the team is good, but not vice versa. Is that right?

Mr. Goodall: Well, we looked at this in Cisco. We looked at what happens if you are moved from a highly engaged team to a not highly engaged team. Your chance of voluntarily walking out the door increases by 45 percent.

This evidence suggests that the local experience is actually much more powerful than the company experience, because the company experience is a little abstract and a little distant. Whereas the team experience is what you live in every day.

Think about the real world. At Cisco, I know a couple hundred people. Cisco has 72,000 people globally. How can I know what Cisco’s culture is? What’s really there for me is the people I work with every day. That’s what defines my experience. If that’s a great experience, then I’m having a great experience, which I then attribute to Cisco or Cisco’s culture. But I have no easy way of knowing if my experience is the same as anyone else’s experience.

Mr. Carver: You say leadership is not a thing. Lots of people have written books about leadership where the assumption is that it is a thing. So if it’s not a thing, what can you tell someone who wants to learn about leadership?

Mr. Goodall: The funny thing about leadership is if you go and read all the books, they all seem to be saying, “Well, here are the characteristics of a human being that makes them a leader.” But if you go and look at successful leaders in the real world, the first thing that jumps out at you is that they don’t have all the things on the leader thing list.

The notion that we can understand leadership by looking at leaders is a dead end. What we need to do instead is to recognize that leaders have followers—and that that’s the only condition of being a leader. To understand leadership, then, you’ve got to look at the followers and what it is about their experience that makes them put their efforts in the service of someone else.

Leadership isn’t a thing. Following is a thing. And what seems to be going on when I choose to follow somebody is that I’m following them because they make the future a little less uncertain for me, and that responds to a fundamental need of mine.

So if you are really interested in making beautiful finished, finely honed pieces of consumer technology, then a few years ago, you would have been following Steve Jobs, because it seemed that he could do that better than anyone on the planet. But there’s an anecdote in the Walter Isaacson biography about Mr. Jobs buying a new car every six months so that he doesn’t ever have to register it and get permanent plates so that, in turn, he can park the car in the disabled parking spot without getting a ticket. You look at any list of leadership “things,” and people will say ethical leadership is top of the list. You’ve got to have ethics.

But was Steve Jobs not a leader then? Because he seemed to have an awful lot of followers, and there’s not great evidence that, at least regarding his car parking, he was a particularly ethical guy! The truth is that we forgive leaders their flaws, or we overlook their shortcomings if they stand for something that really matters for us and if they seem to be really good at doing something that really matters for us.

What I’d say to someone who wants to become a better leader is this: Understand what your followers see in you and hook on to it, and then little by little make that more focused and powerful.

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