Episode 45

#045 - Nine Lies About Work Series: Lie #9

Published on: 15th June, 2021

Lie: Leadership is a Thing

Truth: We follow spikes

Today we cover the final lie in our Nine Lies About Work series with Leadership is a Thing. It turns out, instead of classifying a leader as someone who possesses a pre-defined list of skills and developed some mastery over those skills (the traditional proxy for leadership) - we instead classify leaders as someone who has followers.

And, it turns out, followers follow the "spikes" of others. They are attracted to the most defined and extreme parts of another human towards a cause.

“When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’
But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.’”

Thanks for joining us today and don't forget to hit the subscribe button or reach out at [email protected].


Robert Greiner 0:05

It's the same approach as we just have opinions about things and are fine sharing them with little to no expertise.

Charles Knight 0:12

Yes. Very dangerous.

Igor Geyfman 0:15

I feel personally attacked Robert.

Robert Greiner 0:18

No, that's just how we that's. That's our normal mo all of us. Yeah.

Igor Geyfman 0:22

Okay. Yeah, we're all invited.

Robert Greiner 0:24

I just went from like, total chiller to a little bit depressed after sending that email. Yeah. What are you gonna do? Alright, we should move on.

Charles Knight 0:32

Let's do it.

Robert Greiner 0:33

Okay, line number nine. Last Lie of the book nine lies about work. I'm pretty excited about this one.

Charles Knight 0:40

I'm actually excited to be done with this book. It was good. It's been fun. We've got one, one more conversation to go. But I think I'm ready to put this behind this and embrace it, new series.

Robert Greiner 0:50

So we've been having some good conversations about what's next. So I'm excited to I think we probably do, it does deserve a wrap up episode, where we maybe talk about some takeaways and things like that. But we can talk about that later. Let's definitely dive in, though, to line number nine, Charles, which you don't have any context in still?

Charles Knight 1:08


Robert Greiner 1:08

And Igor, you're good.

Igor Geyfman 1:09

Yeah. Mm hmm.

Robert Greiner 1:10

And I think you were saying this was one of the chapters that stuck with you the most and the longest after your initial reading the lie eight and my nine, right?

Igor Geyfman 1:18

It did, because it challenged some of my biases, that I had.

Robert Greiner 1:22

They made a good argument here. So the lie is leadership is a thing. And what they don't mean is leadership is a quality or an interpretation of other people, that there's no such thing as great leaders in the past. What they're saying is, it's just like the other arguments made previously. Leadership is not a collection of uniform behaviors that we can mold or assess people against as much as we try to do that. It's you can't really get there. And so they talked about a lot of leaders in the past who are generally regarded as exceptional leaders, Warren Buffett is one of them, but he's not super charismatic, like Steve Jobs, like Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs are two totally different leaders, yet. They're in the same sort of ecosystem as World Class leaders. What is it about them, that makes them be considered great leaders, and it's usually their spikiness is what they say. So we don't follow this core set of leadership behaviors, we follow other people's spikes. That's the truth. And they're very practical about the definition of leadership, which is leaders have followers. And without the followers, like the leaders actions are pretty meaningless, actually. And so what your followers do as a leader really matters and validates or justifies your position as a leader.

Charles Knight 2:41

Just a quick comment. I like the simplification of what is the leader, but then it immediately begs the question for me, what is the follower anyway, it's just a random thought.

Robert Greiner 2:50


especially because the leaders that they talked about in the book had very strong, almost extreme, not in a bad way, but like vigorous like raving fans. Basically, if you're a leader in an organization, you may not have that you have real power. Yeah. And so how does that? How do you wield that? How do you navigate that, as someone in a leadership position that turns you into a world class leader, and it can't just be because you have real power over someone or you're higher on the org chart than someone that doesn't count you we could call that like a manager, right? There's some behavioral aspect of leadership that is important to drill in on. And they're saying that really can't be defined. With any degree of precision. It's your spike, that thing that makes you unique, that thing that you put on your highlight reel, that's the thing that attracts people to you for their niche, kind of time and area in life and then causes them to want to follow you Igor, did I get that right?

Igor Geyfman 3:46

I think you got it. Exactly. Right, Robert. So when I originally read this, we're going just like we are now through, I think some reviews. And one of the things that kept coming up was this idea of, and it still comes up today, I think, executive presence, and we'll talk about that as a quality for somebody to progress to leadership positions and so on. And I think when I read this chapter, I was like, Is that a thing? Does this somebody need what we call executive presence to be a really effective high performing leader? Maybe not. And that's an example. And there's others that sort of came to mind as well. And that's what I mean by it really made me question my underlying assumptions and biases to what like leadership might mean. And I just liked their challenge of a set of characteristics that as long as you check the boxes, presto change o, you're a leader.

Robert Greiner 4:35

Yeah, or our incessant need to, as soon as we put someone in a leadership position, surround them with feedback around how to round out their weaknesses in growth areas, instead of doubling down on strengths. And there's a balance there, right. You can't just say, because Charles is a really great problem solver, and he can connect the dots together. We don't care how he treats his team or we don't care how good of a public speaker he is or we don't care how detailed he is in contracts or whatever other element of his job is a necessity. There's a balance, right? But we do talk about we have said it is much more creetive to a career, the default mode should be doubling down on strengths, focusing on those spikes, and then leveling up the low watermarks, the soft spots, whatever you want to call them when they become so unbearable that it's holding you back. How does that sit with you, Charles?

Charles Knight 5:30

I think it sits. Okay. I'm curious as to what when they say leadership is a thing, right? Is it just pointing to Hey, leaders are born not made sort of thing is that what they mean by leadership is a thing.

Robert Greiner 5:42

I think it's more, I don't think there's an argument that there are people who are wired, naturally predisposed to exhibit behaviors that normal in normal situations are viewed as leadership behaviors. So if you're extroverted, that's probably something that will reduce a little bit of friction. If you're in a position of leadership, if you like talking in front of a group of people, if you like setting vision, if you like the attention and responsibility if you thrive on that, which we talked about in prior cast as well, like there are some things where you can if you're pre wired for that, it might make it easier, but that doesn't restrict anybody from succeeding in a leadership position. And so what I think the book says, though, they don't really contemplate, are you born with this or not? I think they're, we're all pretty much in agreement that there's no such thing as a born leader. It's really they're fighting against this collection of characteristics, and personal traits that were that we cobbled together by taking individual characteristics from individual leaders and compiling them until archetype. And then judging people against that. So Warren Buffett is really good at analyzing businesses and and generating great monetary returns. Charlie Munger is a great systems thinker, Steve Jobs has several spikes, right, one of which is public speaking and showmanship. The other is this incessant need to create quality products, right, you can start to point out any great leader in history, you can look at and say, Hey, this is their spike, this is what they're really good at. And there's also a laundry list of things they're terrible at. And part of what we've said before is you have to build a team around you that covers off on those weaknesses, right, it's not really feasible to try to cover them all yourself. We don't have enough time. And so I think it's that line of thinking, which is the characteristics that we cobbled together, and then they've tried to define that as leadership. And

Charles Knight 7:42

yeah, so

they define they would say, all leaders have spikes. Is that fair?

Robert Greiner 7:48

Yeah. People don't follow leaders. They follow spikes.

Charles Knight 7:52

And but not all people with spikes are leaders. Is that also accurate?

Robert Greiner 7:56

Yeah, probably. I don't think they really get into that.

Charles Knight 7:59

Because that's the

curious part is and maybe this just goes back to the Hey, you have to have a baseline maturity across a variety of different dimensions. Otherwise, it's a non starter for you as a leader, because people won't follow you. But okay, I'm a generally I can. I think I understand what they're saying. And I don't have any issue with it. Do they go into any detail around some of these characteristics and things like that?

Robert Greiner 8:21

Yeah, some let me point pull on that a little bit. If you have a spike, it's probably enough. Everybody has spikes. It's probably enough at some point in time to garner some kind of followership, I think there is an ongoing need to where people are. There's there's almost this like continual calculus or loop running in people's head that is your is following you still worth it. And so there is a sustainability idea here, that wasn't explored too much. But I think that's probably the spike needs to be growing, or it needs to be consistent or something like that.

Charles Knight 8:53

Yeah, just people can be spiking so many different ways. And I think there's maybe a breakdown in vocabulary here, because leadership to describe Steve Jobs, or Charlie Munger, or Warren Buffett or anybody else that when any other name that we throw out there that people would generally agree as a strong leader. It doesn't really it just feels lazy, that says, What a wonderful leader, you know, it's like it's shorthand to describe kind of like what you said, as a Warren Buffett can create phenomenal returns. And Charlie Munger is he's developed worldly wisdom, based off of his studying and learning and education. And Steve Jobs is a product visionary. And it feels like leadership is a catch all term for all of those different spikes. And

Robert Greiner 9:42

well, the catch all term here is that they had a ton of followers. There are people in history who were smarter than Steve Jobs who are smarter than Warren Buffett, like who had spikes even greater than that didn't have the followership that they had. And so that would be the litmus test here is how fanatical and In broad and

Charles Knight:

Got it. That's right.

Yeah. Okay.

Robert Greiner:

So that I'll read a quote from the book, right, we follow a leader because he or she is deep in something, and knows what that something is their knowledge of it and the evidence of that knowledge gives us both certainty in the present and confidence in the future. So they brought up Martin Luther King, Jr. So they said, when we look at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It's not the oratory, even though that's really great. It's not the self sacrifice, even though that's inspirational, not the ideology of non violence, even though that's uplifting, or even his like, super persistence in solving these core problems. humbling, though that is, they say, the end to which all these things are deployed, is Martin Luther King, Jr. was a crucible maker that he brought issues to a head deliberately and relentlessly. And so that's what they're talking about here is the brilliance of not letting go, and of creating intensity and focus and concentration around the problem, so that his spike is distilled down into that one thing that requires a lot of skills that require several skills that were listed beforehand to bring to bear. But that wasn't enough to be inspiring, or to have a good moral code. It had to come from the sense of at this point in time, there was this need to hold on to create focus and concentration around core issues.

Charles Knight:

It makes me think about and I think we've talked about this in the past that leadership is very situational. And I just wonder, especially for those great people in history, do we only realize their greatness as a leader because of the their distilled spikiness and all those stuff in retrospect? Or is it possible in the moment to identify great leaders?

Robert Greiner:

Oh, I

think it's possible in the moment, there are things that immediately attract us to

this group of people.

Igor Geyfman:

I think it may only be possible in the moment, I think, because the measure is followers. It's not like something that happens retroactively. It's not like the example of Jackson Pollock dying as a broke artist. And then a decade later, being praised as a forward thinking Trailblazer in the moment, because you're having an impact, because you're creating followers, I think you can't act, it's not just something that will happen after the fact you will very much see it in like the presence of that person.

Charles Knight:

I think that's good. That's a good reminder for leaders, I guess people who are self identify as leaders, and to remember that this is really, it's less about the vision that you have. And it's less about the spike that you have and more about how that connects with each person that follows you, or people that you want to follow you. It's really about how you show up to other people that I think makes or breaks, what it means to be a leader.

Robert Greiner:

Yeah. And look at Warren Buffett, I'm one of those things might be his ability to teach others how to hone this, like super rare and exceptional skill that he's developed. And so that creates a whole different kind of following from a whole different kind of group of people. And that's pretty cool. And he's really leaning into his spikes here. And he's leveled up as a public speaker and things like that. Over the years, he's a little bit more interested in the limelight than Charlie Munger. But at the end of the day, these are just a series of behaviors that are exhibited around, you know, this heavy spike.

Charles Knight:

Yeah, I do think there's and tell me if I'm veering off course here, but there is absolutely something in the moment that can be focused on as a leader, but there's also maybe it's more of a legacy as a leader, because oftentimes think about a president. They do great things in the moment when they're in office. And then as soon as they leave, even before they leave, probably they start to think about what is their lasting legacy. And then there's an accounting that happens from the public from the media in terms of let's evaluate their contributions over time, and then figure out okay, now that we take a step back, and we look at it as a complete body of work, what do we say? Was this a great president or not? Right that that happens? And so I guess, maybe I'm trying to reconcile those things, but maybe it is, its legacy, not leadership. At that point, maybe that's how I reconcile it.

Igor Geyfman:

There's this book that I read, that I really, that really impacted me early on and shaped where I took my career. And it was written by David Ogilvy, who would create what is now known as the Ogilvy, the advertising agency. And he wrote a book at sometime in the late 60s, I think, called Ogilvy on advertising. And he goes into, you know, the explanation of leadership to some extent, but there's a quote in it, which I always think about, and it's the way that he presents impact. And the quote is, when Aeschines spoke, they said, how well he speaks. But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, let us march against Philip. And to me that sort of distills being a leader versus how being a quality of leadership, or maybe being well spoken is the quality of leadership. And even though when Aeschines spoke, everyone said how well he speaks, it didn't cause people to, to follow him in march against Philip. But when Demosthenes spoke, you know, people went for it,

Robert Greiner:

I think you hit it on the head with that, quote, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And there's nothing wrong with just being a great speaker, and honing that craft, for the craft sake, go for it. If we're talking about wanting to develop and grow as a leader, or if you're in that position, how to make the most of it, Igor, I think what you just articulated is a distillation, like the fundamental essence of what this chapter is about,

Igor Geyfman:

When I read that I was like, I want to be Aeschines, I want to learn how to be Demosthenes. And I actually don't care to be who's and I think some people want to be skinnies, they want to be praised for their craft, or whatever. But like I knew for me no interest in that. I want to affect people's behavior. I want to inspire people to to do bigger, greater things. And then maybe that's what drives some people to want to be leaders quote,

Robert Greiner:


put it in the show notes.

Charles Knight:

I've probably had to guess I would say the leaders, or I'm sorry, the authors in the in this book, don't touch on this, but it does bring up for me, leadership is inherently neutral. It's morally neutral, I think, because in that case, I don't know in the context of what Demosthenes or whatever was trying to motivate people to go to maybe resist some sort of oppression or some sort of enemy or, but there are great leaders who have clearly objectively been deemed as evil human beings, because they're motivating people to do terrible things so

Robert Greiner:

Effective at building a following. nurturing that following and then unleashing them in an in a malicious way. Yeah, yeah.

Charles Knight:

With malicious intent.

Robert Greiner:

That's probably more common. I don't I haven't done a survey. I've never asked that question. But I would say it's probably much easier, an easier path, a path of least resistance to go down the malicious route than it is the the noble route. Now, this is interesting, though, because on a push on this, I have no idea. I've never thought about this before. You said leadership is inherently like on the surface. amoral is not the right word. amoral.

Charles Knight:

Yeah, I said neutral. Like I just want to say it's neutral.

Robert Greiner:

Yeah. But in my mind, if you are entering in the realm of leadership, and therefore you have followers based on the definition that we're talking here, you have a responsibility to those people.

Charles Knight:

Absolutely. Yeah.

Robert Greiner:

And so it's, that's a weird thing to wrap my head around here. Like how do we make sense of that? Where like that responsibility is one of is a critical responsibility. What how do we merge those two ideas together?

Charles Knight:

I guess, in my mind, because you're going exactly where I was I was hoping we would go. Because I think in many cases, we don't realize that we are leaders, because it's obvious, like a Steve Jobs is a leader, but you can lead at any scale. If you have one follower, technically you're a leader. And then yes, because you have a follower, you have a responsibility. And and I would, I would go a step further and say you have a moral responsibility to do right by your followers. And I don't know where that fits into leadership overall, right? The best that I can come up with is that's moral leadership. And it in that sort of conversation doesn't typically happen when it comes to the professional world. It's like we don't often talk about what's morally right and wrong. We tend to talk about what's fair, you know, what's the fair thing to do? What's the legal thing to do, but within policies and regulations set forth by the government. But I think there's something interesting there, because I don't know is I would venture to say, maybe Martin Luther King, Jr. would be deemed a moral leader, but probably not Steve Jobs, just given some of the

Igor Geyfman:

I don't

think it's morality. I think when you become a leader by conspiring or acquiring a follower, you enter into a social contract with those people, a social contract is created. And there's many points in history where people fail to realize that or ignored that social contract. And lost their followers dethroned, and it had nothing to do with the specific, like mores or morals of, of that leader, or that group even. But it had everything to do with Are you a leader for your sake, or you're the lead for the sake of the group? That's the social contract question that's being asked and answered. And I don't think that has a particular morality to it. It just, that's just the system.

Charles Knight:

Yeah. And maybe My take is, we should I think maybe that's what I'm saying is like we should all strive for being injecting some morality into our leadership, and maybe that that would help better the world a bit. Maybe that's all I'm all I'm thinking of.

Igor Geyfman:

It's like very progressive thinking, Charles.

Charles Knight:

I know sue me.

Igor Geyfman:

Like the next evolution, the evolution The moral leader,

Charles Knight:

I think that's what I want. It's,

I think that's what we all want.

Robert Greiner:

They talk about this in the chapter too, right, like, as much as we follow the spikes, they can antagonize us, no leader is perfect. And the best of them have learned how to work around their imperfections. But like, leaders don't have all the abilities we'd like them to have. That's a universal truth, if we're going to apply one attribute to all humans, leaders included who are a subset is don't have all the abilities or attributes we'd like them to have. So they say in the truth is that following is in part, an act of forgiveness, which I thought was really poignant. It's to give our attention and efforts to someone despite what we can see of their flaws.

Charles Knight:

Oh, yeah.

Robert Greiner:

And that goes into a person who might be a great leader, for me might not be a great leader for you. And a person who might be a great leader for one team, or team of teams or company may not be a great leader for another, we've seen this play out, like that's objectively true. And so I think that kind of supports arguments in the book and what we're talking about. And they say, leaders are not necessarily a force for good in the world. They're simply people with followers, they're not saints. And sometimes things go sideways. So they say what you say, Charles, the truth is, leaders are not good or bad. They're just people who figured out how to be their most defined selves in the world. So that's interesting,

Igor Geyfman:

Charles, and you're taking the position that like, hey, yeah, like, that's true. But that's not good enough. We should be better.

Charles Knight:

I think. So. I don't want to say everyone else should I guess I will just say, I strive to something more than that. And I fail like I'm not saying I'm perfect. And I'm not asking that we all be perfect, because I just I don't even know how to make sense of that. That quote that you said around forgiving the people that we're following. That's, I'm going to need to chew on that a bit. But yeah, I think otherwise, it's like, How else will things improve? i? Yeah, I think I think we should all aspire to that aspiring to be a leader who is morally neutral. That's not as inspiring as it could be. Speaking of, quote, quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. Have you all heard this one? The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Robert Greiner:

Yeah, they

actually say that in the book.

Charles Knight:

Yeah. Yeah. It's like that bending. I don't believe it bends on its own. I think it's a result of each individual person in a position of leadership of which it's, that's every single person in the world, by definition of if you have a follower, there's everybody can claim that they have a follower. It's and I think it is everybody's responsibility to bend that moral arc over a long period of time, you know? Okay, I think I'll stop my rant, we can move on.

Igor Geyfman:

What do you say your kids are your followers?

Charles Knight:

Yes. But not by choice. They had no, they have no choice in the matter. Yeah.

Igor Geyfman:

And one day, they will,

Charles Knight:

one day they will. And I hope that all all of my attempts leading up until that point, they will choose to continue to follow me when they have a choice. Yeah.

Robert Greiner:

And but you still have a responsibility to them? Because they don't have a choice in

Charles Knight:

increased. Because it is not of their own free will. Right?

Robert Greiner:

That's right.

Charles Knight:

The responsibilities are much, much higher, the stakes are much, much higher. Yeah, yeah. They tell me sometimes not all the time data, you're the best dad in the world. And I'm like, thank you. And then another times, I tell them, as I know that you didn't have a choice to be my child, and to be brought into the world this time. And that's why I I try, can I work very hard as I can to be a better Daddy, because I owe that to you. Because you had no say in the matter. It's,

Igor Geyfman:

you don't say, hey, that's absurd. You haven't met every other father in the world.

Robert Greiner:

you have no data to back this up until now?

Charles Knight:

I do not.

Robert Greiner:

So they when they break down, they had another interesting kind of tangent if leadership is about execution and communication, then King George, who was revered for leadership of his nation during the Second World War, but couldn't really speak in public. That's the counter example. They talk about a Steve Jobs buying a new car every six months to avoid registering it. That's not exactly ethical behavior, but so he could park in handicapped spots. Right, George Patton, physically assaulted soldiers with PTSD, John F. Kennedy had some skeletons in his closet. Obviously, those are all things that they bring up as sort of these counterpoints that it's not some list of checkboxes that you get a zero to 10 score on, and then you add them up. And if you get a 70 or higher, you're a leader, it really does come down to the spikes. And I think it's, maybe there's a subtext argument here that we've touched on, which is it's a little bit dangerous to attach moral morality, moral goodness, to the act of leadership. But there is certainly a core responsibility you have as someone leading people following you, whether they have a choice or not.

Igor Geyfman:

King George examples, interesting, too, because Demosthenes also had a speech impediment, the one who made people march against Phillip. So maybe the correlation is maybe having some sort of difficulty that you're trying to resolve might be helped

Robert Greiner:

There you go, Igor, there's hope for you yet Then

Igor Geyfman:

one day, I'll get it. For now our listeners have to deal with it.

Robert Greiner:

So it's definitely a unique way to look at this right? If the definition of a leader is someone who has followers, and followers tend to gravitate towards spikes, then you should be really careful as a leader, around what spikes you're demonstrating. And you should definitely understand that that's what is getting you so much traction in the leadership space. And I think there are definitely skills and behaviors to nitpick and break down. But it all follows at all comes back to people are following an expression of the spikes that you have as a leader. Now that we've talked about it back and forth for a while, this is not how I typically think about the subject. Does this still resonate with you all?

Charles Knight:

It does. Yeah, I'm trying to think of what my definition of leadership was before this, if you were to pin me down and say, hey, how do you define leadership? I don't know what I would have said I did. It's no longer an experiment we can run,

Robert Greiner:

I said, it's a series of behaviors that can be behaviors can be learned and developed and expertise built around them. So anybody can demonstrate leadership behaviors and get better at it. So I distilled it down to a core list of actions and behaviors.

Charles Knight:

Yeah, and I guess I can't answer it, because I've said this before, to people that the role of the leader is to have a vision and to create enduring motivating purpose, like for amongst their team to move people towards whatever that vision is that they have. But yeah, this one's making me think a lot thinking a lot about finite and infinite games. I'm sure we've talked about this before. Maybe

Robert Greiner:

Yeah, we've touched on it. Yeah. We haven't gone deep on it, though. We probably should.

Charles Knight:

Yeah, that would be really fun. Because I think leadership takes a different form, when you think about whether you're playing a finit or an infinite game. And I think when you take the infinite view, maybe that's when that that piece I was talking about earlier around legacy really comes into play into focus and becomes more of a focus as a leader. But yeah, we'll save that for another conversation. I think that'd be fun.

Robert Greiner:

All right. Yeah. Well, it's great talking to you today.

Charles Knight:

Yeah. Looking forward to the wrap up because this Yeah, if we were to end here, then I think it just would end awkwardly. So I'm looking forward to the recap of the series. That's been good.

Robert Greiner:

Yeah. Yeah, I agree. I think we need to bring it all home next time. Yes. How they got leadership is a thing. Turns out it's not. In turns out we follow spikes as humans. So food for thought.

Charles Knight:

Thanks, guys.

Igor Geyfman:


Robert Greiner:

Bye, y'all. Have a good one. Bye. That's it for today. Thanks for joining and don't forget to follow us on Twitter @wannagrabcoffee or drop us a line at [email protected]

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