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Engage Like a Cult Leader: Blair Warren's 5 Keys to Winning Followers

You must have noticed by now that I write self-help for managers and business owners—and anyone who cares about making a difference and getting results. What you may not know is that I also read this stuff like a maniac. And, until now, I couldn’t tell you exactly why. When you read this much self-help advice, pretty soon you start getting diminishing returns from it.

Makes perfect sense. And yet, I find provocative titles as irresistible, as I did when I just started my business. I follow Tim Ferris (4-Hour Workweek), Robert Cialdini (Pre-suasion), Ryan Holiday (Trust Me I’m Lying), Scott Adams (Dilbert comic strip), Tim Urban (WhaitButWhy.com), Simon Sinek (Leaders Eat Last), Mark Manson (The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck), Nir Eyal (Hooked), Brene Brown (The Power of Vulnerability), Mark Murphy (Hard Goals)… the list goes on… and I discover new amazing authors almost daily.

Something run of the mill, like everything-I-need-to-know-about-employee-engagement-I-learned-from-my-cat, wouldn’t necessarily grab my attention. But The One-Sentence Persuasion Course: 27 Words to Make the World Do Your Bidding did. And, boy, was I not disappointed! Not only did I learn something new, I learned something new about myself.

It goes straight to the heart of my self-help addiction. It explains why the stuff I read and re-read doesn’t need to be earth-shattering news to have an effect. Why it doesn’t need to be brilliantly written. Why I don’t even need to check the writer’s credentials.

All of that is secondary compared to what all of us really look for in leaders and leadership advice—inspiration. Simon Sinek says it like six times in one paragraph. Even though nobody disagrees. But where does inspiration come from?

That’s what I love about Blair Warren. He has a formula. If you are going to read his article—as I strongly recommend—you better do it now, before I’ve ruined the punch line for you.

For those ready to hear them again, Blair Warren’s 27 words are as follows (minus the numbers, which I put in for reference):

“People will do anything for those who

  1. encourage their dreams,
  2. justify their failures,
  3. allay their fears,
  4. confirm their suspicions and
  5. help them throw rocks at their enemies.”

I knew he was right because I tried all five points on myself and they all fit. I absolutely always forever want help with each one. When I hire people, I consciously or subconsciously expect them to help me with at least three out of five. And vice-versa: I routinely do all these things for my employees.

Okay, Tim, I get Numbers 1 through 3.

But what about 4 and 5? What’s that all about?

Let’s go through them in order. If my theory is correct, then any fail-proof employee engagement strategy must include Blair Warren’s principles. So, what does each one look like inside a workplace?

1) Encourage Their Dreams

This one should be easy—at least to understand.

  1. Start with their career ambitions. (If you want details and examples, look up Chapter 9 in my book, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?Support Career Development.)
  2. Give them a chance to practice their natural talents. (Chapter 8, Use Then or Lose Them.)
  3. Support their pet causes. (Chapter 22, Engage Outside of Work.)

But I wouldn’t stop there.

The real bond between you and your people begins when you learn their life’s passions—whether or not they are charitable or job-related.

For example, Wegmans, a grocery store chain on the east coast known for both customer and employee loyalty, sends its store clerks to college. Most, of course, don’t come back after they graduate. They become teachers, police officers, computer geeks… But the company doesn’t worry about that. They have a reputation for taking employee dreams seriously. According to Fortune, employee turnover at Wegmans is 17% overall, and only 4% for full-time employees. For comparison, the average retail turnover is 66% for part-time and 27% for full-time employees (source: WSJ behind a paywall).

I also wouldn’t wait too long to find out. Ask them at the job interview.

It doesn’t need to be a formal question, like, “if you had a million dollars and six months to spend it, what would you do?”

That seems like a lost opportunity...

Although I kind of like that idea. You could steer the conversation towards interests and hobbies and figure out what really makes them happy. It might help you see if taking a job with you would take them closer to or further away from their dreams. And that should tell you a lot.

2) Justify Their Failures

In the context of people working for you, this becomes sharing responsibility. I talk a blue streak about it in Chapter 13, Help.

You want people to own their projects and tasks, not look for an excuse to fail. Assuming they are already doing their best, they will go out on a limb for a boss who shares their risks with them. Especially, the ultimate risk of failure.

3) Allay Their Fears

Some say a little fear is good for discipline. Well, fear comes in different flavors, and most of us have too much of it, rather than too little. Also, fear only motivates where there’s hope. When people fear something outside of their direct control, they disengage.

Without getting too theoretical, let’s just say that you don’t want your people to live in fear of losing their jobs. For many companies, layoffs are the first line of defense against stock fluctuations and down markets, when it really should be the last.

Instead of cutting heads, you could start by asking everyone to watch their spending.

SAS CEO Jim Goodnight did this in 2009, as he promised to keep everyone’s job safe that year. You could even set a specific cost-cutting target and ask your people to come up with creative ways to achieve it. This was Edward Jones’ plan to survive the Great Recession, and they too did it without sacrificing jobs.

4) Confirm Their Suspicions

Now we come to the most interesting part of Blair Warren’s formula. Because we always do the opposite. We go out of our way to deny the pesky rumors. We ridicule the panic mongers. We put on our biggest, fakest Enron-Phillip-Morris-Monsanto executive deadpans and vomit forth the scariest mumbo-jumbo. All to prove that I know what I'm doing—and no one else does.

Wait a minute, Tim/Blair! Didn’t you just say “allay their fears?”

I did. But when did skirting the issue ever allay anyone’s fears? We hope it might. But we are only kidding ourselves. We speak from a place of disempowerment and fear, and it only leads to more of the same.

Notice that SAS and Edward Jones confirmed their employees worst suspicions. Yes, the numbers are bad. Yes, the recession is here. But then instead of hiding their panic, they showed their will to survive with concrete steps designed to save jobs.

5) Help Them Throw Rocks at Their Enemies

Okay, Tim, you get a squeaky pass on Number 4. But Number 5 sounds more like dirty politics than anything I’d ever want to say to my employees.

I don’t disagree. Let’s remember that any true insight works universally, and it’s up to us whether to use it for good or for evil. You can see that, in unscrupulous hands, Number 5 becomes a weapon of mass manipulation.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

Let me give you one example of an honest and effective use of this principle in the workplace.

In 2009 CNN, CBS, and other news stations featured a story about Haruka Nishimatsu, then CEO of Japan Airlines. Like many American companies in and outside of the airline industry, Japan Air had been struggling to survive. Nishimatsu was forced to cut jobs, but he also did something that made him wildly popular in this country. Before he announced the layoffs, Nishimatsu gave up all of his corporate perks and most of his earnings. For 3 years he made less money than his pilots, just $90,000 in 2007. He said it was the least he could do while sending other employees his own age into early retirement.

Nishimatsu resigned in 2010, as his company filed for bankruptcy. But the old video of him taking the city bus to work is still making rounds of the Internet. Its sole purpose is to put filthy rich American executives to shame. Millions of Americans believe that corporate greed is the enemy, and Nishimatsu is their hero. WDRB.com quoted him as saying,

"We in Japan learned during the bubble economy that businesses who pursue money first fail. The business world has lost sight of this basic tenet of business ethics."

Here’s that video I mentioned:


If you are a cult leader, then write your own book, because I don’t want to be responsible for any unintended use of my book.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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