Leaders should just be themselves
- but with more skill

By Stefan Stern (stefan.stern@ft.com)

Financial Times, March 14 2006

Markets abhor weakness just as nature abhors a vacuum. Activist investors rush in to plug any leadership gaps - at Heinz, at Time Warner, at Wendy's, at SkyePharma. This is no time to be a philosopher-chief executive, musing on the complexity of the modern world and the difficulty of knowing which course of action to take.

The "ability to execute" is today's supreme management skill. And though that phrase carries with it just a hint of blood-lust or brutality, well, shareholders will not be unduly troubled by that.

But if all that is true, why were the MBA students gathered at a recent presentation at London Business School nodding so vigorously as the words "Show weaknesses that are real" flashed up on the screen? Why such a warm response to the suggestion that leaders should "Take personal risks because you care"?

Perhaps this audience did not constitute a representative sample of the world's future business leaders. And, of course, the realities of building a career and leading a large organisation will present a different kind of challenge to that offered by the MBA syllabus. (One mischievous cartoon shows a business school graduate settling in on his first day at work and asking his personal assistant to "bring in the first case study".)

All the same the presenters, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, had their audience eating out of their hands. There was an obvious reason for this. They were enjoying a home court advantage - both teach at LBS and are accomplished lecturers. But in their recent book, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Profs Goffee and Jones have tapped into an undercurrent of thinking that holds that unflinching machismo, while it may win applause from investors at the next quarterly presentation, is not the sustainable route to success in the longer term.

Profs Goffee and Jones have posed a question that does not always get asked in leadership research: what do followers want from their leaders? Perhaps you can be a successful leader with no willing followers, but it is not a sensible business model. Followers, Profs Goffee and Jones argue, are looking four qualities from their leaders and their experience at work: significance, community, excitement and authenticity.

Significance, because few people want to turn up every day feeling that what they do simply does not matter. "Meaning at work" is not an esoteric, metaphysical concept: it relates directly to what psychologists call the "discretionary effort" made by employees, and is the foundation for higher productivity. Recognition for a good job well done, whether through a handwritten Jack Welch note or an e-mail from Sir Martin Sorrell, lets staff know they are appreciated.

Community, because even if we are "bowling alone"e; in our private lives we still come together every day in the workplace. The organisations we work for may be among the more stable elements in our lives. The compulsory dinner party question of "what do you do?" leads inevitably on to "and for whom?" It matters how we feel when answering the latter.

Excitement, because tedium drags everybody down, and exciting leaders such as Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs and, yes, Sir Richard Branson have all helped to galvanise their workforces.

And authenticity, because if leaders want to be followed they need to know who they are and where they are "coming from". Profs Goffee and Jones talk of leaders "knowing and showing themselves" sufficiently to inspire confidence. But this does not mean being artless: "Be yourself, with more skill", they suggest.

Leadership is not a solo performance, it is a social activity. The idea of "social distance", introduced by George Simmel, the German sociologist, helps leaders identify when they need to be more intimately involved with those around them, and when they need to withdraw and maintain distance. Using what Profs Goffee and Jones call "tough empathy" they can show they care about people and the work they are doing without losing their detachment.

These arguments echo many found in Living Leadership, published last year, by George Binney, Gerhard Wilke and Colin Williams. These authors are troubled by a version of heroic leadership, "where the hero saves the world and ordinary people look on in wonder". This model relieves employees of the responsibility to do the hard work and deliver results. "Followers are left off the hook at the same time as leaders are impaled on it," they write. Effective leaders are embedded in their organisations, not so much at the apex but smack in the middle.

And yet. This cannot be the whole story. Business is ultimately concrete, not abstract. Action matters at least as much as reflection, and results matter more than anything else. There is no budget line for empathy and morale. That means though decisions will always be necessary. Effective leadership is edgy, and often not very nice at all.

The great "either/or" trap here is to claim that a given approach is either wholly right or wholly wrong. In this view bosses must be either tough or tender. Leadership is always more important than management. Or is it the other way round?

"Either/or" is tempting because, let us face it, who does not like a good (intellectual) fight? But managers may be susceptible to the siren voices that tell them they must either do things one way, or do them another. Good bosses know when they must lead, and when they must manage. They can do both. This column will reserve its highest praise for the "both/and" leaders.