What makes a leader?

Leadership
cannot be faked. All the self-help books in the world won’t make you a leader but
there are four characteristics you must have, according to Rob Goffee and
Gareth Jones

Leadership
has much more to do with personal authenticity than an easily learned formula.
The real challenge for aspiring leaders is to be true to themselves, not to
emulate the habits of some other leader.

Strength
in weakness

The
first of these is that leaders reveal their weakness. But let us be clear what
this means. We are not encouraging new finance directors to admit that they
have problems with discounted cash-flow analysis; or operations directors to
confess a limited understanding of supply chain management. Weaknesses like
these are so central that they would constitute a fatal flaw.

Rather,
what we mean is that leaders should reveal their human foibles – perhaps they
are irritable on Monday mornings, rather shy with new people or a little
disorganised. Such admissions reveal their humanity and send out an implicit
message: “I am like you – imperfect”.

In
effect, this confirms that the leader is a person – not merely a role-holder.
But there are other benefits. In revealing weakness, leaders show how others can
help them and this builds good teamwork. It is also undeniable that followers
can feel better if they are offered something to complain about. In effect, it
can become the psychological equivalent of the Wailing Wall. Finally, by
sharing at least some of their weaknesses, leaders can protect themselves
against others inventing potentially more damaging problems.

Leadership
rests on more than mature appreciation of strengths. Great leaders acknowledge
their incompetencies – they may even make them work for them.

Sensing
the situation

Good
leaders rely extensively on their ability to read situations. They sense an
environment, picking up and interpreting soft data without having it spelled
out for them. They know when team morale is shaky or when complacency needs
challenging. Often they seem to collect this information almost through osmosis.

There
are three levels of situation sensing, each of which has its own distinctive
skills.

First,
consider individuals. Effective leaders are continually learning about the
motives, attributes and skills of their important subordinates. They also know
the best place to pick up such knowledge. For example, many executives say that
they learn most about people when travelling with them.

Second,
leaders read teams. They analyse the balance between members, the tension
between the tasks and processes, and how the team builds its capabilities.

Finally,
they are concerned with decoding the cultural characteristics of organisations
and are aware of subtle shifts in organisational climate. Even those who are
not great at situation sensing will at least realise the importance of
gathering this kind of information and will find trusted colleagues to do it
for them.

Concern
is paramount

Sadly,
it has become almost platitudinous to say that leaders care for their people.
And there is nothing more likely to prompt cynicism in the workforce than
seeing a manager return from the latest people-skills training course with
apparent concern for others. Effective leaders don’t need a training programme
to convince their employees that they really care. They empathise with the
people they lead and they care intensely about their work.

Executives
often see care as a synonym for softness or weakness. But genuine care is, of
course, very difficult because it always involves personal risk – showing some
part of yourself and your most strongly held values about work and how it
should be carried out.

For
example, Alain Levy, chief executive of EMI Music, passionately communicates
his views on album track selections to his colleagues and subordinates, often
in colourful language. In many businesses this might be considered obtrusive
and unwarranted, yet Levy’s passion for the music business echoes the obsessive
concerns of his younger executives.

It
should not be assumed, for example, that caring always translates into standing
shoulder-to-shoulder with your staff. It may take some detachment – the ability
to stand back, see the whole picture and sometimes take tough decisions.
Leadership is not a popularity contest.

Stress
the difference

Early
social science theories of leadership attempted to measure universal traits
that uniquely characterise good leadership. Various leaders were weighed,
measured and subjected to a battery of psychological tests. But the attempt to
identify common characteristics ended in failure. Trait theory, as it was
called, found only a set of weak links where causal relationships were
difficult to determine. Was personal confidence, for example, a cause or
consequence of gradual exposure to leadership experiences?

Effective
leaders use their differences whatever they might be. In one way, leaders might
express their differences in dress style or physical appearance. More
importantly, though, they move on to distinguish themselves through personal
qualities such as sincerity, creativity, expertise, resilience or loyalty.

How
do leaders know which differences to use? Typically, this is a learning
process. For example, Jan Timmer, former president of Philips, learned to use
his physical presence as a leadership asset. His broad shoulders and bull neck
topped by his bald dome dominated situations.

Leaders
can also use their powerful and distinctive motives as leadership assets.
Examples include a desire for power – “You know me, I like to run things” – or
wanting to develop a satisfying relationship – “I like to build string teams
around me”.

The
particular skills they have acquired over the years are also useful. These
could be technical skills – superior marketing knowledge or mathematical
wizardry – or social skills such as listening or coaching.

Finally,
passions – overriding goals, compelling missions and deeply held beliefs – can
differentiate leaders. Think of Anita Roddick’s passion for a different kind of
world, which proved a great asset to her leadership at The Body Shop.

Using
one’s differences is a critical leadership skill. But, as always, there is a
danger
leaders can over-differentiate. The determination to express separateness leads
some to lose contact with their followers and they find themselves moving
phantom armies around the board. Too much distance makes it impossible to sense
situations properly or to communicate effectively.

Be
yourself with skill

All
of these qualities are necessary for effective leadership but they cannot be
used formulaically. This is why leadership recipe books often fail. The
challenge facing all those who aspire to be leaders is to be themselves but
with more skill. Awareness of these qualities can help individuals develop a
unique style that works for them. If you want to be a leader, you have to
discover and express your authenticity. This is easier said than done.

Rob
Goffee is professor of organisational behaviour and deputy dean (executive
education) at London Business School. Gareth Jones is BT professor of
organisational development at Henley Management College and visiting professor
of organisational behaviour at Insead.

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