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Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What It Takes to Be An Authentic Leader

By: Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones

"To be yourself with more skill is a lifelong task"

When I first came across Goffee and Jones' work, I was struck by the assertion that not everyone could be a leader. As someone who believes in leadership at all levels, I was interested in understanding more, so I picked up their book. Digging into their argument, I've come to appreciate their idea better. They focus on leaders at all levels' roles in performance (p.2). Leaders can inspire their teams to achieve their goals and excel by instilling meaning and purpose. Goffee and Jones argue that leadership is not just about holding a title or occupying a particular position in the hierarchy but a set of behaviors and qualities that anyone can exhibit, regardless of their job.

Goffee and Jones make a compelling case that organizations tend to "structure themselves in a way that kills leadership" (p.9). Leadership is not hierarchical – there is a relationship between reaching the top and leadership, but someone at the top or a team leader does not necessarily display leadership (p.13). So what, then, are the key elements of effective leadership, and how can we practice them?

The important role of authenticity in leadership

Let's start with the obvious point. Leadership is relational; "…you cannot be a leader without followers" (p.14). This does not mean a harmonious relationship, but people must come with you when you set a direction. Critical to this is authenticity - which for Goffee and Jones is three things:

  1. You do what you say: consistency between words and deeds

  2. Who you are doesn't change with your role: coherence in role performance

  3. Comfort with self: you are genuine and do not try to mimic someone else's behaviours.

Your behaviour conforms with the expectations of the organization

This is the opposite of being authentic and often in tension with it. "To be yourself, you must know and show yourself enough. (Put another way, you must be sufficiently self-aware and prepared to self-declare)" (p.32). You risk being misaligned with the organization or team culture if you are too much of yourself. For example, being in a finance role and admitting you have a problem with math might not help people follow you. "To be effective, the leader needs to ensure that his or her behaviours mesh sufficiently with the organizational culture to create traction. Leaders who fail to mesh will simply spin their wheels in isolation from their followers" (p.23).

Successful leaders work hard to know themselves and seek honest feedback on how other's perceive them. It's about opening all the channels of communication, formal and informal, to understand how you are seen (p.43). Play to your strengths and what makes you attractive, and minimize your weaknesses.

Develop your ability to sense the situation

Sensing a situation is a key skill for navigating the context. It involves reading and interpreting the context in which one operates and adjusting one's behaviors and actions accordingly. "Think of meetings, for example, when someone joins late and then acts like a bull in a china shop. This kind of disruption typically reflects "poor" situation sensing. Others seem to be able to join a meeting and immediately tune in, effortlessly picking up on atmosphere or ambience" (p.87). This skill is extremely important as you move up the organizational hierarchy. In more senior roles, leaders receive less and less detailed information. Build networks and connections across the organization to gain insights into what is happening.

Use organizational purpose as an anchor for how you lead

Goffee and Jones point out that personal purpose and values play a critical role in effective leadership and understanding the organization's purpose. "Effective leaders both challenge and conform" (p.126). They recognize they are part of the culture but remain apart, able to challenge. By understanding their purpose, leaders should work to move between closeness and distance, able to understand the organizational context, but also stand back and keep an eye on the goal, while remaining rooted in the vision/purpose of the organization" (p.118-119).

Moving between closeness and distance is like a dance. There is no right style of leadership or right approach, and it's about adapting to the circumstances. If this all sounds a bit theoretical, Goffee and Jones have some pointers for this dance. These are:

  1. An effective vision is memorable over time. Expect it to stick slowly, but be willing to iterate and adapt how you talk about it.

  2. Action matters. Plan for change, but take your time.

  3. Don't mistake activity for effectiveness. You can do some things at a time.

  4. Take time to understand your organization's culture. You have to operate within its guardrails.

  5. Step back, give instructions over the what do to; and step in, be supportive with the how to do it.

Effective leaders are clear about their purpose and values and willing to act on them, even when difficult.

Followers matter - you can't lead without them

"Subordinates may not decide who their bosses are, but it's the followers who ultimately decide who the leaders are" (p.198). Building an effective team requires establishing a clear vision and a sense of common purpose, which comes from identifying the common ground, building connections and fostering a sense of belonging. To be effective, you must balance maintenance behaviours and task-related behavior.

Maintenance behaviors focus on building common ground and a sense of team. Followers "need recognition for their contribution… it's remarkable how often as individuals we seem to want it but not give it" (p.193). Task-related behaviours involve setting targets, monitoring progress, and ensuring the job gets done. Remember that "those who act too quickly and with unrealistic certainty suffer from another problem. They cease to receive useful feedback or input from others" (p.174). Your job is to find the balance between both sets of behaviours.

What to take away from What Should Anyone Be Led By You?

As Goffee and Jones note, "for leadership is non-hierarchical – and great organization have leaders at many levels … for it's the person we follow, not the position" (p.205). Effective leadership is about how people follow you, and it's not easy or comfortable, and you can develop the behaviours necessary to lead effectively and authentically. The question is, will you?

Goffee and Jones provide seven challenging leadership questions to sum up their work (p.220). These are:

  1. Which personal difference could form the basis of your leadership capability? What differences in your personality have the potential to excite others, are genuinely yours, and signify something important to you/your context?

  2. Which personal weaknesses do you reveal to those you are leading? You're not perfect, don't pretend to be. Equally, if you reveal all your failings, your leadership isn't going to be enhanced. What weaknesses can you focus people on that also make you human and easier to follow?

  3. Are you able to read different contexts? Can you pick up subtle shifts in the behaviour of others? Think about international and cross-cultural contexts, etc.

  4. Do you conform enough? You are unlikely to survive for long if you cannot recognize the moment to hold back; you will not connect with others if you cannot find common ground.

  5. How well do you manage social distance? Are you able to get close to those you lead? Do you know the goals, values, and motives of those who have the biggest impact on your performance? Can you create distance from others?

  6. Do you have a good sense of organizational time? Do you know when to speed up and when to take more time? Can you orchestrate the effort of others?

  7. How well do you communicate? Do you know what to communicate to others and how to do it? When do you communicate? Do you listen? Can you adapt to different circumstances?


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