LEADERSHIP is one of the most vital and yet most elusive ingredients in modern business. Leaders provide vision, direction, inspiration, give the business a sense of purpose and at the same time act as a moral compass.
As Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones point out in their latest book -- Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What it takes to be an authentive leader, published by Harvard University School Press and prices $26.95, the need for visionary leadership is becoming increasingly important. Traditional business hierarchies gave managers and workers a sense of their own position and what was expected of them. Now, as these hierarchies break down, it is leaders themselves who must fill the void, helping subordinates to understand their own place and purpose. Personal leadership is beginning to replace organisational structure.
The provocative title of this book comes from a question that the authors have asked frequently at leadership seminars over the past five years: why should anyone be led by you? Very often, their audiences do not know the answer, suggesting they know very little about themselves or how their followers perceive them.
This in turn suggests that many of them are poorly equipped for the challenges of 21st-century leadership. Among the confused notions that leaders have about leadership is the continued prevalence of Great Man syndrome, where leaders look to other leaders whom they admire and conclude that the key to success lies in imitating the latter. The result is a leader built out of parts of other leaders, like Frankenstein's monster.
For Goffee and Jones, good leadership is grounded first and foremost in "authenticity", one of the key words of this book. Successful leaders are those who behave genuinely, who show themselves to their subordinates like Cromwell, warts and all, rather than pretending to be something they are not. Those who try to adopt a persona that is not truly theirs will be spotted as fakes. Personal integrity is a kind of foundation on which leadership is based; leaders who lack integrity are suffering from a fatal flaw.
At the same time, leaders must also adapt themselves to their environment, and their behaviour must conform to the needs of the business at any given time. Goffee and Jones hold to the view that successful leadership is situational; that is, much of good leadership consists of responding and adapting to the needs of time and place. To be an adaptable leader requires skill, and it is here that leadership training has an important role to play; not in making leaders but in helping leaders to become better, to "be yourself -- with skill", in the book's own slightly clumsy catchphrase. These skills are the ones we would expect to see: an entire chapter, for example, is devoted to communication. The important point is that these skills do not make the leader; rather, they are there to improve on existing material.
To anyone familiar with run-of-the-mill leadership books, this work will come as a breath of fresh air. However, its core concept contains a couple of serious weaknesses. First, we are never quite sure what "authenticity" is supposed to be. Different cultures, for example, will have different definitions. Recently, Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler-Chrysler, was led out of a box by his moustache onto a stage full of American journalists. This might be seen as "authentic" in America; in Europe, where people like their chief executives to have more gravitas, it would probably be seen as an embarrassing stunt.
Nor does the book fully reconcile the tension between authenticity and adaptability. To be told on the one hand to be yourself, and on the other constantly to adapt your behaviour and attitudes to the environment sets up a paradox that few people are equipped to handle. Goffee and Jones argue that one of the tasks of the leader is to find the right balance between authenticity and adaptability. It is a good answer, but not one that will satisfy readers looking for generic solutions to the problems of how to lead.
And, maybe that is right. Maybe one of the defining characteristics of modern leadership is that there are no textbook answers. In every case, every situation, the balance is different, and it is the leader's task to find that balance and make it work. "Leadership is complicated", the authors conclude, "and the secrets of great leadership resist simple recipes." In one important passage, they discuss the role of leadership coaches, and suggest that the best coaches of all are colleagues and subordinates, not outside professionals.
Here again the answer lies within, and it is up to each leader to find it in their own way. This book does not provide all the answers. But it does ask many of the right questions, and that in itself, in a age where the shortage of capable leadership is threatening to turn into a famine, is a good start.
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