Three Leadership Fundamentals

When Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones asked people in organisations which skills they would most like to develop, all provided the same answer:  Help us to become more effective leaders.

The reason for this answer lies in the fact that they have seen that leadership skills can make a big difference to their lives and the performance of their organisations. 

Equally, when we ask CEOs what is the biggest problem they face, they unerringly reply: Our organisations need more leaders at every level.

So, given the hunger for leadership, why are leaders in such short supply?

We think there are two fundamental reasons. 

First, organisations desire leaders but structure themselves in ways that kill leadership.  Far too many of our organisations – in business, in the public sector, and in the not-for-profit sector – are machines for the destruction of leadership.  They encourage either conformists or role players with an impoverished sense of who they are and what they stand for.  Neither makes for effective leaders.  And, of course, this gives rise to legions of disenchanted followers, producing the deepest organisational malaise of modern times: cynicism.


Second, our understanding of leadership is blinkered.  Having reviewed much of the existing leadership literature, both old and new, it is surprising how little we know.  This is not a criticism of our academic colleagues who, no doubt, like us, have pondered long and hard on the mysteries of leadership.  Rather it is an observation about the methods we have used and the basic assumptions upon which much of the research has rested. 

The main body of leadership literature focuses on the characteristics of leaders.  This gives it a strong psychological bias.  It sees leadership qualities as inherent to the individual.  The underlying assumption is that leadership is something we do to other people.  But, in our view, leadership should be seen as something we do with other people.  Leadership should always be viewed as a relationship between the leader and the led.

Books on leadership persistently try to find a recipe for leadership.  Beleaguered executives are invited to compare themselves with lists of leadership competences and characteristics – against which they always find themselves wanting.  Attempts to imitate others, even the most successful leaders, are doomed to failure.  As Bill Burns, CEO of CHF, the $20bn global pharmaceutical division of Roche, told us: “The idea of us all becoming Jack Welch is nonsense.”

In our view, there are no universal leadership characteristics.  What works for one leader will not work for another.  We think that those aspiring to leadership need to discover what it is about themselves that they can mobilise in a leadership context.  They need to identify and use their own personal leadership assets. 

Our position is different from much contemporary thinking.  This insists that effective leadership rests upon full self-knowledge.  This sometimes leads to excessive concern with the inner drives of the leader and finds expression in some formulations of emotional intelligence (EI) and more broadly in the psychoanalytic literature on leadership.  No doubt EI is a highly useful life skill, but our observations of leaders suggest that few develop full self-knowledge.  Rather our experience suggests that effective leaders have an overarching sense of purpose together with sufficient self-knowledge of their potential leadership assets.  They don’t know it all, but they know enough.

Against this backdrop of increasing demand for leadership, an organisational predisposition to kill leadership, and an inadequate understanding of what leadership entails and requires, the key question is: How can we become more effective as leaders and as developers of leaders?

We believe the answer lies in an explicit recognition of three fundamental axioms about leadership. 

Situational

First, leadership is situational.  What is required of the leader will always be influenced by the situation.  This is commonsensical, but true. 

History is full of examples of leaders who found their time and place, but whose qualities lost their appeal when things moved on.  For example, Winston Churchill was an inspirational war-time leader but his bulldog style was ill-suited to the reconstruction agenda of post-war Britain.  Similarly, George Bush Senior had a colossal opinion poll lead in the immediate aftermath of the first Iraq war and yet in the following year he lost to Bill Clinton.  By contrast, Nelson Mandela’s ability to offer leadership across widely differing contexts exemplifies situational adjustment from a prison cell on Robben Island to the graceful lawns of Union House in Pretoria.

There are parallels in organisational life.  For example, some hard edged, cost-cutting turnaround managers are unable to offer leadership when there is a need to build.  But their more adaptable colleagues adjust to shifting agendas – and carry their teams with them.

We do not mean to be excessively deterministic in our claim that leadership is situational.  The situation, or context, the leader inherits is simply the starting point.  Clearly, leaders’ actions themselves help to shape the context, altering the initial situation they found.  In so doing, they are able to impact – and therefore reshape - the situations within which they lead.  Through their interactions, effective leaders construct alternative contexts to those which they initially inherited.  They use their personal leadership assets to reframe situations – to the benefit of those they lead.  This last point is important.  It is not sufficient for leaders to reframe a situation to their own advantage; true leadership requires reframing for the benefit of the followers.  That is the basis on which the relationship is founded. 

Non-hierarchical

Our second observation is that leadership is non-hierarchical.  Much of the leadership literature is overly concerned with those who reach the top of organisations.  In fact, we would go so far as to say that the persistent misconception that people who occupy senior organisational positions are leaders has probably damaged our capacity to understand leadership more than anything else.  It has blinded us to the true nature of leadership.

While we recognise that there is a relationship between hierarchy and leadership (they may fulfill a similar function, for example, by investing authority), we view the relationship as contingent.  Being given a particular organisational title – team leader, section head, and vice president -- may confer some hierarchical authority, but it certainly does not make you a leader.  Hierarchy alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the exercise of leadership. 

Indeed, it could be argued that the qualities which take you to the top of large-scale and often highly political organisations are not obviously the ones associated with leadership.  People who make it to the top do so for a whole variety of reasons – including political acumen, personal ambition, time-serving, even nepotism – rather than real leadership quality. 

Our interviews and experience inside organisations confirms that leadership is not the sole preserve of the chosen few.  Great organisations have leaders at all levels.  Successful organisations – be they hospitals, charities or commercial enterprises – seek to build leadership capability widely and to give people the opportunity to exercise it. 

Relational

The third foundation of our view of leadership is that leadership is relational.  Put simply, you cannot be a leader without followers.  Much of early trait theory seemed to ignore this.  By trying to distil the characteristics of leaders it neglected the fact that leadership is a relationship actively built by both parties.  In reality, leadership is always a social construct that is recreated by the relationships between leaders and those they aspire to lead.  Effective leaders are not simply amalgams of desirable traits; they are actively and reciprocally engaged in a complex series of relationships that require cultivation and nurture.  Like all social creations, this web of relationships is fragile and requires constant re-creation.  You can confirm this every time you talk to a successful CEO, a sports coach, or a team leader.  All will tell you that much of their leadership effort is devoted to the maintenance of particular kinds of relationships with their followers. 

This insistence on the relational nature of leadership does not mean that these relationships are necessarily harmonious – they may well be edgy – but they are about leaders knowing how to inspire followers to become great performers.

Does this mean generalisations are impossible?  We don’t think so.  Some fundamental principles of leadership do apply across the board.  Followers want feelings of excitement and personal significance from their leaders – something confirmed by research.  In addition, they wish to feel part of something bigger – a community, if you will.  But above all, they look for leaders who are authentic.  Indeed, authenticity is integral to the relationship.  Without it there can be no significant investment of trust on either side.

About the authors

Rob Goffee is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.

Gareth Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at INSEAD. He was formerly Director of Human Resources for the BBC.

Goffee and Jones are the founding partners of Creative Management Associates. Their previous book was The Character of a Corporation www.whyshouldanyonebeledbyyou.com