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Why should anyone be led by you?

Posted by Ian Brookes on 12/06/17 06:53

Why should anyone be led by you? This is a great question for self-reflection for any leader, focused on your leadership identity, values and purpose. It’s also the title of a book of Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones, and a piece of research I use when working with startup founders to help shape and articulate their leadership style.

More and more people and organisations are on the quest for authenticity of leadership. People want to be led by people they trust, respect and who are sincere. Goffee and Jones identify some key concepts – know and show yourself often, get close to your people but also keep your distance, and communicate with care.

The recipe is to get connected to one’s inner self and to start talking and acting in a real, emotionally connected way to enhance engagement and creativity. Organisations want more sincere leadership, more initiative. But leadership isn’t easy. It requires focus and practice.

The tumultuous result from last week’s General Election was as much about the leadership credentials of May and Corbyn as their opposing political ideologies. May’s frequent tortured physiognomy haunted me like a Spitting Image retrospective, contrasting to Corbyn’s calm, principled style of communication, which confused me when set against the narrative of his seemingly naïve and unclear approach to leadership we’ve seen historically.

When May called the general election, Corbyn was widely regarded as the weakest leader the Labour Party had since Michael Foot in 1983 or perhaps even since George Lansbury in 1935. Today he is the comeback king, undisputed leader of the Labour Party.

Whatever your politics, May’s leadership will be remembered for one big, disastrous gamble. She called a snap election, seemingly to bank a bigger majority against an apparently shambolic Labour opposition, characterised by Corbyn’s weak leadership, a safe one-way bet to a landslide and renewed five-year majority term. But there followed one of the most dramatic collapses in British political history.

Corbyn’s conviction politics caught the imagination, his principles overtaking the doubters who stalled at May’s lack of personal empathy and engagement. There will be no ‘strong and stable’ government that May said the country needed when she called the vote. Things fell apart for May, despite Diana Abbott’s mathematical malfunctions.

Whoever becomes British Prime Minister will have to lead a fractured country and grapple with three crises. Firstly there is chronic instability. We are a divided and confused country - between outward and inward-looking Brexit voters, gapping polarity between young and old, the divide between cosmopolitan cities and the rest (don’t get me started on rural broadband in Rossendale versus 4G in Manchester), and the gulf between nationalists and unionist perspectives.

Secondly, I anticipate economic turbulence ahead. Whereas in 2016 the UK economy grew the fastest of the G7, in Q1 of 2017 it was the slowest. Unemployment remains at its lowest in decades, but with inflation at a three-year high and rising, real wages are falling. Tax revenues and growth will suffer as inward investment falls and net migration of skilled Europeans tails off. Maybe it’s just me, but the economy was given little visibility in the Election and voters are blissfully unaware of the coming crunch.

The third issue is on the next page of my diary: in just a week’s time the most important and difficult political negotiation Britain has attempted in peacetime will be upon us. Brexit involves dismantling an economic and political arrangement that has existed for over fifty years, linking Britain to the economic bloc with which we send half of our exports, from which come half of our migrant population, and which has helped to keep the peace in Europe and stability beyond.

May or Corbyn – neither has given any clarity how to negotiate Britain’s trickiest-ever divorce, neither fully answered the question of how the economic pain of Brexit will be shared. We seem resigned to the fact that we were duped by promises of a Brexit dividend of more cash for the NHS, but no one has been held truly accountable. May’s demise is more of a lack of confidence in her personally than retribution for the Bullingdon Boys’ private spat spinning out of control.

From an apparent position of strength and boasting the fatuous slogan that I am a bloody difficult woman, May’s leadership credentials unravelled, undermined by the reluctance to face voters directly, such that a beleaguered May now faces a backlash and is fighting for her political life, seeking a coalition of convenience to bolster her chances of keeping her Government alive.

She’s a hostage inside the Tory Party and in an invidious position, isolated and waiting until someone knocks on her door and tells her to sling her hook. I’m sure those grey men in grey suits at the apex of the Conservative hierarchy are putting their heads together and trying to stitch up some sort of a way forward.

Meanwhile Corbyn started the Election looking like a partisan rebel, supported largely by a small group of faithful hard-leftists in his office, and, outside Parliament, by Len McLuskey, boss of the Unite trade union, and by Momentum, a grassroots pressure group of activists.

In contrast, many have had a fundamental rethink, as Corbyn demonstrated clear values-based leadership, standing for what he really believes in, always been proud of his socialist record rather than cleaving to the middle ground. He has also demonstrated that the tabloids are no longer the influencers to be feared, reaching out to the younger constituency with his manifesto of #forthemanynotthefew and inspired a new cohort of voters.

Corbyn fought a strong campaign against all expectations. He may not have won the Election but, unlike the leader of the Conservative Party, he now has the aura of a winning leader, whereas May looks to be a floundering leader. As it’s a choice between the two, let’s ask the question of May and Corbyn - why should anyone be led by you? - and look at the detailed research from Goffee and Jones, and see how they shape up.

Their research found that successful leaders modify their behaviour to respond to the needs of their followers and the circumstances they encounter – while simultaneously remaining true to who they are. They produce results by being crystal clear on their unique differentiators and by addressing four critical needs of their followers:

·     Community: followers long for a sense of belonging, to feel part of something bigger. Leaders must help them connect to others (not just to the leaders themselves) as well as to the overarching purpose of the organisation. 

·     Authenticity: followers choose to be led by humans, not titles or credentials. Leaders must be able to identify and deploy their personal differences, foibles, and strengths to inspire employees to apply their energy and talents.

·     Significance: followers want to believe their efforts matter. Leaders need to recognise contributions in a meaningful way, with highly personalised feedback.

·     Excitement: followers need a spark to trigger their exceptional performance. Leaders who articulate their own passion, values, and vision provide the energy and enthusiasm employees hunger for.

Besides the above skills and attributes, everyone agrees that leaders need vision, energy, authority, and strategic direction. That goes without saying. But Goffee and Jones also discovered that inspirational leaders shared four unexpected qualities:

·     Vulnerability: by exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity. By selectively revealing their weaknesses (weaknesses, not fatal flaws), this lets employees see that they are open and transparent, building an atmosphere of trust which helps galvanise commitment.

·     Intuition: inspirational leaders have a heavy reliance on intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions. Such leaders are good ‘situation sensors’, they can sense what's going on without having things spelled out for them, acting on gut instinct.

·     Tough empathy: managing employees with ‘tough empathy’ is the third quality of exceptional leadership. Tough empathy means giving people what they need, not what they want. Leaders must empathise passionately and realistically with people, care intensely about the work they do, and be straightforward with them.

·     Personal uniqueness: the fourth quality of top-notch leaders is that they capitalise on their differences. They use what's unique about themselves to create a social distance and to signal separateness, which in turn motivates employees to perform better.

All four qualities are necessary for inspirational leadership, but they cannot be used mechanically, they must be mixed and matched to meet the demands of particular situations. Most importantly, however, is that the qualities encourage authenticity among leaders.

The main body of leadership thinking focuses on the characteristics of leaders, giving it a strong psychological bias, seeing leadership qualities as inherent to the individual. The underlying assumption is that leadership is something we do to other people. However, in Goffee and Jones’ view, and one that I subscribe too, leadership should be seen as something we do with other people.

You can’t do anything in a startup business without followers, startup leaders must find ways to engage people and rouse their commitment to company goals. It should be noted that effective leadership is not about results per se, the focus is on leaders who excel at inspiring people, in capturing hearts, minds, and souls. This ability is not everything in business, but great results may be impossible without it.

So, May or Corbyn? Who knows themselves and shows themselves enough with authenticity? Who makes it personal, always present in the moment as a person? Who shows the most ‘tough empathy’, managing their social distance, using bandwidth to shift from distance to closeness as needed? Finally, who communicates with care?

It’s not about the cult of personality, the perceived strength or weakness, rather facing the schisms in our country, the drifting performance of the economy and the challenges of Brexit, political leadership must always be viewed as a relationship between the leader and the led. To be a true leader, be yourself.

Maybe neither are the leaders we aspire for, when compared to Justin Trudeau, the current Canadian Prime Minister, who captured his leadership ethos with these words:

Connecting with Canadians isn't about what you say, it's about what you're listening to. It's about what you understand. Who cares about winning? We should focus on serving. It's important that people understand who I am and where I come from and not just have it shaped by purely political discourse.

What organisations need - and what followers want - are authentic leaders who know who they are, where the organisation needs to go, and how to convince followers to help them take it there. So, May or Corbyn, who gets your vote as the next leader of Britain? And how does this thinking speak to your own leadership virtues and values?

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