Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?

Last Updated May 3, 2010 4:07 AM EDT

Rob Goffee, who is the professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, is famous for asking the above question in an awarded HBR article which then morphed into a book.

Rob often comes to Australia, (towards the end of the English winter) and has spoken several times to LBS alumni. I well remember his first talk when he was putting forward his latest theory of leadership, saying the secret was authenticity. As the doyen of the alumni present, Rob asked me what I thought of authenticity as a key to leadership. I said that I thought authenticity was like sincerity which in turn reminded me of Groucho Marx, who said, "the secret of life is sincerity, if you can fake that, you have got it made".

Rob is both entertaining and intelligent, and immediately segued into saying what is important for followers was being able to pick which leaders are authentic. He did not give any clues but then did say that the best people for picking authenticity were successful sales people. He said, with awe in his voice and as if he had discovered the secret of life, that great sales people after 60 seconds could pick whether someone actually had the real power to make decisions or sign contracts.

Being a former sales person this is not news. Picking authentic buyers is a competency you have to develop, otherwise you waste a lot of time with what are called "China Eggs". They never break. He then asked how many in the audience, which numbered around 70 MBAs and who were the best and the brightest, actually had sold on a commission basis. Three of us put up our hands. It was a most revealing moment.

Since then Rob has gone on to list four unexpected (?) qualities of leaders:

  • They selectively show their weaknesses. By exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity.
  • They rely heavily on intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions. Their ability to collect and interpret soft data helps them know just when and how to act.
  • They manage employees with something we call tough empathy. Inspirational leaders empathise passionately --- and realistically --- with people, and they care intensely about the work employees do.
  • They reveal their differences. They capitalise on what's unique about themselves.
Personally, I think there is quite a lot of overlap with Goffee's qualities and the four components of EQ: self-analysis, self-control, empathy and relationship management. But the question remains: how does a non-salesperson recognise the non-authentic leader? And while I have written about how to recognise non-authentic leaders such as corporate psychopaths and bullies, I am still waiting for Rob.

By the way, if you want to see a terrific portrayal of authentic leadership watch, The Dammed United. I saw it last night and the journey of self discovery by Brian Clough is brilliantly done. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 94 percent rating which is rare indeed.