Interview: What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader

In your new book, WHY SHOULD ANYONE BE LED BY YOU? WHAT IT TAKES TO BE AN AUTHENTIC LEADER, you observe that despite thousands of books on leadership and a strong consensus among CEOs that developing leadership is their top priority, leaders are in short supply. Why?
First, organizations desire leaders, yet structure themselves in ways that kill leadership. They encourage either conformists or role players with an impoverished sense of who they are and what they stand for. Second, the main body of leadership literature focuses on the characteristics of leaders. The underlying assumption is that leadership is something we do to other people when in fact, leadership should be seen as a relationship between the leader and the led.

What is situation sensing and why is it important?
Effective leaders possess the ability to observe and understand existing situations, picking up on important situational signals. They are able to tune into the organizational frequency to understand what is going on beneath the surface. This is both a micro and macro skill– visible in daily routine encounters (meetings, walking the corridors, elevator conversations), as well as in big, strategic decisions (i.e., Does this acquisition smell right? Are these good people to partner with?).

What do you mean when you observe that inspirational leadership is contextual?
Leadership does not take place in a vacuum; you must be authentic in context. Great leaders are able to read the context and respond accordingly. They tap into what exists and bring more to the party. In management jargon–they add value. This involves a subtle blend of authenticity and adaptation; of individuality and conformity.

The management of social distance is a key concept in your book WHY SHOULD ANYONE BE LED BY YOU? What is social distance and why is it important?
Good leaders manage relationships by knowing when to be close–to empathize, to build relations of warmth, loyalty and affection; and when to be distant–to keep people focused on the goal, to address poor performance, to give relationships an edge. Critically, leaders are able to create this distance without resorting to formal hierarchy.

What is an authentic chameleon? What qualities do they bring to the leadership task?
Effective leaders are authentic chameleons: although they show who they are, they are not easily stereotyped. Because they show emotions and withhold them; get close and stay apart; are like us, but different; their colleagues often see them as possessing enigmatic qualities.

What do followers want from their leaders?
Followers want leaders who are authentic. They need to feel significant, as well as a sense of excitement, and to feel a part of a community.

You suggest that managing the underlying tensions of the leader/follower relationship lies at the heart of successful leadership. What do you mean by this?
Managing the tensions between revealing strengths but showing weaknesses; being an individual but conforming; establishing intimacy but keeping your distance is key. Excellence in one or two of these areas is insufficient for truly inspirational leadership. It is the interplay between them, guided by situation sensing that enables great leaders to find the right style for the right moment.

What are the most common leadership mistakes?
Individuals who are oblivious to their limitations, who systematically exaggerate their credibility with others and regularly overestimate their strengths. Individuals who seem stuck in the default mode of “closeness” with others and are never able to separate enough to provide objective distance. For them, being “one of the boys” fatally undermines their leadership capacity. For others, it is the reverse: their separation from others–their failure to connect–leaves them forever isolated and without the relationships necessary to sustain effective leadership. Individuals who feel that the art of leadership is to give unfettered expression to their “true selves” in a bold take it or leave it fashion.

In your book WHY SHOULD ANYONE BE LED BY YOU?, you observe that good leadership doesn’t always deliver the best business results. What do you mean by this and why is it important to understand?
Leadership is not just about results. Yet this is a trap that many modern leadership researchers have fallen into. We have become overly concerned with the ends–sometimes at the cost of neglecting the means. Yet the classical understanding of leadership is primarily concerned with providing meaning. The obsession with results is a contemporary conceit and one which is partly responsible for eroding the moral dimension of leadership.

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If you want to interview Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, please contact Sue Blake.