Management gurus and theorists persistently seek an impossible Holy Grail, the universal recipe for leadership. Beleaguered executives are invited to measure themselves against lists of competencies, skills and characteristics - and inevitably find themselves wanting. Attempts to imitate others, even the most successful leaders, are doomed to failure. As Bill Burns, chief executive of CHF, the $20 billion global pharmaceutical division of Roche, puts it: 'The idea of us all becoming Jack Welch is nonsense.'
The good news is that contrary to popular belief (and to the enormous relief of most of us), you don't need to be Welch or Sir Richard Branson to be a leader. There are no universal leadership characteristics. What works for one will not work for another. For all those who aspire to leadership, the challenge is simple - deceptively so. To be a more effective leader, you must be yourself - more - with skill.
First, to be a leader you must be yourself. Followers want to be led by a person, not a role-holder or a position-filler or a bureaucrat. Inevitably, then, the central question, explicitly or implicitly, in the mind of others who might follow us is: what is different about you that equips you to lead? Or, put another way, what is special about you that says I should follow you?
Effective leaders know those individual differences that might help them in a leadership role - whatever they might be - and use them to their advantage. They must identify differences that have meaning for followers. Think, for example, of the way in which Branson is able to use his physical appearance - casual dress, long hair and a beard - to convey the informality and nonconformity that has become a central part of his leadership and, indeed, the Virgin brand.
This is an example of an individual skilfully deploying his differences in ways that attract followers. In this case, the differences are significant, real and perceived. By this we mean that Branson's differences signify a message; they are authentic, not falsely manufactured; and they are seen by others. We are talking, then, not of any personal difference but of an artful and authentic display of genuine differences, often fine-tuned over many years, that have the potential to excite others.
Inevitably, as leaders reveal themselves, they will always show us weaknesses as well as strengths. But does this make them less attractive as leaders? Clearly, demonstrating strengths lends leaders legitimacy - but not if weaknesses are denied. The desire to be led by a real person demands that we know something of their human foibles and shortcomings. The claim of perfection will rarely convince us of another's humanity. And, paradoxically, denying weakness is most likely to increase rather than reduce the leader's vulnerability.
Over time, effective leaders figure out what works for them. They don't necessarily need to know why or how it works, as long as they can reproduce the effect.
This journey of self-discovery has its roots in our origins - shaped as they are by such powerful forces as family, gender, locale and social class. Effective leaders are able to extract from these experiences a sense of self that they are comfortable with, despite, in many cases, a significant shift in their social milieu over the intervening years. They understand and are at ease with where they are now in relation to where they started.
Leadership does not take place in a vacuum: you must be yourself in context. Great leaders are able to read the context and respond accordingly. They tap into what already exists and then bring more to the party. In management jargon, they add value. This involves a subtle blend of authenticity and adaptation; of individuality and conformity.
Using a complex mix of cognitive and observational skills, leaders pick up signals that help them explain what's happening without having others spell it out for them. These skills enable them to read and interpret a situation. They know when team morale is shaky, or when complacency needs challenging. Often, they appear to collect this information through osmosis. But we believe this skill can be learnt and that leaders can improve their sensing capabilities. We have observed three powerful ways in which leaders have been able to hone their sensing abilities.
The first is early exposure to a range of different experiences. Sometimes, this comes from a family background that involves mobility in childhood. This creates opportunities - and, perhaps, a need - for individuals to experience and make sense of different cultures and lifestyles. On other occasions, it arises from early career experiences that provide similar cultural contrasts across different occupational groups. We have been struck by the number of leaders who, early in their careers, took on jobs at the edge of their organisations - typically, selling - which brought them into contact with a range of different people.
The second successful approach seems to be structured, experience-based learning, where individuals are exposed to a range of direct experiences and helped to learn from them by skilled facilitators. Witness the remarkable growth of feedback and of business school interpersonal skills programmes. Both share the objective of encouraging individuals to better sense the situations they are in and the way in which their behaviour affects these situations.
The third approach - again, increasingly popular among executives - is the use of a personal coach. Although coaching styles and methods vary, there is typically a shared ambition to create opportunities for individuals to practice skills in familiar and new situations and to receive feedback on their impact.
But effective leaders do not simply react to context. They also shape it, by illuminating aspects of the situation that they can turn to their advantage. They conform enough. This involves the skill of communicating individuality for collective benefit. But it also involves an awareness of when and where to conform.
Without this ability for measured conformity, leaders are unlikely to survive or make the connections they need to build successful relationships with others. Expressed differently, effective leaders have a clear sense of purpose and strong values, but, crucially, they also know where and when to make compromises. Think of the extent to which political leaders such as Nelson Mandela in South Africa have successfully 'conformed enough', but always in pursuit of a clear set of values and political ideas. As a result, they have not lost their followers.
But knowing yourself and the context are not enough. You must also act as a leader. And since leadership is inevitably a relationship, the leader's skill in managing relationships and communicating inspirationally and with good timing is key. Good leaders manage relationships by knowing when to be close - to empathise, 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.
This management of social distance creates a paradox: although leaders show who they are, they're not easily stereotyped. Because they show emotions yet withhold them, get close yet stay apart, are like us but are different, their colleagues often see them as possessing enigmatic qualities. They're authentic chameleons.
Pulling all this off demands skilful communication. Effective leaders pay careful attention to how they are seen and heard. They do not take others' perceptions for granted, nor assume that they are perceived similarly in every context. Leaders construct compelling narratives about themselves.
Some leaders, for example, are best able to display their qualities through the platform speech; others are more effective in more intimate, face-to-face settings. Part of being an effective leader is knowing which media work for you - and finding ways to exploit these.
The final facet of the leadership equation is followership. If leadership is a relationship, as we believe it is, then followers also have a vital part to play. In the course of our research, we asked numerous followers what they wanted from their leaders. Their replies were many and varied, but we found recurring patterns. The four key elements that followers want from leaders are authenticity, significance, excitement and community.
You will see that there are tensions underlying the skills of leadership: between dis- playing strengths but also revealing weaknesses; being an individual but conforming; establishing intimacy but keeping your distance. Managing these tensions lies at the heart of successful leadership. Our experience suggests that 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.
You may have reached an early conclusion as you contemplate these tensions: leadership is complicated, demanding and full of personal risk. Clearly, not everyone can be a leader. Many executives do not have what it takes to develop the skilful authenticity necessary for effective leadership. It is not difficult to think of individuals who are oblivious to their limitations, but regularly overestimate their strengths.
Equally, it is easy to think of individuals who seem stuck in the default mode of 'closeness' with others and are never able to separate far enough to provide objective distance. For them, being 'one of the boys/girls' fatally undermines their leadership capacity. For others, the reverse is true: their separation from others - their failure to connect - leaves them forever isolated and without the relationships necessary to sustain effective leadership.
Finally, we have been witness to countless uncomfortable examples of executives who feel that the art of leadership is to give unfettered expression to their 'true selves' in bold take-it-or-leave-it fashion. They typically find that others choose to leave it. Leadership is not achieved by riding into town, cowboy-style, and shooting it up. Skilful leaders spend time getting a sense of the place, and conform enough so that they are seen to be acting in the best interests of the townspeople. That way they can lead change without getting themselves shot early on in the proceedings.
All these qualities, however, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for leadership. Individuals must also want to be leaders - and many very talented individuals are not interested in that responsibility. Others prefer to devote more time to their private lives than to their work. After all, there's more to life than work, and more to work than being the leader.
To assume that everyone has the sheer energy, drive and willpower required to offer inspirational leadership to others is facile. While each individual has unique differences that can potentially be exploited in a leadership role, each of us has to address the harsh question: do we really want to do it? And if we do, do we want it enough to put in the work required and make the necessary sacrifices?
Nor is it sensible to assume that good leadership always delivers the best business results. Leadership is not just about results, yet we have become too concerned with the ends - sometimes at the cost of neglecting the means. Interestingly, the classical understanding of leadership is concerned primarily with providing meaning. The obsession with results is a contemporary conceit and is partly responsible for eroding the moral dimension of leadership.
Yet, despite these provisos, this truth remains: great leaders can, and must, make a difference - and your ability to act as a leader can be improved. In the process, you might even make the world a better place. As we constantly urge: 'Be yourself - more - with skill'.
- Rob Goffee is a professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School; Gareth Jones is a consultant and visiting professor at Insead. They are co-authors of Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? (Harvard Business School Press, £15.99 - www.whyshouldany-onebeledbyyou.com). Their previous book was The Character of a Corporation
KEY QUESTIONS FOR LEADERS
Which personal differences could form the basis of your leadership capability? Which of your characteristics have the potential to excite others; are genuinely yours; signify something important in your context? Think, too, about your personal values and vision for those you are leading.
Are you able to read different contexts? How well are you able to pick up on subtle shifts in the behaviour of others? Are you equally adept with bosses, peers and subordinates? What about customers and competitors? With those you like as well as dislike? How do you adapt across cultures? Are you better one-to-one, in a small group or with large gatherings?
Do you conform enough? Can you recognise the moment to hold back? Can you gain acceptance with others, without losing your authenticity?
How well do you manage social distance? Are you able to get close to those you lead? Do you know the goals and motives of those who have the biggest impact on your performance? What do you need to know more about? Are you able to separate and create distance from others - at the right moment?