The problem with clever people

I was lucky enough to see Rob Goffee speak recently. Rob is a professor at London Business School and became famous with the publication of his HBR article, and subsequent book, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?

He says that thinking about leadership has completely missed the point. I think he’s right. He points out that, in today’s knowledge economy, organisations depend on clever people with expertise (he calls them ‘clevers’) who are often:

  • Unimpressed by hierarchy (they value cleverness more than position)
  • Organisationally savvy (and don’t want to be led)
  • Resistant to feedback (and won’t thank you for doing the right things, either)
  • Hard to replace (and they know it)
  • Bored easily (and ask difficult questions)
  • They expect instant access (to you and to other clever people)

In this world, the work of leadership changes. In the old world, leadership was focussed on making individuals more valuable to organisations through concepts like productivity, motivation and engagement.

In the new world leaders are faced with the task of making their organisations more valuable to the best people.
Leadership isn’t defined by seniority — or by ear lobes

This seems like a statement of the obvious — but it isn’t. The vast majority of leadership research has been conducted by examining the people who have achieved positions at the top of organisational hierarchies. Worse still, because it’s been conducted by psychologists, most of it has engaged in studying the characteristics of individuals.

Researchers have studied everything about individuals to see what differentiates good leaders. Nothing so far shows a significant correlation with leadership or organisational performance. To use the terminology of social science, the correlations (between performance and individual leadership characteristics) are weak and the causal connection (with organisational performance) is indeterminate.

In English, that means it tells you nothing of value.

A mark of the desperation of this line of inquiry is this article. It was published in the Harvard Business Review of all places. It examines the correlation between ear lobes and leadership. If this isn’t a sign that leadership thinking and research is taking us down the wrong path, I don’t know what is.

Stop press. Leadership is relational!  You can’t have leadership without followership. Interestingly, there is excellent research (with strong correlations) on what followers need to produce high performance. The key elements are:

  • A sense of community/belonging
  • Authenticity in leaders (people they can trust/believe in)
  • Significance (they feel important)
  • Excitement (they get stimulation and arousal from their leader as well as their job)

Leadership is also contextual. One of the reasons why the research on individual leadership characteristics is failing is that it fails to take account of differences in the situation in which the leader is operating. Differences ranging from macro-economic background, sector and organisational history to the needs and composition of the team all impact the leadership required. Plainly, a leader who succeeds in one context may fail dismally in another — and vice versa.

Be yourself more — with skill

The four criteria above make demanding requirements of you as a leader.  Rob and his co-author Gareth Jones suggest that you need to do 5 things. Critically, these require you not to be someone else but to develop and use more of yourself in your leadership of others. In summary, these are:

  1. Sense situations — and articulate them. Quickly read contextual and social contexts. What is going on and for whom? Bring these assessments into focus by first talking about them — which later gives you the ability to reshape and reframe them.
  2. Identify with your people. Get close when you need to and keep your distance when it’s necessary. You need to be close enough to understand what motivates them that is different to what motivates you. Equally you need enough distance to give perspective and objectivity. This is a difficult balance to strike and most of us avoid the paradox by defaulting strongly to one or the other.
  3. Reveal significant real and perceived differences. Know yourself well enough to understand what makes you different. From that knowledge, select those differences which have the greatest capacity to excite or arouse those around you given the context. Use these consistently.
  4. Reveal weaknesses (selectively). It’s helpful to be able to talk and to encourage others to talk candidly about weaknesses. We all have them. The one/s you select should be significant enough to demonstrate genuine personal openness, and relevant enough to be meaningful to those you are following.
  5. Communicate with care. Choose the channels and approaches which work best for your followers. Not yourself. When communicating, tell stories. This especially applies to the trajectory of the organisation, the strategic narrative. It also applies to using anecdotes which illuminate the point for the person or people you are communicating to which also excite or arouse them.

Do try this at home

This means that some critical questions you need to answer for yourself are:

  • How good are you at sensing what people need but aren’t saying? How well and often do you articulate these?
  • Do you default to closeness or distance? Where do you most need to re-balance with more of the other?
  • What are the differences about you that have the greatest capacity to excite or arouse others? How and where will you use those more?
  • What weaknesses do you have which are real and relevant enough to reveal? How will you use those to open new and different conversations?
  • Who will you communicate each of the answers above to — and how? How can you make a more coherent and stimulating strategic narrative for those you are leading?

I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help — even if only to think through how you might do so — then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email.

But wait, just one more thing

I agree with almost all of this. Rob’s analysis of the flaws in the research and thinking on individual leadership is particularly powerful. I think there is a critical piece missing, though. You won’t be surprised to hear that this is in the team dimensions of leadership.There are two dimensions of this. The first is that most, if not all, of your leadership team are ‘clevers’. Leading, and being part of, a top team needs to be rethought in this context. How do you arouse and excite these most important of talented people? The second is that answering the questions in the previous section is demanding. What part can a Leadership Team play in helping each of its members to step up to the requirements of genuinely answering them?Sounds like plenty of material for next month’s newsletter. Watch this space!…

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice — based around a real case study.

You may also like to read Rob Goffee’s books:
Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?
Clever:Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson