In his MTT session in September 2018, Gareth Jones, visiting professor at the IE Business School in Madrid and fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School, talked about the importance of authenticity to effective leadership and organisational success. He defined the key qualities of an authentic leader and highlighted the key challenges of genuinely authentic leadership, which are covered in detail in the books he co-authored with Rob Goffee, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What It Takes To Be An Authentic Leader and Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People, which is particularly relevant to professional services.

In the follow-up presentation in February 2019, again hosted by Addleshaw Goddard, Jones focused on the pragmatic action that effective leaders can take to achieve continuous improvement. While academics talk about the leadership mindset, in the workplace, leaders are judged by their actions.

Professional services firms are full of clever people who don’t want to be led. They trade on their expertise. This relates to another of Jones’ books, Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes To Create An Authentic Organization which is about creating organisations where clever people want to work.

Leadership is contextual

Leadership is a complex concept – it’s not just about what you do, but about how it relates to the rest of the organisation: the business, its stakeholders, and its values. Jones highlights its fundamental dimensions:

  • Leadership is contextual – professional services combine multiple businesses: being an insolvency practitioner in Birmingham is very different from working in M&A in London.
  • Leadership is relational – In major surgery, the outcome for the patient depends on three key variables: the surgeon’s skill; the anaesthetist’s competency; and the quality of post-operative care. The best outcomes are produced by a skilled, well-led team.
  • Leadership is non-hierarchical – great organisations build leadership at multiple levels, because excellent leaders motivate their teams and drive performance. For example, in professional services, the best performing regional offices tend to be the ones with the most effective leaders. Good leadership instils organisational values in both management style and customer service.

Sensing situations

Authentic leaders share what Jones describes as a ‘meta-skill’: the ability to sense situations – ie.  to collect and understand soft data. He believes that while data analytics offer value, they are not a substitute for sensing situations. He wrote a paper about lurking as a research methodology. This is about keeping your ear to the ground and understanding what is going on in the business.

Jones believes it is worth working on situational awareness. One tip is to make notes at the end of each working day. You cannot delegate situational awareness – you will make connections and learn things in a social situation in ways that will never happen in a meeting. Situational awareness is about understanding when things are (or are not) going well.

Symbolism is a good way to connect with employees and others and show them that you identify with their situation. Jones has referred before to Nelson Mandela wearing the colours of the Springboks to attend the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Sensing situations in the broader business environment enables leaders to identify with the business context as it relates to their organisation and sector. For example, when Lehman’s collapsed, the finance director of Tesco commented that this would help Tesco move faster into banking. He saw bad news for one sector as an opportunity for innovation in another.

Social distance

Although authentic leadership means forging connections at all levels, it is also about keeping your distance. Applying Georg Simmel’s construct of social distance to organisational leadership is a challenge. Too many managers hover at an uncomfortable half-way point between authority and friendship. Effective leadership means getting close enough to employees to know what’s going on and show them that you care – remembering employees’ names (children’s names?) and interests. But you also need to be able to step back – as their manager, you have to conduct performance reviews, and you may have to fire them. Jones’ tip is to discover your default mode – closeness or distance – and practice the other one.

Working relationships are transient, so it is important to recognise the difference between solidarity and friendship. Whether or not you like all your colleagues, you need to be able to rely on each other. When working relationships develop into genuine friendships, it is important to be able to shift between the personal and the professional. Jones is friends with his accountant, but his accountant does not hesitate to switch to professional auditor mode when giving financial advice.

This can be challenging for professional services which benefit from long-term client relationships. But advisors also have to be able to say no and give advice that their clients may not want to hear, so they have to be able to step back and create some distance.

Authentic leadership is emotive

Authentic leadership means engaging emotions. Successful leaders have a personal commitment to the business, and companies are aware that if they engage people who love their products, they will get employees who go the extra mile. For example, the people who make BMWs are passionate about cars – and BMW will sack any employee who is caught drink-driving. Board members at Bass Charrington (before it was sold to Interbrew in 2000) were required to visit a pub every day!

The converse also applies, says Jones. Don’t work for BMW if you’re not into cars; or Novartis if you’re into homeopathy. Don’t work for a law firm if you’re an anarchist!

Show your difference

The difficulty with leadership competence models is that they produce managers who all look the same. But we follow those who show their difference, because we don’t want to be led by someone exactly like us. A strong difference shows strength and confidence. Jones cites Angela Merkel, who has turned her differences into her brand: she’s a scientist, and a woman who has turned her dress sense and posture into a differentiator.

Some leaders’ ‘differences’ are aligned with their business – Bill Gates is still geeky; former Glaxo Smith Kline CEO Dr Richard Sykes has a PhD in microbiology – while others are related to their origin – Sir Ian Powell, chairman of Capita and former chairman and senior partner of PwC embraces his West Midlands roots and supports West Bromwich Albion.

Channelling elements of your personal identity into your role creates a differentiator that underpins an authentic leadership brand. If you try to be someone else and the mask slips, you will be seen as a fraud.

Emotive leadership liberates people’s energy and wins them over – an excellent example of this is Tony Blair’s Olympic bid, or his speech after the 7/7 bombings in London that made everyone get back on the Tube. Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver are examples of business leaders who have communicated in a consistent way throughout their careers.

Becoming an authentic leader – a ten-point plan

Finally, Jones offers a ten-point plan to help you become an authentic leader:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone and learn from experience. Jones refers to Warren Bennis’ ‘crucibles of leadership’ – the challenging experiences that transform leaders into authentic leaders
  2. Find sources of replenishment – if leadership is about giving energy to others, leaders need to find sources of energy too. Examples are working with a mentor, joining a peer learning group like the Managing Partners’ Forum, where you meet like-minded people
  3. Gain perspective – find somewhere outside work where you can be yourself rather than your role. Jones references Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place which is about community hangouts. It could be the gym, or the pub. No-one in Jones’ local has read any of his books!
  4. Collect feedback – carefully, and situationally
  5. Don’t try to be perfect or change everything – it doesn’t work
  6. But do try to get from good to great – think about what are you doing/can do to make a difference
  7. Customise your professional development – being a leader is a bit like being a carpenter; you need to maintain and renew your tools
  8. Work in an industry you care about
  9. Be true to yourself – bring your spirit and individuality to your role
  10. Don’t be afraid to change jobs. Are you in the right place to express your authentic self? If you are not, don’t stay for the pension – move to another organisation

Joanna Goodman