Thursday, October 3, 2013

Leadership – it’s not just about you, it’s all about you


Guest post from Emmanuel Gobillot:

There is one thing all great leaders share.  It’s the one thing most leadership books will never tell you about, yet it is also the only thing that can predict whether you will succeed or not.  That one thing is obvious when you stop and think about it – followers!

Leading is about being followed. Period. Great leadership is about having great followers who exercise their freedom of choice to release their discretionary effort in the pursuit of goal.

Step one of becoming a great leader is to realise that in fact leadership is not about you. It’s about your followers.  It’s about understanding why they choose to follow.  Why do they decide to follow one leader over another? What is the logic (if any) of their decisions?

There are two important issues with this.

The first is that for many people in the corporate world, it is leaders who decide who leads, not followers.  It is “superiors” who appoint us to leadership positions.  So shouldn’t we care about what they, rather than potential followers, think – after all those followers have little choice in the decision on who their boss will be.

This may be true but it misses the point.  While it may well be leaders who appoint leaders, it is followers who delver results.  Although followers may not get a choice about who leads them, they do get a choice as to how much effort they allocate to the task.  In a changing world, success is dependant on them releasing their discretionary effort, not just on them fulfilling their contractual duties.

So the issue here is not about whether followers’ opinions matter. They do. The real issue is whether you are looking at leadership through the right lens.

The second issue is much more fundamental.

How do we actually get to know what followers are looking for when they make the decision to follow?  Asking them seems obvious enough but doing so will only lead to disappointment.  You will never get to the right answer purely because most of us can’t quite articulate what we are looking for.  It’s not that we’re stupid - it’s just that our brain doesn’t work like that.

I call the decision-making process of followers, ‘emotional logic’.  It is neither rational nor emotional, conscious nor unconscious.  It is best described as “I follow because it kind of makes sense”.  “It feels right”.  That may be an honest answer, but it’s pretty difficult to do anything with! Dig a little deeper and invariably, inevitably, the word charisma will come up to describe what we are looking for in our leaders. 

Now leadership development professionals (of which I’ll admit to be one) don’t like charisma.  I could be ungenerous and put that dislike down to the fact that perceived as it is as being an innate trait, we shy away from endorsing charisma as an answer simply because we can’t sell development of innate traits.  However, I won’t do that. Instead I would argue that we shy away from endorsing charisma because we can’t truly define it.  But if this is really what followers want, then this is surely what we need to give them.

So perhaps then, the answer is to ape the behaviour of people we identify as charismatic.  With this goal in mind, we devour the pages of business books that promise to make us more like Steve or Richard or Jack, or whoever else we think we ought to be. 

Often the resulting dysfunction, clear for our followers to see, escapes us almost as fast as disappointment at our lack of results invades us.

So here is the second part of the title of this post – whilst leadership is not just about you on the grounds that it is mainly about followers, it is also all about you as followers are much more likely to follow the best version of you than the poor copy of someone else!

So what of this elusive charisma? Can you ever have it? Well here is how I like to think about it.  The etymology of the word charisma is “a gift from the gods” (no wonder we shy away from it!) but actually the reality is that it is a gift from followers offered to leaders.  So le me have a go at spelling out (literally) what it means for leaders from the perspective of a follower.

Show me you are someone I can relate to and who can relate to me through:
  • Compassion – showing you care and are willing to make things better
  • Hope – articulating a way forward
Show me you are someone who will set out to do what they promise through:
  • Asperity – showing grit and determination in what you do
  • Rhetoric – articulating a compelling, concise and coherent way
  • Integrity – showing that what you think, say and do align
  • Simplicity – keeping things simple, not simplistic

Show me you have the capability to actually deliver through:
      Measurement – working with followers to articulate the milestones that will show progress
      Action – not just talking the talk, pulling your sleeves up and doing stuff


About the author:
Emmanuel Gobillot is a senior practitioner in the area of leadership and organization effectiveness. Before setting up his own business to focus on writing, speaking and consulting, Gobillot was a Director at Hay Group where he headed both the consumer sector and the leadership services practice. His most recent book is called Follow the Leader: The one thing great leaders have that great followers want (published by Kogan Page).

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