Why should anyone be led by you? Know yourself and show yourself

Leadership begins with you – and you will not succeed as a leader unless you have some sense of who you are. Your colleagues – potential followers – have a simple but basic need: they want to be led by a person, not by a corporate apparatchik, say Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones

It is unlikely that you will be able to inspire, arouse, excite, or motivate people unless you can show them who you are, what you stand for, and what you can and cannot do.

To be yourself, you must know yourself and show yourself— enough. Put another way, you must be sufficiently self-aware and also prepared to self-declare.

Comfort with origins is one aspect of people who combine self-awareness with the ability to disclose. Whatever the complexities of the cultural variation, we have been consistently struck by the ways in which effective leaders can articulate the relationship between where they came from and who they are.

For example, Patti Cazzato, a senior executive working with retailing giant Gap at the time we met, is from rural Kansas. In her job she has to deal with sophisticated, urban New York designers. Patti told us that when she began these working relationships, she felt slightly overawed by the encounters—as if she were still wearing Kansas dust on her clothes. She felt gauche and inhibited among her new colleagues. It took a trip back to her roots for her to rediscover herself and bring her own authenticity back into her leadership: to be herself in the new context.

As individuals move through life, they experience mobility—social and geographical, within and between organizations, across and up and down hierarchies. And this experience of mobility can disrupt an individual’s sense of self.

Our observation of effective leaders is that as well as being comfortable with their origins, they are also at ease with mobility. They take themselves with them to new contexts. They adapt, of course, but they retain their authenticity in the new situation.

If comfort with origins and ease with mobility help with authenticity, how can aspiring leaders grow these capabilities? What follows is a list of pragmatic suggestions.

Seek out new experiences and new contexts

This can involve changes as small as seeking to lead outside your function or as large as seeking to lead in an entirely different context. We interviewed a tough CFO who worked in a drug rehab unit on a one-month sabbatical. He reported that it forced him to reexamine his own leadership behaviours and to reconnect with his fundamental values. One critical characteristic here is that his hierarchical position as CFO meant nothing in the new context. There was just him and those he sought to lead and help. A corollary of this is that to develop self-knowledge, you should avoid comfort zones and routines. Developing self-knowledge requires active experimentation. Routines, in and of themselves, inhibit this experimentation drive.

Get honest feedback

Effective leaders seek out sources of straight feedback. We have had very good results from carefully collected workplace feedback (including 360degree feedback). But there is also a role for coaches who can give an external perspective. But perhaps the best feedback comes from honest colleagues and those who know us best: our family and friends.

Explore biography

Many of the leaders we have both interviewed and observed have had a deep and intimate knowledge of the contexts that made them what they are. Explore these; talk to others who may share the same experiences. Self-knowledge grows from coming to terms with the events that make us what we are.

Return to roots

Patti Cazzato’s trip back to Texas reinforced the sense of self. Spend time with people who know you without the trappings of organizational power.

Find a third place.

The American writer Ray Oldenburg has put forward the convincing argument that after work and family, we all need a third place: somewhere we can make associations and develop a sense of self, freed from the obligations of work and family roles.

Not all of these will work for everyone; try to find techniques that help you. But if you cannot develop a refined awareness of what works for you, then your abilities as a leader will be limited. After all, knowing yourself, being yourself, and disclosing yourself are vital ingredients of effective leadership.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?: What It Takes to be an Authentic Leader by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.

Rob Goffee is Professor of Organizational Behaviour at London Business School

Gareth Jones has alternated between academic and corporate roles, teaching at LBS too, and also the University of East Anglia, Henley, INSEAD, and currently, IE Business School, in Madrid. He has held senior HR roles at Polygram and the BBC.

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