Why would anyone want to be led by you? The question all leaders should still be asking themselves

Why should anyone be led by you? Seriously, why? And why should anyone work in your organisation?

Twenty-three years ago, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones – two professors from esteemed business schools – wrote a paper published in Harvard Business Review titled ‘Why should anyone be led by you’. They went on to write a book by the same title and many others besides, all about creating positive, productive workplaces based on managed leadership authenticity. More of which later.

In today’s episode, I want to talk about the challenges of authentic leadership (and any other hot leadership topic for that matter) and how all leaders need to continue to develop self-awareness, enhance and nuance their leadership ‘brand’ and stay humble and open to new ideas which can support them in their leadership careers.  For me, this question ‘why should anyone be led by you?’ endures as a valuable reminder that all leaders need to stay sharp, open minded and continue to stretch themselves to be the best leaders they can be.

Authentic leadership before it became authentic leadership

In their original work, Goffee and Jones established some leadership principles that were way ahead of their time, and still present leaders with significant challenge to implement today. These principles are:

  1. By showing that they are human (i.e. vulnerable), effective leaders reveal their approachability and humanity
  2. Effective leaders’ ability to collect and interpret soft data, i.e. read the room emotionally, helps them know when and how to act
  3. Inspirational leaders empathise passionately—and realistically—with people, and they genuinely care about the work employees do
  4. They capitalise on what’s unique about themselves.

That was the original work. Essentially, Goffee and Jones are saying that effective leaders demonstrate emotional intelligence (that is, they understand themselves emotionally and have developed skills around understanding others’ emotions), are willing to be human and are willing to step into what makes them unique, i.e. to accept and build on strengths. And don’t forget, Goffee and Jones didn’t coin the term authentic leadership. They asked leaders, in fact, to ‘be themselves, more of the time, in a skilled way’, that is to demonstrate managed leadership authenticity, not just to be themselves without filters. I mention that because it’s relevant as the story unfolds.

Back to the story: later researchers and commentators built on this idea, seizing on the zeitgeist reflected in Goffee and Jones’ work and these people developed leadership authenticity scales, named models and companies after the approach and tried to show that being an ‘authentic’ leader could lead to uniquely positive outcomes that couldn’t be achieved by adopting more accepted leadership approaches. That kind of went on for about 10-15 years.

And then came the backlash, which has happened over the past 5-10 years. As the political and popular leadership landscape has swung more towards ego-driven, self-centred leadership, demonstrated by the Trumps and Johnsons of the world. Questions began to emerge such as ‘How can authentic leadership work if leaders are also to be inclusive? Isn’t authentic leadership giving excuses to egotistical leaders to just be themselves even if when their behaviour is unacceptable, even abhorrent?’

And so the tide began to move against the term ‘authentic leadership’ as it became associated with extreme, ego-driven leadership behaviour. And so as with many ideas before it, authentic leadership moved into the shadows as people started to question its motives and relevance to the new world. Terms like inclusive leadership have become more popular and a better descriptor of what the world of leadership is seen to need right now.

The trouble with leadership ideas, and getting value from them

And so here we are in 2023, with work on authentic leadership largely shelved in favour of other more relevant leadership ideas.  And this presents us with a great case study in how the worlds of populism, business and academic research really struggle to co-exist, which puts us people professionals and leaders in tricky situations. Let me explain what I mean…

  1. Research – actual proper bona fide publishable peer reviewed research – takes a long time, is super conservative and is held to really restrictive standards, asking researchers to distil their ideas down to measurable ‘constructs’ that can be examined carefully, almost forensically, under laboratory type conditions, with methodologies that can be repeated by other researchers in different contexts. This works really well when we’re developing a new medication to treat hypertension for example, because we really need it to be safe, effective and reliable. But when it comes to assessing the value of a leadership idea, it can get quite complicated. Because leadership ideas in the lab don’t work the same way as in the real world. And people don’t want academic research findings which take years in the testing, they want practical tools that work, right now.
  2. Business and commerce are always hungry for new, marketable ideas with catchy titles that can make money quickly. So there’s a second short term pressure that comes from the world of commerce that doesn’t have time for academic theory-testing but just needs shiny new stuff that looks good, and looks like it works, which can be packaged up and sold to hungry customers looking for relevant new content.
  3. Media-influenced popular opinion dictates that everything needs to be soundbite sized in order to be understood and clickbait ready. And the media doesn’t have much appetite for long-term enduring ideas, instead intentionally creating cycles that build up people, political parties, ideas and theories, only to them demonise them a short time later in favour of something more likely to get clicks and reads.

As you can see, these agendas don’t live together easily.  So as people professionals and leaders out there in the world, we’re left wondering which ideas we should take most seriously, which will quickly get outdated so we should ignore them or at least treat them with suspicion and which, if any, are actually well researched and trustable. And it’s so hard to tell.

And that’s just authentic leadership. There are many other leadership ideas that have come and gone, or have been rebranded, or updated, in the last 20 years. Including (as I’ve mentioned) inclusive leadership, but also compassionate leadership, empathic leadership, ethical leadership, servant leadership, spiritual leadership, ethical leadership, visionary leadership.

Each one of these captures something of the zeitgeist at the time it’s coined. And they all have value but we can’t count any of these, at least in the research sense, as leadership theories. Not yet anyway.

So what can you do as a leader or as a people professional about all these ideas on leadership?

For me, there is something extremely helpful about Goffee and Jones original thought-provoking work. In a sentence it is the question ‘why should anyone be led by you?’ and the call to action for leaders to be considering the answer to this question on an ongoing basis.

In more detail, their work encourages leaders to develop more emotional intelligence, identify what makes them different and double down on it and to share vulnerability, in a managed way, as a means for building psychological safety within their organisations.

More broadly, as regards all of the other leadership ideas out there, my advice is to take what you feel is most valuable for you and incorporate it into your intention as a leader, so that you can become and remain the most effective version of yourself.

Don’t stand still, stay humble, open-minded and curious, keep learning and keep growing.

Scrutinise new ideas in the world of leadership that seem too good to be true, or which maybe look like old wine in new bottles.

But remember not to throw out solid original ideas just because they’ve become popularised to the point of being misunderstood. Return to the source material and see how that might still be of value to you.

Till next time, stay strong.