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Leading clever people

22 Jan 2009

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones’ latest research reveals the growing importance of a small number of smart employees.

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These "clever people" generate disproportionate amounts of value whether they are software developers, experts in obscure financial instruments, or scientists working in pharmaceutical companies. Providing them with leadership is now a key challenge for a growing number of organisations.

Researching our 2006 book, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, we talked to many followers as well as leaders in a wide range of organisations, industries and institutions. It was clear that expectations had changed. Followers did not expect to be told what to do. They wanted leadership with respect as well as rewards. Followers wanted, expected and deserved the real thing from those who lead them.  There was a similar sense of shifting perspectives among the leaders we talked to. Leaders realised that certain of their followers generated huge amounts of value for the organisation. Their most valuable people (MVPs) were crucial to the success of the organisation and yet, at the same time, often the most difficult to lead.

We started asking CEOs who the key people in their organisations were. They were likely to say they have a brilliant finance guy who spots all their mergers and acquisitions or a startlingly innovative woman in software development. Rarely did they point down the executive corridor and remark that one of their fellow directors was the key organisational inspiration. Sometimes we talked formally, other times informally. Along the way we developed a shorthand to explain who these key followers are.  We called them the clever people.

Our new book, Leading Clever People, will be published in 2009. In it, we examine the leadership dynamics surrounding clever people. The issues we discuss in the book affect a rapidly increasing number of organisations and individuals.  When we set out, we thought we would simply be talking to consultants, lawyers, investment bankers, R&D wizards and other similar smart professionals. We did; but we also found value-creating brilliance in unexpected places: in schools, hospitals - even breweries. Clever people can be any of these and more - school teachers, university and hospital administrators, curators at museums. But, as different as they are, they are all capable of creating huge amounts of value for their organisations. Indeed, we have come to the tantalising conclusion that perhaps the organisations of the future will aspire to be clever all over.

Rob Goffee (rgoffee@london.edu) is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School.