Original insight to the leadership debate

Leadership is one of the most discussed and debated issues of our age.

Leadership is one of the most discussed and debated issues of our age. From Tony Blair to Max Weber, Rob Goffee and his co-author, Gareth Jones, provide a unique view of the state of our understanding of leadership.


For all the intellectual and practical endeavour it attracts, little original insight is usually added to the leadership debate. Mystification regularly outweighs clarification. Rob Goffee offers a persuasive counter. His work, along with his long-term collaborator Gareth Jones, returns to the leadership essentials and is firmly rooted in their academic origins as sociologists.

“Over the last 30 years our careers have taken shape, led by curiosity rather than any neat master plan. We started out as sociologists. We wanted to change the world and then realised that to do so we first needed to better understand the intricacies of organisational behaviour. We worked in big corporations and with big corporations; encountering restless, brilliant and often bewildering collections of people,” they recently wrote.

Goffee, now Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, and Gareth Jones, a visiting professor at IE Business School, first brought their original slant on the business world to a broader audience with their 1998 bestseller, The Character of a Corporation. This book focused on corporate culture. Its closest intellectual antecedent is Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation.

In The Character of a Corporation, Goffee and Jones identify four different types of organisational cultures: networked; mercenary; fragmented; and communal. No one culture is good or bad, worse or better, than the others. they all have their positive and negative aspects.

Take the networked culture: The good side of this is that there are good communications between people in the organisation. Ideas and information flow freely and easily from where they are generated to where they are wanted and needed. However, this exemplifies a “good” network culture. “Bad” network cultures host members who gossip incessantly, spreading bogus news that may be true but which is usually detrimental to some other associate. As a result of such behaviour in a bad network culture, employees soon become defensive, cliques form, and work devolves into a civil war. In time, the workplace atmosphere becomes toxic.

At the heart of The Character of a Corporation is a view of organisations as communities. In their model, drawing heavily on classic sociology, there are two key cultural relationships — sociability and solidarity. Sociability refers primarily to affective relations between individuals who are likely to see each other as friends. They tend to share ideas and values and to associate with each other on equal terms. At its heart, sociability represents a relationship valued for its own sake. It is usually initiated through face-to-face contact, though it may be maintained through other forms of communication, and is characterised by high levels of mutual help. No real conditions are attached.

Solidarity, by contrast, describes task-focused co-operation between individuals and groups. It does not depend on close friendship or even personal acquaintance; neither does it need to be continuous. It arises only from a perception of shared interest — and, when this occurs, solidarity can produce intense focus.

“Although this discussion may seem a little abstract, relationships of sociability and solidarity are actually all around us — in our families, sports teams, social clubs and communities,” says Goffee. “Arguably this ubiquity is what drew the attention of the early sociologists in the first place. In effect, we all have an interest in — and are affected by — these relationships. Ask someone to describe their ideal family, for example, and typically they will tell you it is one where the members like and love one another — that’s the sociability element — and which pulls together when times get tough — that’s solidarity.”

From this starting point, Goffee and Jones’ focus turned to leadership. Their research is resolutely based in the reality of leadership rather than in the leader-as-hero genre. Jones was director of human resources and internal communications at the BBC and a senior vice president at Polygram, as well as holding a series of academic positions.

“Look at the main leadership literature and you will see that it focuses on the characteristics of leaders. There is a strong psychological bias. It sees leadership qualities as inherent to the individual. The underlying assumption is that leadership is something we do to other people. But, in our view, leadership should be seen as something we do with other people. Leadership must always be viewed as a relationship between the leader and the led,”

Goffee told LBSR in an earlier interview. “A corollary of this is that books on leadership persistently try to find a recipe for leadership. There are long lists of leadership competences and characteristics. Anyone reading these books is bound to be disappointed. Reading about Jack Welch isn’t going to make you into Jack Welch.”

Goffee and Jones won the McKinsey Award for their Harvard Business Review article, “Why should anyone be led by you?” “The question — Why should anyone be led by you? — had an impact. Audiences paused for thought when they were asked it. The question took us in intriguing, exciting, and often perplexing directions,” Goffee later reflected. The article became a bestselling book with the same thought-provoking — and, for some, deeply challenging — title.

Goffee and Jones are blunt in criticising much current corporate leadership: too many leaders, they say, are instead bureaucrats. Happily, they do not issue a clarion call for leaders to attempt to become superheroes. The good leader must try to be human, they assert; he or she should also be transparent, unafraid to show blind sides or weak spots. This is the best way to inspire others. Moreover, the inspiration transaction has to take place on the individual, one-to-one level. Organisations cannot do anything without dedicated, high-performing individuals. Good leaders recognise that everyone they lead is, at heart, an individual human being. It is thus perilous to view an array of individuals as an anonymous collective.

Good leaders have the confidence (and also the courage) to act on intuition. This action must also be informed by solid experience. Leaders must also borrow a very important asset from the acting profession’s repertory of skills, good timing. An experienced actor knows the appropriateness of every action, no matter how small. Similarly, good leaders know how to manage people and events; they know how and when to be tough, but they know that toughness on its own is never a solution. They know when to temper toughness with empathy. This range of judgments and actions lies within the abilities of most people. Thus, good leaders don’t have to be a Superman-Clark Kent kind of person. They just have to be uniquely and genuinely themselves or, as Goffee and Jones advise: “Be yourself — more — with skill.”

The link between self-knowledge and self-disclosure is a central — and increasingly fashionable — starting point for understanding effective leadership. But it is not everything. Leaders must be themselves in context. Great leaders are able to read the context and respond accordingly. They tap into what exists and bring more to the party. In management jargon, they add value. This involves a subtle blend of authenticity and adaptation; of individuality and conformity,” Goffee explains. 

“The thing with effective leaders is that they do not simply react to context. They also shape it by conforming enough. This is the skill element. This involves knowing when and where to conform. Without this, leaders are unlikely to survive or make the connections they need to build successful relationships with others. To be effective, the leader needs to ensure his or her behaviours mesh sufficiently with the organisational culture to create traction. Leaders who fail to mesh will simply spin their wheels in isolation from their followers.”

Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?  examined the leader’s side of the equation. In their most recent work, Goffee and Jones have shifted their attention to the role and expectations of followers.

In their latest book, Clever, they write: “Talking to leaders and followers, 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. Similarly, leaders realised that certain of their followers generated huge amounts of value for the organisation. Their most valuable people were crucial to the success of the organisation; and yet, at the same time, often the most difficult to lead.”

Clever, again founded on a Harvard Business Review article (“Leading Clever People”), provides insights in how best to lead the cleverest people in the room whether they are software designers, scientists or hyper-active creatives. Goffee and Jones’ checklist advises that leaders must acknowledge the diversity of the knowledge of the clever people they employ; exhibit competence to them; win resources and give them space; act as an umbrella to protect them from troublesome organisational politics; encourage failure; recruit clever people; giving direction as motivation is usually not an issue; be accessible; encourage recognition from outside; and create a simplified rule environment.

“The challenge facing the leaders of today and of the foreseeable future is how to build organisations that can convert this potential value into actual value in the highly competitive world of the knowledge economy,” say Goffee and Jones. “That is a substantial challenge, and it is one that requires a new style of leadership. In the world we are describing, leaders can no longer be the sole driving force for progress. They are not the one who leads the charge up the mountain. Rather, they must identify the clever people with the potential to reach the summit, connect them with others, and help them get there. Once leadership was all about planting your flag on the summit and standing heroically for a photograph. Now the leader is the one pacing anxiously at base camp waiting to hear good news.”

Essential Reading

The Character of a Corporation: How Your Company’s Culture Can Make or Break Your Business, (second edition), Profile 2003.

“Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?”, Harvard Business Review, September-October 2000.

“Managing Authenticity”, Harvard Business Review, March 2007.

Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Harvard Business Press, 2006.

“Leading Clever People”, Harvard Business Review, March 2007.

Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People, Harvard Business Press, 2009

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