Leading unleadable talent

How can you lead clever people who are smarter than you?

John Mitchell’s ‘Inside VET’ column in Campus Review, 6 May 2008

Rob Goffee is Professor of organisational behaviour at London Business Schooland author of the popular Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?

He was in Sydney from February till April this year, working on his next book. On the eve of his departure he spoke to John Mitchell.

Your observations about leadership in Australia?

Just as there is all over the world, there is a crisis of authenticity [in leadership]. I’ll give you some anecdotes. I started my trip in Perthat the beginning of February and barely a day went by without a story on the front page about Brian Burke. Then I arrived in Sydneyin mid-February and the first week I was here most of the stories on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald were about the property issues and potential bribery claims at Wollongong Council. Those two examples show a loss of faith and trust and belief in leaders in both the public and private sectors. That issue is all over the world, not just inAustralia.

What did you mean by your phrase ‘be yourself – more – with skill’?

Don’t try to be someone else. If you to try to be someone else. If you pick up a book by one of the leadership gurus, one of the industry leaders who have written books in recent years, and you try to imitate them, you’ll get spotted as inauthentic. The only person who does Jack Welch well is Jack Welch.

Be yourself, more, because I want to be led by a person. I don’t want to be led by a suit, a bureaucrat, a rule holder, a position filler, a faceless person. I want to be led by a person who is real and believable that I can identify with – perfect and imperfect. Don’t try to claim you are perfect, just be yourself more. The ‘with skill’ bit means that you’ve got to be able to communicate what you have, skilfully; to communicate what differentiates you as a person.

How can leaders learn to be themselves more, with skill?

Feedback is important. Skilfully used, 360 degree feedback is really, really important. Knowing what your differences are, which are your strengths, and knowing what your weaknesses are, which can be critiqued – you can learn all of that from feedback and then you can fine tune.

How can leaders improve their authenticity?

It’s quite hard to define authenticity. If you look up the Oxford English Dictionary definition of authenticity, it says ‘of undisputed origin’. I think that connecting with your origins is quite important – it’s a question about roots. People who are good at it are, I think, a bit better at knowing who they are. That doesn’t mean you are always stuck with your origins, but it means you never forget them.

The key points in your next book, Leading Clever People?

The issue is how do you lead people who are often smarter than you and don’t want to be led. Arguably organisations are increasingly full of people who are smarter than you and don’t want to be led. These are sometimes referred to as knowledge workers or ‘talent’. Those two terms are issues because not all clever people are picked up as so-called talent and certainly not all clever people are knowledge workers.

So [in our research] we were often looking at highly skilled, highly talented, highly expert individuals who are a source of huge added value, and often they don’t want to work in organisations, but they know they have to be there to have their obsessions funded, just like an academic in a university or a scientist in a pharmaceutical company.

Does the literature on talent address this issue?

The ‘talent’ literature is really literature about how do you attract and retain, it doesn’t address how you lead these people. These people like to be led by an invisible hand, not in a very overt or obvious way. Arguably you could say these people wouldn’t recognise leadership anyway, even if you punched them in the face with it. They’re not interested: they’re interested in their technical area of expertise or their specialism or the task which they are brilliant at.

Increasingly Nobel prizes are not won by individuals any more, they are won by teams, so there is a big challenge about how do you get these people to work together and be pointed in the right direction.

The one big challenge for leaders?

The central challenge [for leaders] is the need for organisational discipline and direction. The big issue is alignment of activity; not motivation, but alignment.