Leaders who lack skill are doomed to fail

That is what Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee used to ask groups of executives. “Without fail, the response is a sudden, stunned hush. All you can hear are knees knocking,” they wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2000, in the article that spawned their bestseller Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?

KPMG’s Michael quit last week after the Financial Times reported he had told consultants to “stop moaning” during a discussion about the pandemic’s impact. His attitude appears to have fallen short on almost all the leadership attributes Jones and Goffee recommend in their work: vulnerability and humanity; the ability to sense — and make sense of — any situation; empathy and kindness; adaptability.

The two sociologists grouped those traits together under the much-abused term authenticity, based on the seemingly uncontroversial observation that most of us “want to be led by real people”. Yet, Goffee says: “Gareth would always say authenticity shouldn’t be equated with being the same everywhere.” Authenticity means “being yourself more, with skill”, having assessed the context and, importantly, established the underlying thread that links the different roles you play, at home, at work, or elsewhere.

Michael may have been behaving authentically, but if nothing else he showed a profound lack of skill in allegedly urging stressed staff to stop “playing the victim card”.

Tragically, Jones is no longer around to school Michael or other leaders. He died last month, aged 69, in an accident while out walking his dog at the seaside.

Speaking a few days before Jones’s funeral last week. Goffee told me that after chatting about beer, football, and family, the two friends, who met as students in 1973, had recently been pondering whether to update their best-known book for the current crisis.

The pandemic has put undertrained leaders and accidental managers under enormous pressure. In this attrition phase, when the growing light at the end of the tunnel only serves to illuminate how ghastly the rest of the tunnel is, what Jones taught and championed has new relevance.

One is the insight that leadership is not about position, it is about what you do. I heard one chief executive explain last week, that when the pandemic struck last year, he and his team laid out some high-level guidelines, but then “empowered people to implement those principles locally, because the truth was, we didn’t know how to”.

“Rather startlingly,” Goffee says, “we have seen that great organisations have leaders everywhere, serving in shops and working in hospitals” whereas the named leaders at the top have “somewhat disappointed”.

Another useful insight is “social distance” — not the physical distancing we now practise, but the idea leaders should know when to encourage warmth and loyalty with their teams and when to step back, “to keep people focused on the goal, to address poor performance, to give relationships an edge”. Leaders are now taking difficult decisions about the future of people they held close earlier in the pandemic. Misapply social distance and you risk finding yourself in the same line of fire as KPMG’s UK chairman.

A third insight is that organisations are bound by sociability and solidarity. The shared virus threat may have strengthened societal solidarity, Goffee and Jones wrote in Management Today last year, but lack of face-to-face contact is chipping away at sociability.

“Face to face first” was a mantra for Jones. “He was really, really, really interested in what people did,” Goffee told me, and drew on his executive experience at record group PolyGram and the BBC to fuel his work. “Few people had his level of inquisitiveness.”

Jones was also a relentless self-improver. He delighted senior managers from a big mobile phone operator with a witty talk in 2017, my colleague Michael Skapinker recalls. His timing was impeccable; every insight and joke hit its target. But afterwards Jones’s first instinct was to ask how it could have been better. As the KPMG debacle suggests, even experienced leaders — especially experienced leaders — should do the same.

Goffee and Jones’s Management Today manifesto included the hope the crisis would create opportunities for radical organisational change. Leaders will not now be able to read a post-pandemic edition of Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? for guidance about how to achieve that goal. That is a terrible shame, given the amount Jones still had to offer. But all his life’s work is available to answer such questions and will go on answering them for future generations of new, nervous, or unskilled leaders.

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