Catherine Needham


At the AcademiWales Winter School for public service leaders we spent Day One talking about the need for leaders to be emotionally intelligent and honest, willing to express their fallibility and the difficulties of leading in complex systems. This model – a rejection of hero leadership – is advocated in a range of studies, including our 21st Century Public Servant research.

But Day Two brought a different perspective – Chai-Jung Tsay from University College London shared with us results of experiments at Harvard showing that people value innate ability more highly than effort when judging mini biographies. The experiments found that participants over-valued people whose biographies emphasised flair and natural talent and under-appreciated people whose biographies indicated that they worked hard to achieve their goals. Chai related this to the perception that Hilary Clinton had been seen as trying too hard – as over-rehearsed and lacking in authenticity compared to the natural leadership style of Obama and Trump.

The implication for leadership development is that internal and external audiences will respond better to someone who comes across as being ‘a natural’ rather than someone who shows the effort involved. In particular, authenticity, that much sought-after trait of leaders, comes from looking like leadership comes naturally to you, rather than being something you have worked hard to master.

So where does this leave our learning about leadership? Do we have to make it look easy – which feels like a return to the notion of the hero leader, who takes it all in his/her stride and never breaks a sweat?

One thing that struck me about the Harvard studies is that they ask people to make rapid decisions about people on the basis of minimal information – which indeed is similar to the way that we hire people, and similar to the decisions we make at election time. But leading an organisation isn’t like that – it is about building up relationships of trust over time. Might it be that the single game heuristics reported in the experiments are less influential, and the interactions are more like repeat games where sincerity over time becomes important?

We could see sincerity as a somewhat different form of authenticity to the notion of being ‘a natural’. Leaders are seen as sincere if people perceive that they are really feeling what they are expressing (which may include some expression of fallibility). Of course it’s possible to fake emotions as Hochschild found in her study of flight attendants. But studies show that it’s much more stressful to present an emotion you don’t feel, and likely to lead to burnout over time.

The difference between these two forms of authenticity (as being a natural versus being sincere) is well expressed in Mary Portas’ recent book Work Like a Woman. She talks of her attempts to mimic the alpha culture of macho leadership in the retail sector, hiding the messiness of her life and the effort that it took to keep up. Over time she came to an understanding that following her instincts and ‘bringing her whole self to work’ were a valid and effective form of leadership (one that she characterises as more female than male but one which to me fits broader anti-hero leadership theory).

Once Portas was the boss, she was able to be more authentic, but also to change the sorts of behaviour and emotions that were acceptable for all her staff. Acknowledgement of some of the ambiguity, frailty and difficulty of leadership doesn’t just help the authenticity of the leader, it sends a message to staff that they don’t have to pretend to be ‘a natural’ either – they can give voice to the tensions of delivering complex interventions on a shrinking budget (in public services). If we hide all the work of being a leader, it suggests to junior staff that they are doing it wrong if it takes effort. Of course there are dangers in competitive busyness where we all show off about how hard we work. But let’s not use that to pretend that leadership is no effort at all, or that good leaders are born not made.


Original source – 21st Century Public Servant

Comments closed