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When it's wrong to be strong

Leaders can win respect by revealing their flaws, finds Roger Trapp
It is generally assumed that leaders must be seen - by themselves and their followers - as perfect, all-knowing and untroubled by doubts. Hence the pronouncement by a recent prime minister that "the lady's not for turning" and the First World War officers' insistence on sending their men "over the top" in the face of all evidence that it would achieve nothing.

But recent research by London Business School suggests that the quest for infallibility may be all wrong. Far from being fatal, a flaw can be one of the most important qualities for a successful leader, according to John Hunt and Bette Laing who have carried out a two-year study of senior executives.

Professor Hunt, an organisational behaviour specialist, claims that good leaders do not try to be perfect. Instead, they admit to a vulnerability that allows subordinates to see they are human. Meanwhile, those who pretend to be perfect often irritate those who work with them.

In an article in the latest edition of the school's Business Strategy Review, he and researcher Ms Laing write that the flaw has three functions: "First, it shows the leader is vulnerable (one of 'us'). Second, the flaw provides the followers with a focus for their irritations or dissatisfactions. Third, by conceding this flaw, the leader opens a dialogue between him/herself and the followers."

Indeed, they add that : "The flaw is humanising only if it is articulated and discussed or confronted by the followers with their leader. If it remains repressed then the humanising processes may not occur and the psychological distance between leader and led widens."

However, the presence or otherwise of the flaw is not the only indicator of success. Professor Hunt goes on to say that leaders rated as more competent by their colleagues are "also seen as better able to create a sense of direction, to differentiate themselves from others, to espouse quite clear values which they repeat and repeat, and to see their leadership role as a theatrical one in which they transmit, through their behaviours, their vision, difference and values".

While effective leaders tend to be consciously aware of which kind of behaviour can have the biggest impact and to be intrigued by social processes, less effective ones are often bored by interpersonal skills, preoccupied with tasks and introverted.

Although the research is based on a survey of more than 100 senior executives attending the school's management programmes and includes the perceptions of them by more than 1,000 colleagues, Professor Hunt and Ms Laing are conscious that more work needs to be done.

In the article, "Leadership: the Role of the Exemplar", they point to three problems: bias arising from the fact that the executives were asked to select colleagues to take part in the 360-degree feedback exercise; cross-cultural differences arising from the international nature of the programmes; and the skewing that comes from most of the respondents being senior executives like those under discussion rather than clerical, process or support staff.

They also stress that the study period -1994 to 1996 - covered particular economic conditions, with the result that the findings might reflect "turnaround leadership rather than leadership in steady-state or rapid-growth situations". Only the collection of more hard data will show whether exemplar leadership - in contrast with the rather more elitist "charismatic" or "transformational" style espoused by many management writers and thinkers - is an effective model.

However, it does have the benefit of suggesting - at a time when we are constantly being told we are all leaders - that mere mortals can aspire to succeed at the game.