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  • Richard Spilg

A Powerful Coaching Question

I was excited to see the headline “Why Should Anyone be Led by You?” in a recent Harvard Business Review [1], thinking it would provide insight into how leaders have had to adapt from navigating the challenges of the past three years. It turns out that while the article was written over twenty years ago it is still equally relevant, as it refers to an additional set of competencies required to ensure that leaders retain the trust and confidence of their people.

“Why Should Anyone be Led by You” is, I believe, one of the most powerful questions a leadership coach can ask. For the question to have the desired impact (i.e. serious reflection) it should always be asked in context, and only once a healthy level of trust has been established between coach and client.

The article contends that while leaders need vision and energy (as well as the requisite professional and technical skills), they need four other qualities. Qualities that can be honed provided the person is willing to dig deeply into their ‘true self’. Our true selves tend to emerge after the ‘battle’ between our egos and our values – at the stage in our lives when we are sufficiently secure in our own values to act authentically without being unduly influenced by expectations of others.

Leaders excel when they capture people’s hearts, minds and spirits. Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Primal Leadership’ [2] is so titled due to his belief that the role of a leader is to prime the positive emotions of those they lead. The four additional qualities identified in the HBR article are consistent with some of the underlying Emotional Intelligence competencies Goleman lists as essential for effective leadership:

  • Show you’re human by selectively revealing weaknesses. Nobody wants to work for a perfect leader who doesn’t appear to need help. In ‘Time to Breathe’ [3], Dr Bill Mitchell makes the point that perfectionists make poor leaders. Change carries too much ambiguity for perfectionists and an inability to make decisions with imperfect information. Perfectionists find it hard to delegate and can procrastinate for fear of making the wrong decision.

  • Rely on your intuition by being a ‘sensor’. This requires the ability to collect and interpret subtle inter-personal clues to detect what’s going on without others’ needing to spell it out. Leaders who use intuition most effectively have highly developed listening skills. They give their full attention to what others are saying by suspending their inner dialogue and listening without judgement. We have probably all experienced the positive impact of someone we look up to making us feel special by giving us their undivided attention.

  • Lead with ‘tough empathy’. Authentic leaders care intensely about their people’s work but are also empathetically tough. They provide the support that people need to be successful but not necessarily everything that they may want. When times are challenging and tough decisions need to be made, empathetic leaders will communicate openly and directly. Demonstrating consistency and integrity when implementing decisions will help retain people’s commitment through those difficult times.

  • Dare to be different by capitalising on your uniqueness. Provided you remain authentic, distinguishing yourself through qualities like imagination, expertise, curiosity and humour lets you signal your separateness as a leader. While leadership can be lonely at times, the fact is that followers push themselves more if their leader remains just a little aloof. When leaders believe they need to be regarded as just another member of the team, they tend to shy away from effective delegation and holding people to account. Another consequence is that that they may keep themselves excessively busy with ‘doing’ work (to reinforce they are just one of the team) at the expense of ‘thinking’ work which is where leaders should be adding most value.

In today’s market, with an increasing premium on retaining and attracting top talent, leaders need to be prepared to answer the question that employees with leadership ambitions will inevitably ask – “Why Should I be Led by You?”.

Richard Spilg

January 2023


[1] Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones. Harvard Business Review (September-October 2000)

[2] Goleman, Boyatzis & McKee (2013)

[3] Dr Bill Mitchell (2020)

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