What makes people follow reluctant leaders?

Stefan Stern wrote this blog post for the Harvard Business Review drawing on ideas from chapter three of Leading Professionals: Power, Politics, and Prima Donnas. It discusses how professionals come to be elected leaders within their firms, and how they keep those positions.

In today’s knowledge-based and highly-automated enterprises, companies look for the cleverest and most capable people they can find. But having hired such talent, organizations face a challenge. Places full of highly mobile and in-demand workers operate more democratically. Leaders don’t necessarily gain power by dint of high rank; they need to earn it every day. How do they do that? And, for the would-be leader in an organization like this, what are the secrets to rising to the top?

For the answers, it’s useful to look at how leaders succeed in professional service firms, traditionally structured as partnerships. These have always been places where the leaders are those who most impress their clever peers rather than their superiors. A new study by professors Laura Empson (Cass Business School, London) and Johan Alvehus (University of Lund, Sweden) sheds light on who reaches the position of maximum authority in these firms and why. They went deep into three international firms with reputations for excellence – one a law firm, one a public accounting firm, one a management consultancy – conducting over 100 face-to-face interviews with people working within them.

The leaders in these firms, they discovered, are characterized by three traits. First, they are exemplary professionals, judged by their colleagues to be capable of doing the core work of the firm at the very highest level of quality. In the words of Empson and Alvehus they have gained “legitimacy to lead through market success.” As important as the model of excellence they offer is the very fact that they are seen (and trusted) by the professionals they lead as “one of us.” One senior partner put it this way: “I think that professional service practitioners … will accept almost unlimited decision-making and authority from someone they think understands the things they are going through.”