Identifying leadership: ESMT

Written by
Emily Sexton-Brown

07 Jul 2016

07 Jul 2016 • by Emily Sexton-Brown

1) What is your name and job title?

Laura Guillén, assistant professor of organisational behaviour.

2) Where do you work?

At the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), Berlin, Germany.

3) What led you onto your career path?

During my corporate career in a multinational company, I got the impression that what people cared most about was not possessing knowledge or skills to succeed in their roles, but their relationships with their colleagues. Social comparisons with peers, dealing with a toxic boss, not being capable of speaking up in front of upper management, are just some examples of the things that people spend most of their time talking about. No matter where I looked, people issues seemed to be the key for being satisfied – or not – with one’s professional life. I wanted to learn more about these issues and decided for this reason to go back to academia to do a PhD in organisational behavior. 

4) What or who has been the biggest influence within your career to date?

Probably my first coaching sessions offered to students of degree programs in a European business school and realizing that MBA or EMBA programs are often unique life-changing experiences. During those first coaching sessions, participants were open and shared with me things, personal and professional, that really mattered to them. I felt privileged! They were eager to learn and to self-explore. They were prepared to embrace new challenges. I wanted to be part of these experiences and to support them in their personal and professional growth. 

5) In your opinion, what does true leadership look like?

“True” leadership probably does not exist because leadership is an attribution, a social interpretation. Leaders do not exist if not recognised as such by their followers. And each single group has its own idiosyncratic needs, fears, fantasies and desires. They have a unique sense of who they are, who they fear to become, what they need and what they have to accomplish. Leaders have to be aware of these varying needs to be able to connect with their followers first and, if allowed by them, to emerge as their leader. In a sense, each person who aspires to be a leader should understand that no leader is going to be a leader forever. Leaders have to constantly adapt to their social environments or they will fail. 

6) To be an innovative leader, what key skills are needed and how can leaders develop these effectively?

Leaders should allow others to feel safe, respected and valued to enhance their innovative thinking. They need to realise that they do not know to have all answers. For innovation to flourish, leaders must recognise that real innovative power lies beyond themselves and in the group. Therefore they must truly empower others and listen to what they have to say. At the same time, they need to learn to lay back and work, as well as play, in close cooperation with others. 

7) How do you anticipate leadership evolving in the coming years?

In today’s companies with flat technology and hierarchy, workers are smart, powerful, skilled, and autonomous. For me, what’s key for the development of leadership in the future is how to lead these brilliant people who are not necessarily willing to be led. However, as a veteran designer secretly admitted, these workers recognise that they “don’t want to accept that they need leadership, but they kind of do.” Leadership needs to be subtler than ever, and leaders need to be psychologically equipped to face this challenge. 

8) In your opinion, what are the top four management books aspiring leaders should read?

  • What brought you here won’t get you there (Marshall Goldsmith). To learn how to let go of skills that made you successful in the past is essential to climb to the top of the corporate ladder.
  • Working identity: Unconventional strategies for reinventing your career (Herminia Ibarra). To realize how important our own self-perceptions are in shaping our professional, as well as personal, future. It is essential to gain awareness of who you really are and what your passion is.
  • Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Robert B. Cialdini). To learn simple ways of influencing others and to be aware of our own tendency to let automatic pilot thinking take over.
  • Give and take: A revolutionary approach to success (Adam Grant). To learn why and how being humble, giving and doing good to others pays off in today’s organizational world. An extremely rigorous research-based book with useful implications for daily life, both private and at work.