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Thinkers and Doers ft. Dr. Amanda Goodall: “Humility over hubris”

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Leadership, expertise and self-reflection in the time of Covid-19, Dr. Amanda H. Goodall, PhD and Senior Lecturer in Management at Cass Business School shares her perspectives with Workculturati.


In a world where few listen to experts and expertise, academic Dr. Amanda Goodall is turning the tide of managerialism and “bla bla”. She attributes the decline in respect for expertise to social media, leading to a democratisation of everything, and the generalisation of expertise: “Anyone can talk about anything and it can be disastrous.”

A $50bn global movement

Goodall is engaging, fearless and no-nonsense about her trade. She observes that the leadership industry has spawned hundreds of thousands of publications, with an annual spend of about $50bn on leadership development programmes. Her concern? “It has been too generic, with insufficient tangible outputs that are empirically supported”.

Goodall’s obsession with understanding what makes leaders and managers tick stems from her PhD at Warwick which in turn paved the way to The Business School (formerly Cass)* and a string of visiting research positions at Cornell University, University of Zurich, and most recently Yale. She’s a regular contributor to top tier publications including the FT and the Mecca of Leadership, the Harvard Business Review. Between leaving school at 16 to join the fashion industry and going to London School of Economics (LSE) as an undergrad at 33, she immersed herself in the culture, politics and the international aid environment in Andhra Pradesh, India, followed by a period advocating for the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. Upon graduation from LSE she joined its top management team, working alongside prominent sociologist, Anthony Giddens, proponent of the “Third Way” political philosophy.

Self-reflection and ego

Medical leadership is a particular draw for her, having set up an executive masters’ programme for doctors at The Business School. They are encouraged to examine their behaviour, biases and prejudices from the get-go in an action learning process, since “managing your ego is central to becoming a boss”. Her main takeaways from running the course were the “need to create a safe space for doctors to first hold a mirror up to themselves, and then to learn about the many elements of being a leader. The doctors are diverse (across age, ethnicity, gender and sexuality) and it's been fascinating seeing them self-reflect and open up to show their weaknesses; it speaks to the non-narcissist, or the life-long learner mindset.”

While having a safe space to learn and self-evaluate may be important to future managers, how satisfied employees are with their jobs is also said to be directly correlated to their trust in their bosses’ level of competency. According to random samples of 35,000 UK and US workers and their organisations, Goodall found that employees reported high job satisfaction and low intention to quit if their boss had started or worked their way up through the organisation: “Bosses were regarded as competent if they could do your job.” This research has now been replicated across multiple sets of doctors.

Goodall explains: “The crux of it is that if a leader walks the walk to a high level, meaning that you look up to that person as someone who truly knows what they're doing, you therefore have confidence in their ability to assess you. Since these expert leaders understand what you're doing, you feel that they can mentor or motivate you through your career and create the right working environment for you to succeed as they did. We hypothesise that this creates a greater level of trust, something which is more important than ever before given the Covid-19 environment.”

Autonomy and the quest for equilibrium

The pandemic has normalised working from home and those employers who are in the position of placing a greater degree of trust on their employees are being met positively through high performance: “If a boss understands what their employee is doing, they can be more hands off and to some extent can trust them more to do “the right thing”, leading to greater autonomy. Autonomy is massively important to employee job satisfaction e.g. if employees are able to move their own desks even slightly, they report higher levels of job satisfaction and productivity”, according to research conducted by her happiness economist husband, Andrew Oswald.

Is working from home going to be better for women? While there are multiple reports that the Covid environment has exacerbated gender inequality, Goodall noticed “one upside of lockdown-induced Zoom meetings is that most people have an equal status on the screen. A lot of people do not activate their cameras and keep their names visible. The comments shared in the chat boxes are the kind of comments that you would never normally see if we were in an open environment where you are physically present with others. In organisations where comments are all attributed, nobody can share them anonymously. If they did, that would be really toxic.”

Retaining top talent While discussing the current state of the world and its leadership paradigm, Goodall muses that “active listening” is at an all-time low. The exceptions to the rule are visible, cue the now famous photo of female leaders’ pragmatic response to Coronavirus: “I feel strongly that as a leader you should always have an open mind, collective empathy and a willingness to learn and reflect, without being dogged. Humility over hubris.”

While the Black Lives Matter movement has sharpened the focus on diversity and inclusion, Goodall highlights that homophily has been problematic as a consequence of managerialism:

“Managerialists are appointing others in their own image. If you don't have people in a company who look like you, whether you're an expert, whether you're black, whether you're a female leader or otherwise, attraction and retention will be an issue.”

The upshot? “We need tailored development for different people. Everyone has different ways of learning and tolerance. Intention is so important, otherwise the top talent will just f*** off...”

*A meeting of the Council on Friday 3rd  July agreed that the Business School would separate from the Cass name and embark on a period of consultation to find the new name.

Interview by Christina Clark


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