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Managing Social Distance in "Flat" Companies

Organizations may have become flatter, but leaders still need social distance in order to take the big-picture view. Here are ways to combine friendship with leadership. Excerpted from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?

Inventing distance
The concept of social distance derives originally from the German born sociologist Georg Simmel. Writing in the early twentieth century, Simmel conceived of social distance as a complex interpretation of sociability, as forms of distance in both a geometric and a metaphoric sense. In modern social science, it has increasingly been seen as a measure of intimacy between groups and individuals. In turn, the degree of intimacy directly affects the degree of influence that one individual may have over another.

There are good reasons for believing that the skillful management of social distance is becoming even more important for leaders. Hierarchies, for example, are becoming flatter, partly for cost control reasons but mainly to increase speed of response to customer desires and market changes. Hierarchies have always been much more than structural devices. They have also been sources of meaning for people.1 Moving through stable hierarchies gave the illusion of becoming more of a leader. Indeed, the "lazy" senior executive relied on the crutch of hierarchy to establish social distance, jealously guarding their status privileges as a way of establishing their difference.2

Those days are gone. Leaders now need distance to establish perspective, to see the big things that may shape the future of the organization, and closeness, to know what is really going on inside their business; and they cannot rely on hierarchy to supply the former.

This movement between closeness and distance is rather like a dance, with leaders basing their movement and timing on refined situation sensing skills. It is just one of the adjustments they must constantly make and remake at the core of the leadership relationship. The balance for any leader is forever changing. This explains why style theory was unable to identify the one best leadership style.

The balance for any leader is forever changing.

It is also worth noting that just as national cultures vary along the social distance scale, so, too, do organizational cultures. Leading with a predisposition to distance in the high sociability cultures of Heineken, Unilever, or PWC is difficult. Equally, overemphasizing personal closeness and warmth at the expense of task achievement can be hazardous in high solidarity cultures such as Mars or Procter & Gamble.

Friendship and leadership
There is another major strand of social science—exemplified by the work of George Romans—that is also relevant.3 This shows that humans find it easier to be close with those with whom they perceive similarities. It is easier to be close to people you like.

Leaders, of course, are not necessarily dealing with people they like. They must be able to manage social distance with a diverse range of people in a variety of contexts. Leadership, which always implies some overarching or coordinating purpose, is not a friendship contest. Leadership resembles friendship only because leaders must jettison or conceal some of their differences in order to establish a base for relationships and team building. But after that, it is the higher cause that gives the leader the authority needed to be close and still establish distance.

"Closeness" is likely to be expressed in a number of ways—varying always according to context. In some cases, the gap may not be large. Think, for example, of skilled male professionals with similar backgrounds working together in a small, low hierarchy advertising agency. The scope for potential leaders to establish shared professional interests and personal empathy is likely to be high. The typical challenge for leaders in this environment is to establish distance.

In other contexts, the challenge may be the reverse. Consider an American woman establishing a retail chain in Japan. In this case, at least initially, there is likely to be ample scope for social distance. The greater challenge is likely to be in forging a sense of closeness. Where social differences are large, a sense of identification is often best achieved through the clarification of shared goals and interests. Establishing more "sociable" forms of closeness is likely to be more difficult, and perhaps culturally inappropriate.

All leaders possess an inbuilt, maybe hardwired preference for either closeness or distance.

There is one final fascinating complication here. While the concept of social distance applies universally to human relationships, the manifestation of closeness and distance varies between cultures. What closeness looks like or feels like in Tokyo will be different in London, New York, or Bangalore. This is another factor making leadership in an international context an even greater challenge.

Close but not too close
A sense of closeness delivers two important benefits. First, it enables the leader to know and understand their followers—a vital prerequisite for effective leadership. Second, closeness enables the followers to know more of the leader. By being close, we show who we are. It offers a context for disclosure—of weakness as well as strength.

Our observations suggest that effective leaders take this opportunity for disclosure but remain in other ways interestingly enigmatic. They disclose personal differences and human fallibility—but never entirely. In this context, the popularity of emotional intelligence is worrying. The important point to realize is that being intelligent with our emotions may require them to be hidden. Sometimes good leadership involves withholding rather than displaying emotions, and maintaining distance.

Distance confers different advantages. Primary here is that distance signals to the followers that the leader has an overarching purpose. Leadership is not an end in itself. . . .

To be legitimate, a leader always has a larger, superordinate purpose. Establishing distance enables the leader to build solidarity with followers based on a shared view of this overarching goal. When great leaders do this skillfully, they do it in pursuit of a goal: making money, building beautiful buildings, eradicating human illness, making great movies.

Some are more distant than others
All leaders possess an inbuilt, maybe hardwired, preference for either closeness or distance.

The French leader Charles de Gaulle exemplified distance. De Gaulle believed that a leader can have no authority without prestige, nor prestige unless he keeps his distance. Former U.S. president Richard Nixon wrote of him, "Whenever I met de Gaulle, whether publicly or privately, he displayed an enormous, even stately, dignity. His resolute bearing have him an air of aloofness . . .. He had a certain ease of manner when dealing with another head of state, whom he considered an equal, but he was never informal, even with his closest friends."4

To maintain his mystique, de Gaulle avoided friendship with his colleagues. The most informal address he allowed was Mon General. He is said to have transferred his personal staff after a certain period to avoid familiarity. He was polite at diplomatic functions, but kept his emotional warmth for the privacy of his family.

De Gaulle's leadership philosophy echoes the Persian tradition of establishing proper distance between the leader and the led. In his book The Edge of the Sword, de Gaulle wrote about the need for the leader to create and maintain mystique. "First and foremost, there can be no prestige without mystery, for familiarity breeds contempt. All religions have their tabernacles, and no man is a hero to his valet. In the designs, the demeanor, and the mental operations of a leader there must always be 'something' which others cannot altogether fathom, which puzzles them, stirs them, and rivets their attention . . . . Aloofness, character and the personification of quietness, these qualities it is that surround with prestige those who are prepared to carry a burden that is too heavy for lesser mortals."5

Mind the gap
John Birt, Greg Dyke's predecessor as director general of the BBC, also had a predisposition to distance. This gave him the perspective to recognize that the competitive terrain for broadcasting was changing. But he also found closeness difficult. He quickly lost touch with the BBC's own creative talent and became increasingly reliant on external advisors. Birt was widely seen as aloof, unable to communicate with people about their work. On dutiful visits to BBC operations, Birt dressed in an Armani suit and spoke only to the department head.

When Birt announced a radical reorganization of the BBC, it came as a complete surprise to everyone in the organization except the board of directors, the McKinsey advisers who created the plan, and the personnel director who handled the McKinsey budget. There was an internal rebellion against the plan, but outsiders generally agreed that the reorganization would help prepare the BBC for a changing world.

Birt's default mode toward distance made it hard for him to connect with a wider cadre of managers and creatives at the BBC. He could not find a milieu in which to practice disclosure—to make his real leadership assets work beyond the small group with whom he had established, often rather painfully, social closeness.

What makes this case of wider significance is that introverts are overrepresented at the top of organizations, and many of them find establishing closeness difficult.6 Introverts need time to establish closeness and reveal difference—and time is in short supply. The trouble is that much that has been written about leadership behavior plays to the predispositions of the extrovert. We need a "Leadership Guide for the Introvert."

Excerpted by permission of Harvard Business School Press from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader. Copyright 2006 Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones; all rights reserved.

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Rob Goffee is a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.

Gareth Jones is a visiting professor at INSEAD and Fellow of the Center for Management Development at London Business School. He was formerly Director of Human Resources and Internal Communications for the BBC.


1. Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998).

2. Given our insistence that leadership is nonhierarchical, using formal position as a personal difference is a fatal error.

3. George Homans, The Human Group (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1951).

4. John Adair, Inspiring Leadership (London: Thorogood, 2002).

5. Ibid.

6. John W. Hunt, Managing People at Work (London: McGraw-Hill, 1992).