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To rate the leader, study the followers

Mar 25, 2012 Leadership, Sunday Nation

To rate the leader, study the followers.

Here’s the first reason why. Good leaders seek out, and attract, good followers. Bad leaders seek out, and attract, bad followers. So if you want to know whether the leader you are about to follow is any good, look around you. Who are your fellow followers?

Are they decent folk who want to see change and general uplift in the world? Or are they self-centred goons who want nothing but their own gain? If the leader is a me-me-me maniac, he will generally attract people exactly like himself. If the leader is on a genuine mission for good, the good people of the world will emerge to lend her their support.

Study the leader’s core team, inner circle or kitchen cabinet especially carefully. The people who are the leader’s essential aides, advisors and confidants can tell you everything you need to know. If that core team consists of truculent tribalists and famed fraudsters, you know exactly what kind of leader you are dealing with. The quality of the people that a leader holds closest to the bosom will reveal all.

This applies to organizational leaders as much as it does to political ones. The core team is something hugely important to every leader. A leader must have people around him who can deliver on his mission. To know what that mission really is, study the key appointments. If the top team is mostly from one tribe; or consists of feeble-minded flunkeys or sweet-talking sycophants; well, then, all is revealed.

To rate the leader, study the followers.

Here’s the second reason why. Leadership isn’t really about what happens to the leader; it’s about what happens to the followers. Good leadership’s primary aim is to deliver a collective result, not an individual one. That’s why studying the wellbeing of followers during a leader’s reign is so revealing.

Who really benefitted from the leadership: the leader or the followers? If you see a leader who is dramatically richer; emphatically more self-absorbed and generally high on his own supply – something has gone very wrong.

Political leadership is not measured in the size of the leader’s mansion; it is evaluated on the number of followers who have a roof over their heads. It is not measured in the size of the leader’s foreign bank account; it is rated on the number of followers who have escaped from poverty as a result of the leadership.

This applies equally to corporate leadership. If only the CEO’s ego, office and quota of aides and assistants has grown during his tenure, then this is not a leader of substance. Leadership is best measured in the unseen wealth that it creates: in goodwill, wellbeing and sense of belonging. A great leader works on culture and behaviour, because she knows that her job is to do things through others. When the average employee feels like an integral part of the mission of the collective, and comes to work ready to go the extra mile – then real leadership has occurred.

So, if you have to select a politico to vote for, or a CEO to work for, take your eyes away from the leader and study the followers instead. Leaders mostly know how to talk the great talk these days. They are often masters of persuasion and charm. To understand what’s beneath the surface, ignore what the leader says and study what the followers are: their nature and quality; and their general wellbeing.

The followers are the leader’s most important result, and therefore the most important measure of character and success.


For the first time in nine years, this column goes on a short break. Back on this page soon.

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