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We spend so much time on leaders. What about followers?

Jan 30, 2022 Leadership, Sunday Nation

We fixate on leaders and leadership. The people who are elected by us, appointed for us, who sit above us—these become the objects of our gaze. Leaders, we feel, can make or break situations, corporations, nations. The quality of leaders seems to be the single biggest success factor behind any collective human enterprise.

Get the right leaders—through the polls, selection processes, or just luck—and everything will be all right. Get the wrong ones, and we are all done for.

Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. We have seen our fortunes change under good leaders; we have all endured periods of stagnation because we became shackled to rogues, conmen, dimwits and egomaniacs masquerading as our superiors.

Why, though, do we spend such little time thinking about followers and followership?

Robert Kelley argued a couple of decades ago that we can only fully understand the role of a leader by also examining the role of the follower. The success of a group may not just be driven by the quality of the leader, but also by how well the followers follow. In the good professor’s evocative words: “Many bosses couldn’t lead a horse to water. Many subordinates couldn’t follow a parade.”

Which qualities mark out effective followers? Dr Kelley suggested four, the first of which was that they can be self-managing. In other words, that they do not sit helplessly awaiting direction and reward and motivation from the leader; they can work independently and can receive and act on delegated actions. Next, followers should be committed to the higher cause of the group. Being driven by purpose and mission bestows energy and enthusiasm to followers. Third, the competence to work and deliver is a necessary attribute in group members. And lastly, the courage to be true to their beliefs, to go beyond the norm—but also to oppose bad leaders.

If these four qualities are missing, and followers are just weak-willed sycophants or wimpish wastrels, then good luck to the leader trying to forge them into a fighting force.

Unfortunately, bad followers abound. Dr Kelley identified categories of follower that are common—and destructive. The first group are the sheep: those who wait for the boss’s commandments and require constant supervision. The next are the yes-people, those who follow blindly and can brook no alternative to their chosen leader. A little better are the pragmatists—those who do not support ambitious or imaginative ideas, but will get behind anything the majority are willing to back. And the last destructive group are the alienated: the ones who do not support the leader and who exhibit negative and toxic sentiment all the time.

Who, then, are the good followers? The key here is to understand that good leaders are created and strengthened by good followers. The leader’s hope should not be to be lead a procession of praise singers and herd followers, but to be followed by those who are capable in their own right, are able to think and work independently—and even able to question the leader’s own thinking. 

It’s a paradox: the best results come from leading those who least need leadership.

Most people are followers, not leaders. If we wonder why our organizations and nations remain stuck in the mud, perhaps the real fault lies not above us, but around us. How good are we as followers? Look around. If you see just bootlickers and doormats, or cynics and doom merchants, then the true problem is in the followership, not the leadership. Bad followers will mostly attract bad leaders.

After you have finished looking around you, go somewhere else and take a hard look: the mirror. What is your relationship to your leader? Are you there just to follow orders, or are you ever proactive? Do you have heartfelt alignment with your leader around a shared purpose? Do you ever come up with your own ideas or contributions for the common good? Are you positive and upbeat about the direction of the group? Do you build your own skills and competencies or do you always wait for them to be handed down? 

Good leaders and good followers are attracted to each other. So are bad leaders and bad followers. A population of gullible and ignorant followers is ripe for exploitation by tricksters and deceivers. Those who bleat their approval unthinkingly will be whipped into  obeying their bosses. Those who are unimaginative will be fed bog-standard solutions.

One way to tell leaders apart is to see what kind of followers they attract and seek. The best ones want independence and competence in their people, and lead with only a loose touch of the reins. The worst leaders prefer their disciples to be servile, needy and ignorant—and always dependent on them.

(Sunday Nation, 30 January 2022)

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