Organizations are successful or not partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but also in great part on the basis of how well their followers follow. Surely improving the performance of followers should be worthwhile. What is the role of the follower and how does it affect leadership behavior and effectiveness? How can members of the executive team participate more effectively to create a truly dynamic partnership relationship with their leader? The relationship between leader and follower is truly symbiotic – you can’t have one without the other.
When there is a crisis, when a company fails or commits some malfeasance, everyone cries out: How could that have happened here? How come nobody said anything? Followers have a responsibility to speak up. And the organization, if it wishes to be sustainably successful, has an equal obligation to create the environment for them to safely do so.
No matter how much partnership and empowerment there is, the CEO has ultimate authority and responsibility. But what about the responsibilities of the CEO’s followers? The most capable team members fail when they gripe about their leader but do not say or do anything to help him or her improve or get back on track. To do this requires both courage and skill.
The movement away from command and control leadership has brought new leadership styles that are more democratic and coach-like. The terms “shared leadership,” and “servant leader” are used to describe some of these new ways of interacting. There are also new ways of interacting in the follower role. Setting aside possible aversion to the term, the new flatter business organization requires more responsible followers and more follower-friendly leaders.
Managing the Boss
It is difficult to appreciate the pressures on the leader unless you have had that position. While ego-strength is a quality to be desired in a leader, it can be overly reinforced and transformed into ego-driven. The pressures at the top need to be managed. Courageous followers help leaders stay on track and manage their decision-making processes in the right direction. Responsible and effective followers have a critical role in maintaining the desired partnering dynamics.
Many executive team members do some of these things quite naturally. But often they are hesitant to speak up when the leader makes mistakes, whether they are made from the best of intentions or the worst. After all, “She’s (or he’s) the boss.” Although we’ve grown beyond an authoritarian leadership model where followers have no accountability, we haven’t yet developed a model for responsible participation at the follower level for the new leadership styles.
In his book (The Courageous Follower, 2003) Ira Chaleff points out that the old paradigm of the leader/follower is based on power. The leader has traditionally had the “power” to award perks, benefits, bonuses, choice assignments, promotions and the like. He/she often holds the keys to attaining these. This has led to a relationship in which the follower avoids jeopardizing their chances of obtaining these rewards. Hence, the follower tends to do what the leader wants and, just as important, not offend or create a negative impression of themselves. A relationship based on this kind of power does not serve the organization, the leader or the follower because it shuts down the open flow of communication and candor a leader needs in order to optimize their effectiveness. After all, who will tell the emperor he has no clothes?
Chaleff sees a very different kind of relationship between leader and follower. He suggests a relationship where the leader and follower have equal power but different roles that orbit around support and fulfillment of the organizations’ purpose. When both the leader and follower are focused on the common purpose a new relationship between them arises. This new relationship is candid, respectful, supportive and challenging. It is a relationship that honors open communication, honesty and trust from both parties.
Many in leadership positions bemoan the fact that they’re not getting full and candid information from their staffs. Being aware of all the facts or data is crucial for effective decision making. And yet, in too many situations, followers are reluctant to present negative information for fear of repercussions. Case in point: How many organizations have recently had to “restate” or correct their earnings statements after the fact due to oversights, errors or even malfeasance? And why, in those situations, did people not step up and state their misgivings? In an environment where the focus of both leaders and followers is on serving the purpose of the organization these problems are far less likely to occur. In such an environment, followers would be giving full voice to their concerns and instincts and leaders would welcome, value and pay attention to them.
The Job of Effective Followers
The sooner we recognize and accept our powerful position as followers, the sooner we can fully develop responsible, synergistic relationships in our organizations. According to Chaleff, there are three things we need to understand in order to fully assume responsibility as followers.
- Understand our power and how to use it. As followers, we have far more power than we usually acknowledge. We must understand the sources of our power, whom we serve and the tools we have to achieve the group’s mission. We have a unique vantage point as follower or team member, but we have to know that and use it.
- Appreciate the value of the leader and the contributions he or she makes to forward the organization’s mission. We need to understand the pressures upon the leader that can wear down creativity, good humor and resolve. We can learn how to minimize these forces and contribute to bringing out the leader’s strengths for the good of the group and the common purpose.
- Work toward minimizing the pitfalls of power by helping the leader to remain on track for the long-term common good. We are all witness to how power can corrupt, and it takes courage and skill to speak up. We can learn how to counteract the dark tendency of power. Feedback to the leader is necessary for the new leadership styles to be effective.
The Five Dimensions of Courageous Followership
Chaleff identifies and defines what is required of followers to become an equal partner with the leader in fulfilling the purpose of the organization.
The Courage to Assume Responsibility – Courageous followers assume responsibility for themselves and the organization. They do not hold a paternalistic image of the leader or organization, nor do they expect either to provide for their security and growth or give them permission to act. They initiate values based action. Their “authority” comes from their understanding and ownership of the common purpose.
The Courage to Serve – Courageous followers are not afraid of hard work and they assume additional responsibilities to unburden the leader and serve the organization. They stand up for the leader and the tough decisions he/she must make. They are as passionate as the leader in pursuit of the common purpose.
The Courage to Challenge – Courageous followers give voice to the discomfort they feel when the behaviors or policies of the leader or group conflict with their sense of what is right. They are willing to stand up, stand out, to risk rejection and to initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of the leader or group when appropriate.
The Courage to Participate in Transformation – Courageous followers champion the need for change and stay with the leader and group while they mutually struggle with the difficulty of real change. They examine their own need for transformation and become full participants in the change process as appropriate.
The Courage to Take Moral Action – Courageous followers know when it is time to take a stand that is different from the leaders. The stand may involve refusing to obey a direct order, appealing the order to the next level of authority, or tendering one’s resignation. This may involve personal risk but service to the common purpose justifies and sometimes demands such action.
Robert E. Kelley in his landmark article in Harvard Business Review “In Praise of Followers” (1988), states, “In an organization of effective followers, a leader tends to be more an overseer of change and progress than a hero. As organizational structures flatten, the quality of those who follow will become more and more important.” He sees four essential qualities of effective followers.
- They manage themselves well: The key to being effective as a follower is paradoxically the ability to think for oneself. Followers also see themselves as equals to the leader they follow.
- They are committed to a higher purpose: They work towards the purpose of the organization, and to certain principles and values outside of themselves. If they see a misalignment with personal values, they may withdraw their support either by changing jobs or by changing leaders.
- They build their strengths: They have high standards of performance and are continually learning and updating their skills and abilities. They seek out extra work and responsibilities gladly in order to stretch themselves.
- They take risks: They are credible, honest and have the courage to speak up. They give credit where due, but also admit mistakes. They are insightful and candid and they are willing to take risks. They can keep leaders and colleagues honest and informed.
In information-age organizations, hundreds of decentralized units process and rapidly act on varied input within the design and purpose of the organization. This requires an entirely different relationship between leaders and followers.
Speaking up to the Boss
Part of the problem in following responsibly and courageously lies in the tendency for people to relate to authority figures as they would in a parent-child relationship. Early childhood memories are deeply embedded in the subconscious and trigger old patterns of behavior and emotion in a split second. These memories are often outside of our awareness, and it doesn’t take much – a look, a tone of voice – to trigger anger or anxiety when confronted by the boss. Developing one’s emotional intelligence (Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership, 2002), can help regulate these split second reactions and allow more productive and satisfying interactions.
The danger in the leader-follower relationship is the assumption that the leader’s interpretation must dominate. If this assumption exists on the part of either the leader or the follower, both are at risk. The leader’s openness will diminish. Followers will easily lose their unique perspective and abandon healthy disagreement. Creativity and problem-solving processes become stifled.
It is a primary duty of highly effective leaders to create an environment where support and challenge flourish in a balanced manner. Though it may not be an easy task to speak up and challenge the leader, without the courage and skill to do so, corporate scandals will continue to occur. Creating an environment of partnership as well as learning to provide candid feedback to the boss are skills not often given high priority. Working with a neutral party such as an executive coach can help both leaders and followers develop these abilities and become more courageous and effective.
Chaleff, I. (2002). The Courageous Follower, Standing up to & for Our Leaders. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal Leadership, Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Greenleaf, R. K. (1998). The Power of Servant Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Kelley, R. E. (1988, Nov.-Dec.). In Praise of Followers. Harvard Business Review. Reprint 88606.