Leaders and their Followers
As a leader, you are out of a job if there are no followers prepared and willing to follow you. That is self-evident at the extreme end of the spectrum - when your team resolutely turn its back on you and follows another leader - but it is at least a danger sign for your leadership effectiveness in more moderate situations - when your followers seem not to be quite on the same page as you and going in the same direction as you. If you are new in your leadership role, it may be that they 'refuse' to follow your new direction. If you are a longer-serving leader of a team, it may be that your followers 'desert' you because your leadership is no longer working for them. Whatever the situation, taking a look at the state of your followers is a powerful way to review your success as a leader.
So, what is it about your followers that tells you about your leadership success?
Firstly, not all followers are the same - some are much more valuable than others. Barbara Kellerman identifies five classes of follower - two you would want, and three you would not:
- Isolates, who are unresponsive to the leader, keep their head down but do their job.
- Bystanders, who are disengaged from the organisation and don't offeer active support.
- Participants, who care but sometimes support the leader and sometimes don't.
- Activists, who support the leader and are eager, energetic and engaged.
- Diehards, who are passionate and dedicated.
Followers who are isolates, bystanders and participants are, at best, fair-weather friends - their support and action will be limited and changeable based on their own interests. Activists and diehards, on the other hand, put skin in the game and will take a risk on you and your ideas. You have a duty of care to these followers as they have invested heavily in you and will go where you go.
Secondly, followers have different reasons for following. Again, five rationales have been identified, three of which are much less helpful to you as a leader than the other two:
- Fear of retribution - followers are pushed into followership, but only until a better option is available to them.
- Blind hope - followers follow because there seems to be no other option - until another leader comes along.
- Faith - followers don't understand the cause but are persuaded by the leader's 'magic'.
- Intellectual agreement - followers become committed based on the logic of the leader's argument and actions.
- Buying the vision - followers see what you see and follow the same dream for a better future.
Followers who follow through fear or blind hope will only be with you until something, or someone, better comes along. Those following on faith are relying on you to pull them through and will be broken if you don't deliver - a heavy load for you to carry as a leader. Those who commit because of logic or by subscribing to the vision will prove to be the most constant and supportive of your followers.
So, if your followers are isolates, bystanders or participants, or your followers follow out of fear, blind hope or faith, then your leadership is probably in trouble. You need to have a hard look at your personal leadership practice, and seek wise counsel about what remedial steps you could take.
Your leadership success rests on activisit and diehard followers who are compelled by the what (your arguments and actions) and the why (the shared vision) of your leadership practice. What can you do to sustain those followers? Here are a few hints:
- Develop a clear and compelling vision for the future.
- Argue and act in ways that support achieving the vision.
- Work in ways that both build relationships with your followers and achieve purposeful tasks.
- Collaborate with your followers to draw them in to the plans and decisions.
- Communicate with logic, conviction and passion.
- Take time to reflect on your leadership actions as a basis for improving your leadership practice.
For most, leadership can be a lonely business. Seek opportunities to engage and learn with others, access their experiences as part of your own leadership learning, and look for leadership learning solutions that focus on enacting new leadership behaviours at work.