Leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders. — Tom Peters
I’ve got to follow them – I am their leader. – Alexandre Rollin
Barbara Kellerman of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government is on fire about followers. She believes that over-emphasizing leadership at the expense of overlooking those we lead can result in dramatic failure. Because there has been such huge growth in recent years in the leadership growth industry, she is now speaking out on behalf of followers, and has even written a book on the subject: Followership, released this weekend.
It is not only refreshing, it is important that such a book has been written, not only for followers, but for leaders. Learning to identify the kinds of followers we have on our team (Ms. Kellerman identifies five general types) can help us learn how to engage with them, listen to them, motivate them and ultimately learn which are the truly essential and trustworthy members of our teams.
As leaders, we would prefer that all our team members become essential, valuable players. But experience tells us that this is often not the case and we need to know how to manage the situation when faced with an employee who is simply punching a time clock or worse, subtly sabotaging our best efforts or those of other team members. We often spend far too much time trying to convert these people into raving fans, when perhaps that is not the model they are working from and all our energy and activity is for naught unless we figure that out before making big investments.
Learning from those we lead
Gathering feedback is one of many ways we can learn from those we lead. There are many good ways to do this and many fairly ineffective ways. High level leaders with very good intentions often miss the mark when trying to assess what is going on down in the trenches. Why? Because they don’t get down in the trenches to find out. Instead, they resort to impersonal surveys, assessments and other data gathering tools which aggregate information. This can be useful if we are looking for trends, but if we really want to know what people think, what they are doing, what they think should be done differently and so on, nothing beats face to face conversation on their turf.
Some of the greatest leaders in history were known and are known for their ability to get down and dirty with their followers. Not only does this promote a greater sense of loyalty because of the personal connections forged, it allows the leader the opportunity to walk in the followers’ shoes and experience things from their perspective. When we do this, the world shifts and so does our thinking. We become more open to new ideas, more accessible, more human, more fun, more real. And our ability to see what works over here and not over there, why these people need this and those people need that, why this particular person does it this way and that person does it that way increases dramatically.
Creating more leaders
The ability to empower those we lead so that there is no clear line of demarcation between us and them when we are working together on a project is the mark of a great leader. I’m not suggesting that we abdicate all decision making or responsibility. The more we engage with our teams in actual work, the more we understand what their lives are like, the more they come to know us and we them, and the greater the trust and loyalty we build between us. As a result, when they make suggestions, we are more likely to listen, and when we make requests, so are they.
By contrast, leaders who foster environments where decisions constantly need final approval, strict controls must be followed for the sake of control itself, and workers feel stymied by rules, culture, personalities, or chaos create greater hierarchical dependency (perhaps) but disempower their teams. This leads to greater turn-over, lower efficiency and efficacy, lower productivity and ultimately lower overall success for the organization.
As uncomfortable as it may make some leaders, it cannot be denied that in most cases a strict, hierarchical leadership model no longer makes sense for most organizations. Teaching, coaching, mentoring and leading others to lead themselves and others is ultimately more satisfying and more productive for all involved.
The characteristics of humility, honesty, authenticity, patience, integrity, trustworthiness and compassion, among others are critically important to this process. A great degree of self-awareness and desire for greater levels of conscious choice also largely determine the degree of success one can expect to attain when letting go and letting others lead.
Powerful leaders embrace the challenge. They willingly step into the shoes of the follower when appropriate, open to all that may be observed and shaped into future opportunity. The flexibility to move from leader to follower and back becomes a pleasurable stretch because with every new experience something new is brought forward for the benefit of all. Embrace your flexibility and find a new situation in which you can exercise that opportunity for growth.