“Lead..Follow..or get out of the way” (George S. Patton)
Often when we discuss leadership, we think of it (as Dr. Palanski recently noted ) as one person telling others what to do. He discussed the idea of shared leadership, where the group decides together to take action. Beyond the idea of shared leadership is also the role that followers play in the leadership process. In a true leadership process, the followers are equally as important as the leaders.
A leader cannot lead without followers choosing to engage in the process. One way of looking at this is to think about different behaviors that we enact when interacting with others. Do we “claim” a leader role by speaking first, sitting at the head of the table, or volunteering to seek out a solution to a problem? Do we “claim” a follower role by offering to help when needed, or holding back in the moment because we have other responsibilities? Do we “grant” someone else the leader role by offering to help when needed? Do we “grant” someone a follower role by delegating a task for them? What about those who avoid taking a position at all?
Think back over your behaviors at work, at home, and in your community. What roles do you take in each of those domains? We’ve discussed quite a few ways to develop your leadership abilities over the past year, but let’s focus on followership for a second. Most of us must take follower roles in some areas of our lives; we are all too busy and only have a finite amount of resources to continually be in the leader position. So when we do claim a follower role, are we acting in good faith? Are we supporting our leaders to the best of our abilities?
Research on followership notes individuals may take different perspectives on the meaning of the follower role. In one view, a follower is anyone who formally or informally reports to an individual in a leadership role. The other approach, similar to what I discussed earlier, is the idea that the follower has an active and important role in the leadership process. This view moves beyond the idea of followers as sheep who blindly follow their shepherd to one where followers have an active duty to participate in the goals set out by the organization, family, team, etc. Proactive followership behaviors can include feedback-seeking, using influence tactics, taking initiative, and in some cases, breaking the rules when necessary.
Opportunities for proactive followership do depend on the types of leaders present. Some leaders feel threatened by proactive followers and would prefer a group of subordinates (word choice here is deliberate) that do not question the leaders’ actions. However, more effective leaders look to their followers to help accelerate the organization/team/community towards its goals. The latest research on followership shows numerous positive outcomes from proactive followers.
If you find that you are looking to be more proactive – at work, at home, in your community - the first step is to think about the behaviors you exhibit. Are you actively granting leadership opportunities to someone else, which is part of an engaged process, or are you just ceding leadership responsibilities? If you want to be more proactive, try discussing the vision or goals with your boss, your partner, or your community leader. Decide if you agree with that vision, and if not, ask questions and maybe pose some thoughts or creative solutions of your own. It does take time and energy, but the feeling of empowerment and active participation in the leadership process will positively impact other areas of your life.
What claiming and granting behaviors have you enacted recently?
I recently experienced a “gold nugget” moment in education; that is, one of those moments where a single question or piece of information can change the course of a discussion and lead to important learning.
My college was hosting a small group of business club students from a local high school. There was a scheduling snafu, and the students’ scheduled team-building activity was canceled. I happened to be in the office and had an unscheduled hour, so I hurriedly pulled together some supplies and formulated a plan. I asked the students to draw a picture of “what leadership means to me” on a small dry erase board.
Being students after my own heart (and artistic ability), most of them drew stick figures. More specifically, most of them drew some version of a big stick figure telling little stick figures what to do or, for the more enlightened students, a big stick figure working alongside the little stick figures. We discussed the implications of these pictures for a few minutes, and then I asked this question:
“Yesterday, how many of you participated in the student walk out about gun violence?”
About ⅓ of the students raised their hands. I asked a few students to tell us about what happened, and they recounted a short time of remembrance couple with respectful activism. I then asked this question:
“And who was the big stick figure who organized all of this activity?”
Finally, one student spoke up, “There wasn’t a single person. Instead, it was multiple students sharing ideas and organizing. No teachers or staff were even involved.”
We then talked about how, in this particular instance, leadership was clearly present and effective, but spread among many people as they shared responsibility and influence. Sure, there are times when a big stick figure is important and effective, but not always. Thus, by finding a clear recent example of shared leadership, the students were able to broaden their perspective about the very nature of leadership. In this case, one salient counterexample to their previous understanding of leadership helped to drive learning.
This incident caused me to ponder: what are my own deeply held beliefs about leadership, and can I think of a clear counterexample to them? What about you?
Written by: Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester
Gozer: The Choice is made!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Whoa! Ho! Ho! Whoa-oa!
Gozer: The Traveller has come!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Nobody choosed anything!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Did you choose anything?
Dr. Egon Spengler: No.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Did YOU?
Winston Zeddemore: My mind is totally blank.
Dr. Peter Venkman: I didn't choose anything...
Dr. Raymond Stantz: I couldn't help it. It just popped in there.
Dr. Peter Venkman: What? WHAT "just popped in there?"
Dr. Raymond Stantz: I... I... I tried to think...
Dr. Egon Spengler: LOOK!
Dr. Raymond Stantz: No! It CAN'T be!
Dr. Peter Venkman: What is it?
Dr. Raymond Stantz: It CAN'T be!
Dr. Peter Venkman: What did you DO, Ray?
Winston Zeddemore: Oh, s***!
Dr. Raymond Stantz: It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Just like in the Ghostbusters dialogue above, our visions of leaders just “pop” in there, creating leaders based upon leader prototypes each of us has generated inside our own minds.
When I begin teaching a segment on leadership, I often ask my students to share personal leadership influences. There is substantial research noting that context is a major determinant of one’s leadership impressions. There are also some trends that come and go based on the general business climate and press coverage, but often, students share stories of fathers, mothers, siblings, and other family members along with coaches and religious leaders.
These implicit leadership theories (or ILTs) predispose us to accept certain types of leaders and reject others, and will color our ratings of leader performance. So why does this matter? Don’t we all expect our leaders to do great things?
Well, just as Ray thought the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man could never inflict harm on people, many of us ignore how harmful our ILTs can be. How could our “ideal” leader harm us? If we expect our leaders to enact transformational change, be directive, and fix all our problems, we end up disappointed and disillusioned. If we think leaders can only be successful by directing others’ behavior, we fail to support leaders who take a more participative, integrative approach. Even more dangerous, if we only accept leaders that look or sound a specific way or espouse a specific credo, we lose out on potential leaders who could challenge our way of thinking and deliver better results.
So what can we do? These ILTs are deeply embedded in our expectations of leadership. But we can address them head on by first understanding what our ILTs do. In one exercise we present in our training sessions, we ask participants to draw what leadership looks like to them. These pictures can reshape what people want or expect from leaders – focusing on the behaviors and outcomes instead of traits. We can also expose younger generations to leaders from all different backgrounds and try to balance the messages they receive so they can all see themselves as potential leaders.
And we can ask ourselves whether our chosen leaders are just reinforcing our ILTs as we accept their performance, or we can try to set aside our biases and judge performance against an accepted standard.
Joseph De Maistra coined the phrase “each nation gets the government it deserves.” Implicit leadership theories dictate individuals often get the leaders they conceive based upon their experiences. We can challenge these imprints by highlighting the wide array of leadership behaviors and styles that are effective in any given situation.