the mark of a leader

November 28, 2016

Leaders and the value they bring to organizations have always been a topic of much discussion. But what often gets forgotten in this dialog is the equally vital aspect of followership. Good leadership entails good followership, and in a sense, a good leader has to be a good follower. Morgen Witzel dwells on the relationship between leaders and their followers—why true leaders do not consider themselves to be a cut above the rest. They interact with their followers, help them achieve their personal goals even while drawing them to a common sense of purpose.

Readers of this column will recall a story I told back in the spring, about a Roman senator who, on seeing a mob of people rushing past in the street, hurriedly pulled on his toga and went out and ran up the street after them. “Senator”, someone called, “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“There go my people!” the Senator responded. “I must go after them, so that I may find out where they want me to lead them.”

The story may well be apocryphal, but it is illustrative nonetheless. I use it again because it illustrates a particular problem with leadership, and contradicts many of our received notions about what leadership is. Leadership is not, as many people even today seem to think, a matter of the leader setting direction, telling the others in the organization what that direction is and then expecting them to all set off in that direction, acting as one corporate body.

Followers, as we may call those who are not in leadership positions—and what exactly a ‘leadership position’ is, is not a simple black-and-white issue, of course—have their own ideas about where the organization should go and what it should do. This can lead to friction between a leader and followers, which at best will slow or delay the implementation of any strategy or project, and at worst lead to direct clashes between the two.

It follows that understanding what followers want and what motivates them must be the first thing that any leader does upon taking up a leadership position. One should never ever assume that followers will always follow. A relationship of trust must exist between leaders and followers.

Without that relationship, all leaders are effectively powerless. That observation does not always sit well with leaders, who like to assume that they have the reins in their hand; they give direction and other people obey. The problem is that they ‘don’t’ always obey, and when they choose not to obey the rules and laws and directions laid down by the leader, then a large number of things can potentially occur, including criminality and fraud, destabilisation of the organization, obstacles and blockages to strategic, operational and tactical implementation, strikes and industrial action, and even followers turning against the leader and trying to remove him or her from power, known in the armed forces as mutiny.

Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey is only the latest ruler to suffer such an attempted mutiny. In Britain, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has suffered a peaceful mutiny by his MPs, many of whom disagree with the direction he wants to take the party and are refusing to serve under his leadership.

So, how do we build these relations of trust with followers? The first step is to understand why people become followers in the first place. Why do they need leaders and why do they accept them?


the psychology of followership

One of the most perceptive books on leadership of the past twenty years— and one I have often cited, in these columns and elsewhere is Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. Apologies for citing it again, but the question asked in the title is absolutely germane to the problem under discussion here. Why indeed should people follow a leader? What do leaders have that they need?


The old assumption was that people were too ignorant/uneducated/lazy/stupid/lacking in vision to lead themselves. Without leaders to give us wise guidance, we would all run around like headless chickens trying to figure out what to do. In effect, we are incapable of leading ourselves. This point of view is found in nearly all cultures, and dates back to former centuries when societies were controlled by small groups of religious and/or political elites. Marxists argue that elites use this view of the masses to justify their own control, and on this one occasion, at least, it is hard to argue with the Marxists.Let us set aside the assumptions and look at the people who follow us. Why do they do so? The real answer is to be found in a concept common to Confucius, Plato, and Adam Smith, the division and recombination of labor. On our own, there are limits to what we can do. Limitations on both cognitive ability, physical strength, and access to resources mean our ability to accomplish a task on our own is heavily circumscribed. Put us together in groups, however, and we can achieve a great deal more than we can on our own; hence the beginnings of organizations and civilizations as people discovered that working together, they are stronger than they are working on their own. But—and this is a very big but indeed—that is only true if those groups and organizations have a coordinating mechanism that ensures that everyone pulls together to work in the same direction.

There are various names for this coordinating mechanism, one of which is ‘management’, and another of which is ‘leadership.’ The question of the distinction between management and leadership is one for another day. Relevant to our present discussion is this: if we take the perspective of followers, the purpose of leadership is this: to help the organization achieve what it wants to achieve.

Every organization has a purpose: to maximize profits, to grow, to create value for customers, to serve the communities in which they operate. But the people who join organizations also have purposes of their own. There is a vast literature on motivation at work which suggests that, while earning money is one of the main motivators to work, it is not the only one, and not always the most important. Some people do indeed work solely to earn money for themselves and their families; but actually, and perhaps surprisingly, in most organizations this is not the largest group of people by any means, nor is it the most effective; people who work for money only are far less productive than those who are motivated by other goals.

Many more people work because they like the social aspects of work and like the feeling of belonging to a group. A friend of mine who retired last year told me he is thinking of going back to work. He does not need the money, he has a good pension, but he misses the camaraderie of the workplace. He also misses the sense of purpose that work gave him. He knew what the company he worked for did, and aligned himself with its purpose. Working gave him personal fulfillment and satisfaction, and a sense of forward progression and personal development, all of which ceased when he stopped working. Studies of workplaces suggest that this is the most powerful motivator of all.

So, people work for a variety of reasons. The successful leader is the one who can tap into those reasons and motivators and help people to achieve their goals: to
make money, to belong to a successful social group, to find personal meaning and fulfillment. If the leader can do these things, then he or she will have a successful and motivated workforce.

But does the leader do this by issuing orders and directing followers to obey? In the British Armed Forces, there are two golden rules, one of which is, ‘never give an order unless you are sure it will be obeyed’ (the other is, ‘never order anyone to do anything you would not do yourself’). It is sound advice. Remember, always, that leaders need followers. Without followers, leaders can do nothing. Followers and leaders need to agree on what needs to be done. It follows from the above, then, that the successful leader will be one who finds out what his or her followers need and want and then helps them to achieve their own goals. By doing so, he or she will also achieve the organization’s goals.


assertive followers

Of course, that all depends on whether the goals of the leader and the goals of the followers are congruent, and as Jeremy Corbyn is finding out the hard way, that is not always the case. Many in the past have argued that followers should actually try to control their leaders. Robert Greenleaf argued the case for servant leaders, leaders who take orders from the organization rather than trying to control it. “People should not be afraid of their governments,” argued the writers of the film V for Vendetta, “governments should be afraid of their people.”

Others have pointed out that many people simply ignore leaders with whom they disagree. In a famous Harvard Business Review article, Goffee and Jones asked another question, ‘How do you lead clever people?’ The answer is, simply, ‘you don’t.’ Highly intelligent, creative people simply do not accept leadership. They do accept the need for a coordinating mechanism to make sure everyone is pulling in the right direction, but that often takes the form of general guidance as to what the organization’s overall goals are. Thereafter, they want to be left alone to get on with it in their own way. Trying to give them orders is hopeless. They either quit in disgust, fight back, or simply ignore the orders and do what they want to do. “Rugby players are very good at doing what they want to do,” confirms England’s rugby union head coach. “The hard thing is to get them to do what they don’t want to do.”

That is done, he says, through persuasion, reason, discussion, and reaching a mutual understanding as to the best way forward. And Jones also reiterates the point made above: the coach is not there to win. The coach is there to help the players win. People join rugby teams, or any other sports team because they want to win. The coach is there to help them figure out how to do it, using his or her experience, wisdom and skills to assist the players. The leader does not win. The followers do. And when the leader does not provide what the team wants, the team very often revolts. More than one coach has been fired because his or her team refused to work with them.


leaders and followers

In the 1950 film Chance of a Lifetime, a disgruntled boss lays down a challenge to his complaining employees: if they think they can run the factory better than him, they are welcome to try. He steps down and allows the workers to elect two bosses of their own. In fact, the workers-bosses are hard working and dedicated to the company, and try their hardest to make things work. What they lack are the experience and knowledge of the whole firm enjoyed by their former boss. In an object lesson that sums up the purpose of this article precisely, the former boss and new bosses realize they need each other and come together again, the experience of the former and enthusiasm of the latter forming the perfect combination.

Of course, whether this will work depends partly on the followers themselves. Sports teams need players genuinely committed to winning, and companies need employees who are not just 9-to-5ers but genuinely care about their work and want to achieve something more than just make a salary. Whether that something is self-development, service to the community or just the companionship of a shared purpose, that is what binds them to the organization. The leader’s task, then, is twofold: (01) to check whether everyone shares that purpose and help them unite more closely with each other, and (02) provide the wisdom and skills the followers need in order to make their own dreams come true. It sounds simple. But, as the old dictum runs, just because something is simple [it] does not necessarily mean it will be easy. Leaders who genuinely serve followers have to do a complex balancing act, keeping the needs and wants of all their followers in mind and service a wide and complex constituency. Most of all, though, they need the humility to realize that they are there to help the organization meet its purpose. It is not their task to define that purpose. Instead, they must listen to their followers, gauge their mood, understand the general will and then with wisdom and humility enable that will to be fulfilled.