The importance of not only good leaders but also good followers (opinion)

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If we were to provide a free course on How to Become a Great Leader, it would probably generate significant interest. But if we were to provide a second free course, How to Be a Great Follower, we doubt anyone would come. Similarly, if we gave someone the compliment “You would make a great follower,” most people would be offended.

Over the years, we have talked with many leaders in higher education about the vital role of followers, but when we ask about learning how to be a good follower, we often receive perplexed responses: “Why would I want to learn to be a great follower?” or “Aren’t followers just followers?”

These typical responses strike at the heart of the leadership-followership dynamic. Unless leaders more clearly understand the powerful, distinctive and valuable role of followers at our higher education institutions, they will be ill equipped to tap the deep resources and support such followers can provide. And unless followers learn how to support their leaders appropriately, far less will be accomplished that could be.

Often, we rely on outdated and narrow-minded notions about the differences between leaders and followers, and especially about the relative importance of each of those roles. We often attribute successful outcomes to the leaders’ efforts — not those of the followers. As a result, leaders garner far more status, recognition, power and monetary compensation than most followers. Yet it’s the followers who almost always do the heavy lifting. Conversely, leaders get most of the blame when things go wrong. But what is the follower’s responsibility when things fail?

We need a more sensible orientation toward leadership and followership. Colleges and universities would be better served if they were less hierarchical, siloed and rigid. To thrive in the post-COVID world, our institutions will need to promote more self-directed work and significantly less top-down leadership.

Also, in a complex and rapidly changing world, flexibility, agility and resilience will be essential. And we can only achieve that if all the followers act like leaders and have the authority, resources, responsibility and accountability to make important decisions — without having to ask for permission from top leadership.

The term “followership” seems to have a negative connotation for many people, and some consider it an outdated and misleading term. Descriptions like “allies,” “partners,” “associates” and “colleagues” are beginning to emerge in the literature, terms that more fully describe the actual role of followers. We prefer using the term “authentic followership” to convey the way in which followership should be viewed. An authentic leader-follower relationship is founded on two things: shared values and a shared common purpose that inspires the passion and action of both parties. Ira Chaleff, who often writes about followership, suggests that it is the charisma of the common purpose, not the charisma of the leader, that inspires people to accomplish great things.

One of the leader’s primary responsibilities is to help followers share ownership of that purpose and help them find the personal courage to stand up, speak out and help shape the institution’s pursuit of that purpose. It is this shared common purpose that elevates the relationship between the leader and follower and eliminates the false hierarchy often imposed on this relationship. When shared purpose is present, hierarchy is replaced with a different set of roles that contribute much more effectively to the mission of our institutions. Each person is engaged in doing different things in service to that mission. And when the inevitable difficulties and challenges emerge, it is ownership of the shared purpose that acts as a beacon of light and enables people to focus on what really matters rather than on who gets the credit or the blame.

Yet how many senior leaders in higher education see defining and pursuing the institution’s purpose as their sole responsibility? And how do we develop and nurture authentic followership on our campuses? Here are some things to consider.

Speaking Truth to Power

“Speaking truth to power” has a nice ring to it. It sounds courageous, even noble. But speaking truth to power is difficult for most people. This has nothing to do with people’s honesty, but more to do with several dynamics that are in play that both leaders and followers must understand. Three key factors from the follower’s perspective will help explain these dynamics.

  1. Fear of losing a seat at the table when important decisions are made. This dynamic is especially frequent at the senior team or cabinet level. Often, people will soften their message or provide generic feedback so as to limit the risk of being disinvited from key meetings. They don’t want to be seen as a negative Nellie or naysayer, so rather than provide a meaningful critique or voice that might be perceived as dissent, they choose to go along to get along with their colleagues.
  2. Fear of losing collaboration and support. When a courageous follower does speak up, this can make other colleagues concerned that their leader might view them as cowardly by comparison. Colleagues might pull the “truthful” person aside for an off-the-record conversation and advise them “not to rock the boat.” This conveys to the follower that speaking the truth, while it might seem a good idea, is not really welcome. The follower gets the message that it will put their peer relationships at risk, so they back down, recognizing they all need each other to be successful. This is an important dynamic to understand. Cooperation and collaboration among colleagues are essential to getting things done in institutions. If someone is isolated because they speak a little too honestly for people’s comfort, they can quickly find themselves stranded and ineffective.
  3. Fear of retribution. People are afraid of “telling it like it is,” especially if they have seen others disciplined for truth telling. They are alerted to the real norms about truth telling and become less likely to speak up. People who are punished for speaking truth to power — demoted, given a lateral transfer, having a tenure review delayed — become part of the legend and lore of a campus. Years later, people will still tell the story of what happened to Pat when he had the audacity to ask an honest yet tough question or to debate a senior administrator or tenured professor. This becomes a powerful lesson that people believe they need to remember if they want to stay at the institution. The story continues to be retold as a lesson about what happens when you speak up. Followers never forget these stories, ever.

Courageous Conscience

But those who are authentic followers show strong support for their leaders and are still willing to challenge them when necessary. They stand up for and to their leaders. Chaleff advises, “Never protect a leader from bad news.” He calls this “courageous followership” and uses the phrase “courageous conscience” to describe the follower’s responsibility to speak truth to power respectfully but with directness and clarity so that the message is understood. This courageous conscience helps followers feel secure about protesting illegal or unethical practices when they encounter them, as well as about providing their leaders with contrary opinions, advice and perspectives.

Speaking up is often required when followers encounter a leader whose intentions may be good but whose assessment of the situation or judgment may be faulty, resulting in bad decisions that could have a lasting negative impact on the institution. In these cases, no less than in those in which a leader engages in unethical action or behavior, followers must speak up assertively and challenge their leader’s thinking and decision making. If possible, they should offer acceptable alternatives and options that require the leader to reassess their instructions, actions or decisions.

This is not a time to communicate concerns timidly or in a roundabout manner, as in, “I am not sure here, but I was kind of wondering if this was the best way to go?” Authentic followers must communicate in ways that are clear and direct: “I don’t think this is a good idea, and here are three reasons why.” Or, “The impact of this decision could harm our reputation; I am strongly suggesting we do X instead.” Or, “This decision you are suggesting needs to be reconsidered because it will cost this institution more in the long run than we can afford; let’s bring in some other people to help us create more options.”

Chaleff notes that wise leaders value and openly encourage such intelligent disobedience when appropriate. When followers appropriately, without rancor or meanness, ask the tough questions or provide a contrary opinion or perspective, leaders must recognize and reward this behavior. That will take some bravery on the leader’s part, but doing so will create a culture of openness where difficult issues can be discussed and resolved.

Indeed, with complex challenges and no easy answers, leaders need the alternative views and perspectives that followers must provide, so that they have as many strategic options to consider as possible. And when followers experience a leader’s constructive response to a difficult question, the leader earns credibility and respect. The leader’s reputation for openness spreads quickly and conveys the idea that honest dialogue and civil debate are valued. People then feel free to raise the difficult and thorny issues without fear of retribution or criticism. The leaders’ active interest in their followers’ opinions and perspectives sends a powerful message to campus stakeholders and becomes woven into the fabric and culture of the campus.

People learn that this open dialogue is “how we do things around here.” It nurtures a shared meaning and a trusting environment in which leaders and followers each see themselves as stewards of the organization and as deeply interdependent and equally necessary to fulfilling the specific purpose they share — and to which they are willing to contribute their passions, talents and hopes.

When Followers Give Up Their Authenticity

Unfortunately, however, followers can at times settle for the status quo, telling themselves that “things aren’t that bad.” They can abdicate their responsibility to take productive action and allow themselves to simply let the leader tell them what to do rather than engage in the hard but infinitely more rewarding work of creating solutions together. This is irresponsible and detrimental to the institution.

Leaders also get an inordinate amount of blame when things go wrong when, in fact, if authentic followership is to be created throughout institutions, leaders and followers must be mutually accountable for organizational results. The leader may have to be autocratic and make the tough decisions at times, but this should be the exception, not the rule. Followers must take responsibility for taking on tough challenges and doing the necessary hard work to improve things.

When followers do not do this, we frequently see situations in which they stand by and watch a leader fail, slowly. Some examples:

The president of a large institution is brilliant but lacks emotional intelligence and has little insight into how his followers perceive him. They see him as an arrogant know-it-all and easily tune him out when he speaks at them. Each member of his senior team is aware of how he is viewed, but nobody has the courage to tell him. They are unsure about where the campus is headed and are holding their breath until he is gone, avoiding their own responsibility and accountability. Slowly, he withdraws. He stops giving his long-winded speeches; he attends fewer and fewer campus events; he no longer meets with his faculty leaders. He just fades away. His senior team has failed him because they lacked the courage to communicate with him how they experienced him and his effectiveness as a leader.

A new dean at a large university transitions into a challenged institution and tries to fix everything at once. She puts in long hours, holds lots of meetings and works hard, but she produces few results. Faculty and staff spend a great deal of their time complaining about her (“She’s unavailable.” “She has no focus.”) but never help her out. Eventually, she burns out and quits at the end of the academic year. Notably, she is the third dean to leave the institution in five years. What is the followers’ responsibility here? What will happen to the next dean? In fact, what kind of leader would want to be the fourth dean in six years?

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, two well-known academics at Harvard University, discuss what occurs when leaders accept a dynamic in which followers don’t speak truth to power and exercise courageous conscience. They suggest that leaders should give the difficult work and the decision making back. Unfortunately, followers who have become accustomed to deferring responsibility will often resist this and may call into question their leader’s effectiveness — even the leader’s willingness to lead.

How often have you heard “That’s above my pay grade” or “I don’t get paid enough to make that decision; that’s for the big boys and girls”? This is a follower’s abdication of responsibility for dealing with tough issues and institutional challenges.

Over the past few months, we have had many conversations with presidents who are frustrated with their cabinet members delegating up to them the tough decisions that they should be making themselves for their areas of responsibility. As a result, the president, who already has too much to do, has more problems to solve and feels overwhelmed and disappointed.

Institutional leaders must commit to continuously developing and nurturing the capacity of their followers to do the difficult work and not simply “bump it upstairs.” This does not mean dumping more work on followers, nor does it mean handing them challenges with which they have no experience. It does mean consciously developing the discipline and skills of all followers to deal effectively and decisively with issues in their own areas.

Five Commitments of an Authentic Follower

If campus leaders and followers can endorse and implement the following commitments, followership will be elevated, and the leader’s role will be earned, confirmed and blessed by others.

I will choose to follow you if:

  1. I believe in your honesty and integrity (which is the essence of trust) as a leader.
  2. I have faith in your genuine commitment to the mission, values and shared vision of this institution, and not your own personal gain or glory. I must know you are here to serve our mutual purpose.
  3. I can speak candidly and respectfully about any important reservations or concerns I have about the decisions being made that impact people on our campus or our institutional values.
  4. I believe that you sincerely value my contribution and role on our campus, as together we strive to accomplish the most important goals and objectives that we have committed to achieving together.
  5. You keep me meaningfully informed about what’s going on, where we are headed and why we are going there. I especially want to know when things aren’t going well or as planned. I can almost always be helpful if I know what I am dealing with.

We hope we’ve made the case for developing and nurturing a much-expanded role for followers on our campuses. It will take some courage on the part of senior leaders, because they often take followership for granted and do not fully appreciate how important and powerful that properly developed followership can be. However, if we cling to traditional mythology about leaders and what leadership entails, or if we continue to treat followers as second-class citizens within our institutions, we will have mediocre institutions that are ill suited for an increasingly fast-paced, ambiguous and complex world.

The very best leaders with whom we have had the privilege to work deeply understand the covenant between themselves and their followers. If followers experience and believe that their leaders value authentic followership, they will almost always work extremely hard to serve the mission, vision and values of their institution.

The key here is that the qualities we’ve presented as core to authentic followership — speaking truth to power, courageous conscience, expecting trust and accountability — are all qualities of effective leadership. By developing authentic followers, we develop authentic leaders. We make our institutions stronger and smarter –the kind of organizations that higher education, and our society in general, desperately need.