Monday, October 27, 2008

When did 'follower' become a dirty word?

I have noticed a tendency lately for the word 'follower' to be equated with being a sheep, with being mindless. As if being a leader is the noble option and being a follower is for those who can't hack it as leaders.

But who does a leader lead if he/she has no followers? And does that leader despise his/her followers for being such? If so, I would venture to say that he/she is not worthy to lead them!

If you are in the position where you lead people, you can only do so effectively if you have their interests at heart, which you are unlikely to do if you hold them in contempt. There was a time when it was trendy and cool to draw organisational flowcharts upside down, indicating the increasing burden of responsibility resting on the shoulders of those in more senior positions. I still prefer to think of it that way. One of my great frustrations is when elected officials fail to listen to the wishes of the people they represent. As leaders, they have a responsibility. When they pay no attention to the wishes of those people and simply pursue their own agenda, they show an utter contempt for the people they lead. I rather childishly hope that the consequence is that they are removed from that position of leadership with the very next round of votes.

I don't see that being a leader and a follower are mutually exclusive, either. You might lead me in one thing, while I might lead you in another. Or you might lead on this occasion, while I might lead on another. It all depends on our skills and the situations in which we find ourselves.

For years I sang in the church band (note: not a choir - that's a different thing). The band had a leader. However, he didn't always lead the worship during the Sunday service. At least once a month, it fell to me to do that. At those times, I led and he followed. When he forgot (as he occasionally did - he was only human) and slipped back into the role of leader, things tended to go somewhat awry as some members of the band watched him and others watched me. Most of the time, though, he and I made frequent eye contact, so that I could let him know what I wanted to happen next.

But I quite often made a claim I maintain to this day: I am a gifted follower... when it comes to a musical context, anyway. Something I have learned is that you can only sing a harmony line if you pay attention to the melody line. It probably comes from years of singing in the school choir. There it was essential to watch the conductor like a hawk, so that we produced perfect harmony and synchronised the beginnings and endings of our words. I have become so practised at it, that I could read Frank's body language when he was leading on a Sunday morning. I knew exactly what he was going to do next, and I could follow him as he did it. Even now that we are in a new church where I am not in the band, I find myself able to read the leader's intentions better than the very young members of her band (no doubt, when they have more experience, they will do just as well).

When my sons were little, it was always important for them to be in front. They would go haring off... often in entirely the wrong direction. There is no point leading if you don't know where you're going. If I know where I'm going, I'm happy to lead. If I don't, I'd far rather follow... as long as the leader doesn't treat me with disdain!

Recently, my husband embarked on a new venture. He got together with a few like-minded individuals and they launched their initiative, which included appointing a leader. I was surprised that he was not that leader, but he was happy for the leadership to go to someone else in whom he had confidence. I'm sure everyone who was present recognises that John would make a good leader, too, but there needs to be one leader, and he was happy not to be it on this occasion. Knowing him as I do, he will give that leader cause to be grateful for his support before long - because he makes a good follower, too!

A good leader will be sensitive and open to suggestions. A good leader will not always impose his/her will on the group. A good leader makes it easy to be a follower.

A good follower makes it easier to be a leader.

When my kids were little and a game degenerated into squabbles, one of them would inevitably yell, "I'm the boss of this game!"

They were kids. What's our excuse?


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Karyn!

Thanks for the rant :-)

I agree with you, down to the last trail.

My addition to the rant is that, what's worse about saying you're a leader when you're not actually leading, is appointing leaders who are anything but!

It's a present day trait, like appointing experts. How the h--l can anyone be appointed an expert? As if being appointed to the position makes the difference. Experts are experts because of their experience(s), not because thay are dubbed 'expert' on appointment.

Same with leaders.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

The upsycho said...

@blogger - It does seem a little strange to 'appoint' an expert.

However, I do like a situation where experts are identified for everyone's benefit.

For example, if you're rolling out a new process/system in an organisation, there will most probably have been a UAT (user acceptance test) team who will know the system/process inside out before go-live. If everyone knows who these people are and what their particular area of expertise is, they know who they can call on when they get stuck. I like to see learning solutions that include this information: putting people in touch with people.

You're right about leaders, too. People who are appointed to positions of leadership should have demonstrated natural leadership abilities before they were appointed. It should simply be the formalisation (if such is necessasry) of what was already happening.

V Yonkers said...

Actually, in group communication/management theory, there are three types of followers: dependent (can't act without some direction from a leader--this found most often in the military and other top down organizations), counter-dependent (rebellious or trouble-maker that will never listen to a leader or do the opposite of what anyone else wants), and independent (able to shift from leader to follower when needed).

Most group research agrees with your conclusion that there needs to be good followers, those that will do the work, won't disrupt the group process for personal vendettas or glory, but will also question the leader when needed.

The upsycho said...

@v_yonkers That's very interesting. It gels with my own experience, too. I guess I try to be an independent follower, because I am usually not afraid to ask the awkward questions or challenge the status quo.... as long as I think it will produce better results. Good leaders cope with that, weaker ones not so much.

I have also been in aposition of leadership, trying to lead that middle bunch. Hoo boy!

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

@Virginia- I would be one of the independent types. Unfortunately, this is not an easy role to play.

I often think it would be so much better just to always follow and be done with it. But that's not the role of an independent.

Ka kite