"Why should anyone be led by you?"


Anni Hollings
Learning & Development Manager


I was at an event the other week when the topic for discussion turned to the question ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’ I thought I would listen to what people had to say before charging in on my favourite hobby-horse and provide an alternative, and for me, a far more useful and interesting perspective on the leadership process. Inevitably most comments carefully skirted the question revealing, that even in the illustrious company in which I found myself, there was a reluctance to self promote. Some chose to talk about themselves using others’ comments to justify their position telling us that they had been told that they were, for example, visionary, charismatic, inspirational, supportive and in one case, ‘the best of a not very good bunch’(which had us laughing). Others tried to dismiss the validity of the question by asking from what context were they to consider their response – I won’t comment. One or two, who had obviously been on a management course, asked which approach to leadership they should use, trait approach, behavioural approach, situational approach transformational or transactional, I smiled. One person actually said that she was someone who could influence others and I thought we were getting somewhere, but sadly, her insight was squashed by ‘the joker’ who declared ‘Because in a crisis, I am someone that people know they can trust!’ and I wondered how many crises he had been in to enable people to form that judgement.

I am not being flippant because I recognise that ‘Leadership’ and its attendant areas of interest, is awash with countless theories, ideas, models and champions. Despite its huge importance as a key feature of organizational processes, interpersonal relationships and social interaction, it proves to be most unsatisfactory area of study because of the myriad of different viewpoints and perspectives. Burns, writing in 1978, commented on its ‘slipperiness and complexity’ and despite the huge amount of scholarship dedicated to researching into ‘Leadership’ a consensus remains elusive. So, back to the topic for discussion and my heartfelt sympathy for the discussion leader who was trying to get people to focus on the question she had posed. I raised my hand and caught her attention. I asked if she minded if I redefined the question and she nodded. As a means of justification for my rather pompous intervention, I explained that rather than focus on leadership, I had always found it helpful to ask the question from the alternative perspective of “If I was a follower, why would I choose to follow you?” I asked the group what does every leader need? and all agreed that without followers a leader, despite having the necessary skills/attributes/position/experience and whatever else, then s/he is not a leader.

What I like about thinking about Followership is that it removes the tendency to focus entirely on the ability of the leader to influence others into acting in a way preferred by the leader, the more traditional perspective (Bass, 1990, House, 1999, Yukl, 2003). Like Kouzes and Posner (2000) I see the choices made by followers in their assessment of the leader’s credibility as being the key to how well a leader might be able to lead. It is the followers who decide on their willingness to follow and to what extent they will offer their support. Leaders cannot simply assume that people will follow because they have the leadership role, followership must be earned and sustained. What I particularly like about the followership perspective is that the dynamics between leaders and followers are redefined. The Leader’s power-base is tempered by the need to ensure that the leader provides something that the Follower wants/needs. Followership is an active role, it is not passive and sheep-like. For a leader to be effective s/he needs effective followers - people who engage in the leadership process, challenge the leader and take responsibility for theirs and their leader’s actions.

Followership is an exciting prospect and many a leader owes his or her success and maintained position to the carefully mutually constructed relationship between their followers and him/herself. Equally history has demonstrated that many a leader has fallen into disrepute and obscurity through losing credibility and the support of their followers. Leadership power cannot be assumed, nor does it remain static, the leader’s relationship with his/her followers is in constant flux and only by recognising that delicate balance can leaders truly hope to lead effectively.

The group enjoyed the debate and whilst some were mightily huffy about the challenge to the idea of leaders being those great individuals who gather others to their superior bosom, most were enthused by the challenge to the usual way of thinking about leaders. All leaders need followers and followers can build their own very effective power-base. The leader-follower(s) perspective doesn’t make the study of leadership any less complex, but for me it adds a more satisfying dimension.