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Needed: Fewer Leaders. More—and Better--Followers

By Evan M. Dudik

Business today—and society at large—needs more and better leaders. How could anyone doubt this? It seems every one of America’s companies and organizations— from schools and youth-oriented organizations to large corporations--is “grooming tomorrow’s leaders,” or “preparing our youth for leadership.” Seminars, camps, and counseling on leadership abound.
Despite all this emphasis on leadership, many companies complain about the quality of leadership. They find that many of their managers are mediocre, or even poor leaders. Task forces struggle to finish their work on time. Employees seek escape into other departments or another company altogether. Personality conflicts abound.
At the top, boards of directors seek miracle-working CEOs who have some indefinable leadership magic—and hire them at outrageous salaries. But with increasing frequency, boards are firing these superstars when the promised leadership skills don’t materialize into bottom-line results.
One level down, CEOs try to recruit managers from companies like General Electric with reputations as leadership training grounds. But there are few such fertile hunting grounds to pick from. Even the GE mystique is losing some of its luster. Meanwhile executive recruiting firms spin candidates’ resumes, emphasizing leadership experience, skills and success. They want their clients to worship with them at the—for them profitable—shrine of leadership magic.
For middle managers, human resources departments recommend internal and outside leadership training programs for first-line supervisors on up. The idea is that leadership consists of a set of skills that can be acquired and put into practice, much like pouring 10 W-40 car oil into an engine. Companies and governments spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to fix broken (or absent) leadership skills of middle managers.
At entry levels, HR departments (and college admissions committees!) scour resumes for evidence of “leadership experience.” Knowing this, job and college applicants spin their resumes, making leadership experience mountains out of group experience mole hills.

Not Getting Our Money’s Worth
But we are beginning to realize that for all the effort spent on identifying leaders or training leaders to become better managers, we are often not getting our money’s worth. Certainly leadership programs change behavior for short periods of time. They’re great for transmitting skills highly tactical situations such as presentation or handling employee evaluation sessions.
But companies often find they simply haven’t created true leadership potential in the individuals they’ve lavished this attention—and money--on. Workshop attendees may get some of their rough leadership edges smoothed, but most revert to their idiosyncratic personal styles within days or hours or returning to their regular jobs.
And from what I’ve experienced, companies’ dissatisfaction is only going to get worse due to slower economic growth, squeezed profitability and thus, tighter, leaner, meaner budgets. Today’s environment is going to put corporate leadership under pressure. My guess is that the defective leadership skills that ten years of economic growth have papered over will soon be revealed.

Setting our Priorities Right-side Up
I believe one important cause of this leadership shortage is that we have our teamwork priorities almost totally upside down. We need to de-emphasize leadership. We need to re-emphasize followership.
I believe our collective disregard of the great art of followership—particularly in America--leads to ineffective organizations—and a shortage of competent leaders.
The reason is that the most reliable way of grooming great leaders is not to start teaching unseasoned people the tasks and skills of leadership—such as how to lead a meeting, how to delegate responsibility, how to manage creative people, how to communicate a goal, how to build motivation and morale, and the like.
No, the better way is to teach people first to be great followers.
And this fits common sense.

Leaders are from Mars, Followers are from Mars, Too
First of all, it’s hard to be a great leader unless you have experienced being on the receiving end of great leadership yourself. It’s practically impossible for a newbie leader to employ the tools of leadership without having worked closely with a great leader in action. Leadership is something you can’t simply observe from the sidelines, then imitate—you have to experience it, try, fail, modify and at last succeed. You wouldn’t expect to become a great concert pianist strictly from a book. Or a few two-day workshops. You have to learn from a teacher—and largely by imitating and practicing. There is an old fashioned word for this: apprenticeship. Solid, competent future leadership comes first and foremost from people who have been apprenticed to solid, competent leaders. Great coaches come from having been coached by great coaches. The incomparable Vince Lombardi learned valuable leadership lessons as assistant to Earl Blaik at Army in the 1950s. Coaches get to experience first hand how to paint a vision to their followers—by having that vision painted for them. Every day. Future leades learn how task forces form, sort out hierarchy, then settle down to work (or disintegrate!)—by being on those task forces. Handling an out-of-control employee is learned best by being on the receiving end of effective admonition, re-direction and support. It’s only when managers have been exposed to great leadership that workshops and training programs can be truly effective at smoothing the sharp edges. They’re also best at reminding managers what they’ve learned in their hearts about leadership, but may have remained buried in their subconscious for years.

Second, an emphasis on leadership at the expense of followership overlooks the fact that most of us are primarily followers, not leaders, for most of our careers. While we’re climbing the corporate ladder, or even building our own businesses, the career question we ask ourselves every day is, “What will my boss think?” Even when we’re leading a department, a section, a workgroup or a shift, we usually are trying get a group to perform in a way that satisfies our position as follower. That is, we’re trying to satisfy a leader.

Followers Get the Work Done
Third, most of the work that gets done in companies gets done by followers. For an organization to be effective, it needs effective followers as much as it needs effective leaders. Show me an company staffed only by leaders and I’ll show you a company with appalling productivity.

Fourth, even when we are leaders, we are usually followers at the very same time. Most supervisors need to be great followers of their managers; managers of their directors and directors of their division vice presidents. Leadership is everywhere—and therefore, so is followership. Even presidents and CEOs report to boards and to customers. It is a commonplace among politicians that to lead the electorate, you have to follow it. Fifth, and most important, almost every honest, successful leader will tell you that “I am the first to admit that our success couldn’t have been built without” his or her devoted and energetic followers. It is not only bizarre but counter to the bulk of human experience for leaders without (much) frontline followership experience to become effective leaders. I grant you that it can happen—there are “natural leaders.” But they are few and far between. Don’t bet your company’s future on finding a leadership magician. Bet instead on great followers. It’s vital that we strive to get today’s leaders recognize, honor and reward great followers. We need a revival of the late, great art of followership. For it is the followers who make leaders great. In the next Business Maverick, I’ll share with you The Ten Most Important Rules of Followership.

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