A well-worn leadership adage states that “Everything rises and falls on leadership”. I was once an ardent supporter of this belief. As an emerging leader, it made me feel important and it validated much of my work and academic career. After all, leaders make things happen!
As time passed, I came to an important realization – this statement is only a half-truth! In fact, I can only support the premise if it is coupled with my paradoxical title. If this was phrased as a logic statement it would read:
Everything rises and falls on leadership IS TRUE IF everything also rises and falls on followership.
In order to understand this supposition we must reframe followership and reclaim the full richness of this significant and powerful role. Here are three things we must do to accomplish this:
REFRAME 1: Lose the hierarchy
The term “follower is not synonymous with subordinate”.
It is unfortunate that the word follower has become a word that connotes lack of power, subservience or a less desirable position. I recently heard someone tell their child, “You are a leader, not a follower!” While the intent of this is noble, it’s simply not true! We do not always lead! The role of a follower is not any less noble than that of a leader nor are effective followers second class. It would appear that the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest attitude has erringly seeped into our beliefs about the importance of leaders and has turned followers into nothing more than a by-product of leadership.
In his book The Power of Followership Robert Kelley reminds us that the demarcation between followers and leaders is not as clear as literature makes it to be. In fact, if you examine your daily behaviors you will find that you switch roles between that of a leader and a follower dozens of times each day. If this is true, then we must reestablish equality between leaders and followers. We must lose the hierarchy.
A leader without followers is simply someone taking a walk. Therefore, a leader is defined by the presence of followers. As we abandon hierarchy we give power to the role of followership.
REFRAME 2: Recognize the power of followership
“Followership is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and give it strength”.
Have you ever considered how much power followers actually have? Kelley reminds us that “followers determine not only if someone will be accepted as a leader but also if that leader will be effective”. Chaleff endorses the need for empowered followers when he reminds us that “parity [between leaders and followers is] approached when we recognize that leaders rarely use their power wisely or effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so”.
A recent trip to the U.S. Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. reminded me about the power of followership. Countless citizens sacrificed everything to stand up to a Nazi regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a towering example of a follower who refused to be passive. In fact, Bohnoeffer demonstrates how followers who actively exercise their power, paradoxically become leaders. Stated negatively, how many passive followers contributed to the rise of Nazism?
In high school biology we learned that symbiosis is the process by which two organisms rely on each other in order to survive. Natural symbiosis has no pecking order, priority or hierarchy. It is simply a coexistence that provides equality through shared benefit. This is how we should view leaders and followers. Leaders and followers both possess power and the right to exercise it. There is tremendous power in the role of active followership.
REFRAME 3: Embrace mutual accountability
How often have we heard people express thankfulness that they are not leaders because this means they are not responsible for the result? In order to lose the hierarchy and fully embrace the power of followership, followers must respond by sharing accountability with leaders. I call this active followership.
Mutual accountability shifts the focus from followers and leaders and, instead, refocuses on purpose (Figure 1). Challeff notes that “leaders and followers are both forms of stewardship which are directed to the organizations purpose and stakeholders”. In other words, when we shift our mindset to one of stewardship, many of our misperceptions about leaders and followers are reframed. As both leaders and followers align themselves around organizational purpose, a shared goal catalyzes efforts.
Both followers and leaders are important and unique. As each party mobilizes around a clear purpose, hierarchy falls away, power becomes shared and leaders and followers share accountability.
The Goal – Everything rises and falls on followership…and leadership
“The word right makes no sense without the word left” and so too is leadership and followership.
Allow me to conclude with an illustration that demonstrates the power of active followership. As the Russian dynasty crumbled in the late 1980’s, Lithuania was the first country to declare their independence from the USSR (March 11, 1990). About six months prior to this, a little-known event called The Baltic Way served as a critical catalyst to this bold declaration. In a public display of solidarity and a desire for independence, about 2 million citizens of the countries of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia joined hands on public roadways and formed a continuous human chain that spanned three countries and over 600 km. Approximately 1 in 4 citizens in these three countries joined this human chain that stretched the equivalent of the distance from San Diego to San Francisco. This demonstration by millions of active followers, became a foundation which emboldened Lithuania to declare independence from the Soviet Union six months later.
“Followers at their best…participate with enthusiasm, intelligence, and self-reliance – but without star billing – in the pursuit of organizational goals”.
This is why everything rises and falls on followership as much as it does on leadership.
This blog post appeared concurrently on the blog site of my friend and colleague, Paul Sohn.
 Chaleff, I. (2003). The courageous follower. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, p. 15.  Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Doubleday Currency, p. 28.  Chaleff, p. 19  Kelley, p. 13  Chaleff, p. 1  Chaleff, p. 3  Chaleff, p. 17  Chaleff, p. 4  Kelley, p. 44  Kelley, p. 27
In order to thrive in the future we are going to need to learn how to unlearn. Amidst unparalleled change, leaders can no longer rely on ‘what they know’. Instead, effective leaders will be defined by the capacity to unlearn outdated and ineffective ways of doing things. More importantly, they will also have the capacity to help their organizations do the same.
A recent article in The Futurist defined this as unlearning and uplearning. The authors note, “one of the most important skills in a time of immense change is to develop the capacity to unlearn old ideas that are increasingly obsolete and learn how to reason, adapt, and act at a higher level of complexity”. Here is what this looks like:
Unlearning: This skill requires us to be able to identify and unlearn ideas and activities that have worked in the past but do not work in today or will not in the future. For example, teachers are no longer sole content providers/experts as a result of the internet. This week, I have observed my children being taught in classrooms (bricks-and-morter as well as on-line) as well as through gamification, Kahn Academy, Wikipedia and Google Translate. Their learning comes from many content providers and experts! However, the teacher as the expert is a longstanding tradition that drives our educational system. We need to unlearn how we teach in order to improve education.
Uplearning: The ability to be comfortable working with complex problems, not because you know the answers, but because you are equipped with critical thinking skills . These skills – such as synthesis, adaptability, systems-thinking and a multidisciplinary approach- enables individuals to ‘pull’ themselves into the unknown. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, demonstrates uplearning in his proposed ‘Hyperloop’, a solar-powered transportation system designed to move people between LA and San Francisco in about 30 minutes. There is currently no way to accomplish this dream. However, he believes that a group of people committed to uplearning can learn how to do so.
This change will be challenging if we rely on historic models of education. Richard Ogle highlighted this in his book Smart World when he noted, “Western education is based on two fundamental principles…rational thinking and content of knowledge that already exists … and, by definition, traditional learning looks backward. In a world of radical change, imagination, intuition, insight and innovation are required …and, by definition, learning looks forward”. Education itself must transform by applying unlearning and uplearning principles.
Alvin Toffler once said, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. While the terms unlearning and uplearning may not be common, you can expect them to become cornerstones of effective education and leadership in the decades ahead.
What are the common barriers you encounter that inhibit uplearning and unlearning?
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Ogle, R. (2007). Smart world: Breakthrough creativity and the new science of ideas. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, p. 113.
Budd, B., de la Tega, M., Grove, B., & Smyre, R. (July-August 2014). Creating a future forward college: What if…Collaborations in transformational learning. The Futurist (Vol. 48, No. 4). Retrieved Octtober 21 from http://www.wfs.org/futurist/2014-issues-futurist/july-august-2014-vol-48-no-4/creating-future-forward-college-what-if-c
A recent article from the team at Join.Me highlights a trend that has been quietly growing in our organizations – Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). This is not surprising given 90% of American adults own cell phones, 68% own smart phones and 42% own tablets (Pew Research). As a result, Join.me notes that “most organizations have adopted BYOD in some form, and an increasing portion of them actually have developed and implemented formal BYOD policies to ensure that the use of consumer-class notebooks, netbooks, tablets and smartphones is secure and productive”.
The logical next phase of this is also underway. Bring Your Own App (BYOA) is receiving support not only from employees, but also, increasingly, from their companies. To assess the impact of BYOA, Join.Me surveyed over 1,2oo respondents at small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and New Zealand. The following charts clearly illustrate this growing trend:
Trend Strength: high
Trend Maturity: growing (40%)
Organizational Implications: Increase in employee productivity, increase in IT security management services, undetermined organizational cost (decrease or increase).
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Bring Your Own Application: The New Reality for the Mobile Workforce. Join.Me by LogMeIn. Retrieved October 15 from http://lmicreativeteam.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/tt-13-271-logmein-byoapp-research-brief.pdf
Pew Research Internet Project. Mobile technology fact sheet. Retrieved Oct. 15 from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/mobile-technology-fact-sheet/
In the class I am teaching on organizational development, my students are studying how to facilitate change, both personally and organizationally. Part of this process has included discussion about the attributes of people who are good at leading change.
Based on our dialogue, here are four attributes of people who effectively facilitate change:
1. They are willing to be wrong. It takes courage to acknowledge that you are wrong. However, a lack of willingness to do so creates a barrier to change. As Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”.
2. They embrace learning. Some individuals derive a lot of enjoyment from learning new things. As a result, mistakes are a required ingredient in learning new ideas. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) exemplifies this when he states, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t!”.
3. They know how much they don’t know. This relates to my first point about courage but focuses on the attribute of humility instead. It takes humility to acknowledge how much you don’t know. I experienced this a few months ago when a friend gave me a back-handed compliment. He stated, “I enjoy being with you more than I used to because you are less certain of things”. I trust that reflects personal growth in realizing how much I don’t know!
4. They have a thick skin. Sometimes you have to be tough when you learn hard lessons. John Piper once noted that you will never make it if criticism disables you (thanks to Marissa for this great quote and idea). At times, change will require you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start again.
In summary, courage, enjoying learning, humility and toughness are all ingredients of people who are good at facilitating change. What are some other attributes you would add to this list?
Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California.
Piper, J. (2011). The Marks of a Spiritual Leader (p. 25)