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The Role of Followers in Leadership Development

The onus is on leaders to create engaged, fulfilled followers who can help them drive change and achieve company goals. But to do that, leaders must first believe in their own strategy.

July 9, 2012
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership Development
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One of the most important things for leaders to possess is the belief that their strategy sets them up to win in the marketplace. Common sense would ask: How can leaders who don’t believe in their own strategy possibly get their employees on board? How can leaders create active, engaged, committed followers if they, themselves, don’t believe in the strategies?

Traditionally, leaders tend to fall back on the ways they were managed as they rose through the ranks — often centering around three F’s; facts, fear and force:

• Convey the facts that should motivate people to change.

• Instill fear as a motivation tactic, which often sounds like “get on board, or else.”

• Flat out force people to do what needs doing.

People don’t resist change, but they do resist being changed by someone else. In Alan Deutschman’s book Change or Die, he poses the question, “Could you change when your life depends on it?” Deutschman illustrates how even people in the United States who undergo coronary bypass graft or angioplasty surgery fail to change their lifestyles afterwards. There are few crises as threatening as heart disease and few fears as intense as the fear of death, but even those things can fail to motivate people to change. According to Deutschman, people won’t change because of facts, fear or force, even in the case of their own life. So, why would they at work?

Simply put, leadership means charting a course and people voluntarily deciding it’s an adventure they want to go on. It’s motivating and inspiring people to want to be part of something bigger than themselves, go on a journey, make a significant impact and feel a sense of belonging. Are we all so focused on leadership that we have forgotten about followership?

A New Hope

In today’s fast-paced global economy, the onus is on leaders to adjust traditional tactics and focus on creating motivated, involved, fulfilled followers who can help them drive change and achieve company goals. If they don’t, they risk higher turnover, lower productivity, limited or nonexistent growth and a general malaise across the organization.

Relating to how people feel is vital to inspiring change. Hope for followers lies with the realization that leaders care enough, are insightful enough and are connected enough to know what it’s like to be the follower. A new sense of hope and power among followers begins with leaders listening to and showing respect for their people’s opinions and feelings. This requires that leaders:

• Empathize first; share that you know what it’s like to be a follower.

• Inspire confidence in people that they can change.

• Create an organizational expectation that we will change.

• Build a belief that we all have the ability to determine our own fate.

There are several ways to create effective followership in organizations. One is the use of visual sketches to achieve understanding and connection between leaders and followers. Visually presenting issues that lie at the center of what must be addressed for the organization to move forward can be groundbreaking for people at every level of the organization.

By creating a common mental model of an organization’s existing state of affairs and its desired future state of affairs, managers and individual contributors alike can understand the big picture, their role in that picture, and how their work can impact the move forward. With this, people may more readily form an emotional relationship with leaders they see as having taken the time to create a new view of the organization, empowering them to see how they can contribute to that.

In the end, what employees want is basic. It’s what we all want in life. And, it’s what makes for the best followers, which, in return, makes the best leaders. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves; to feel a sense of belonging; to go on a meaningful journey; and to know they are making a significant impact and difference in the life of another person.

The end result of focusing on followers is that everyone is in the game and knows exactly what they have to do to win. And when leaders look in the rearview mirror, they will see dedication and enthusiasm as their team voluntarily charges on.

Jim Haudan is CEO and chairman of consultancy Root Learning. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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