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Beyond Leaders and Followers

Advocates of followership claim that employees must be followers, otherwise there would be no leaders. But a closer look at what it means to lead shows that employees are collaborators, partners, supporters or associates, not followers.

Language is full of relational terms: we can't eat or drink without eating or drinking something. Leading is relational because there must be other persons who are its objects.  This is also true of selling, loving, killing, beating, coaching, influencing and many other words. We call the object of killing and beating a victim and the object of selling a customer or buyer. While some use the awkward term coachee for the object of coaching, we have no name for the object of influence. So, is follower really the object of leading?

Consider a few simple examples:

  1. Imagine a tour guide leading people on foot  through ancient ruins. The tourists are followers because the leader goes first, literally leading the way. Such following is a very passive activity because followers contribute nothing to getting to the destination. When leading people from a burning building or who are lost in a jungle, following is equally passive.
  2. But what if our tour guide is taking people on a bus tour? Here,  no one is following the driver because he is not going anywhere first. Rather, the driver is taking people to the destination. They have joined him on the trip; they are not literally following his lead.
  3. Suppose a ship's captain is trying to recruit a crew to transport a valuable cargo through pirate-infested waters. Now, there are two phases here: (1) persuading the prospective crew to join and (2) getting to the destination. The second phase is very different from our bus tour because the captain can't go anywhere without a crew. So, the crew is not just along for the ride. It is propelling the ship. But again, the captain isn't going anywhere first so the crew isn't following him. Rather, the crew is working with the captain to get the ship to the destination. Crew  members are therefore the captain's partners not his followers.

In other articles on followership and leadership, I argued that leading only occurs in phase one: selling the tickets for the journey, influencing the crew to do something they wouldn't have done otherwise. But strictly speaking, this isn't leading either, not at least in the sense in which a tour guide leads a walking tour. Convincing the crew to help run the ship is more like influencing people to sign up for the tour in the first place. But leading a walking tour only happens when the tour starts. So, advocating a new vision isn't really leading either in the sense of going somewhere first.

In the two phases of recruiting a crew and getting to a destination, the crew is first joining then helping. They are not following in either phase. CEOs are more like our ship's captain. They have to recruit a crew to get anywhere. Once on board, the crew propels the ship. CEOs motivate their crews and make sure they are driving the ship in the right direction, but they do not literally lead the way. Like our ship's captain navigating around pirates, CEOs change the direction of their ships frequently, but their crew is helping them get wherever they are going, not literally following them.

What about leading troops into battle? Is this more like a walking tour or being a ship's captain? Even if the battle commander does go first, the troops are not passive followers. They are more like the ship's crew. They have agreed to fight with the commander as his partners; they are thus not his followers in a literal sense. As a group, everyone fights alongside each other.

Leading by Example

Following seems to be implied when someone leads by example. Suppose a machine assembler discovers a simpler, quicker way to assemble a machine and others, seeing the merits of the new approach, do likewise. But we could call this emulating, copying or imitating just as readily as following. They are not literally going where the assembler has gone but, instead, doing as he has done. Strictly speaking, this is emulating, not following.

In any case, as I have argued in my other articles on followership, such following is a discrete act, not a role. Further, leading by example doesn't cover what we mean by leading when we talk about the role of a ship's captain with its connotation of the crew being ongoing members of a group. Leading by example is more like that of the tour guide in the sense of going somewhere first, thus a simple form of leadership.

Leading in Complex Contexts

It seems we have stolen the term leadership from simple contexts like leading people on a tour or through a jungle and applied it to more complex contexts where, strictly speaking, it doesn't really fit. In a business, we may call what CEOs do leading even though this is not literally what they do. Thus we may agree that leading does entail following while maintaining that leading really only occurs in very simple contexts. Now, leading may be a convenient shorthand term to label what CEOs do. But, because this use of the term is a somewhat arbitrary extrapolation from simpler contexts, we are not committed to calling employees followers. That is, if there is no leading, strictly speaking, then there is no following either.

Employees, like a ship's crew, have joined the ship of their own free will, thereby agreeing to be collaborators or partners on a journey. They are active participants without whom no destination can be reached; they are not followers. Following is simply too passive to describe how employees help to drive an organization forward.

If a group isn't going anywhere, just maintaining a stable state, then no one is literally either leading or following. Conversely, when a group is actively trying to achieve a goal, employees are collaborators, not followers.

But, when we do what our boss asks of us, are we not "following direction?" Yes, but this is like our tour guide giving us a map and letting us do the tour on our own. We are not literally being led anywhere in this case. Also, doing what our boss tells us is not like passively going on a tour. As with the ship's crew, our efforts help our boss get to his or her destination as well. Work is always a joint effort, not an act of following. When we talk of "following direction" we really mean agreeing to a request. Alternatively, if we are ordered to do something, we are not following because being told what to do is not leading.

The argument that leaders must have followers actually skips a premise. No doubt leadership is a relational term, as already mentioned. Thus it must have an object. When followership advocates so adamantly declare that there can be no leaders without followers, all they can really claim is that there can be no leaders without some object of leading. Thus a separate argument is required to justify calling the object of leading followers. If CEOs don't literally lead in the sense of going anywhere first, then we are right to question whether it is correct to call employees followers.

Consider selling for example. Like leading, selling has an object or target person. But we can choose any one of several names for the object of selling: customer, buyer, client, consumer or purchaser. So, surely we can name the object of leadership something other than follower. If the only thing we are committed to is that leadership must have some object, then the name we give it is open and any choice must be justified by a separate argument. Followership advocates do not have an argument to justify their choice. They simply jump from the premise that leaders must have objects to the conclusion that those objects must be called followers. The second step of this argument is arbitrary.

In any case, leading only entails following with a very simple connotation of leading: when it means literally going first. Followership advocates then transfer this simple connotation of leading to describe what CEOs do and here is where the argument fails.

Why it Matters

This debate may seem like a minor semantic quibble but it is very important for the sake of deep employee engagement. The term follower originates in simple contexts like going on a walking tour. The fact that the word has such a passive connotation surely proves that it belongs in simple contexts where people literally do nothing but passively follow.

But we need to abandon the language of followership in complex organizations. It is self-defeating wherever there is a desire to foster deeper employee engagement, to encourage a genuine partnership among all crew members on a voyage together.

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