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Followership is a Bastard

Followership is a child of the illegitimate union of leadership and management. To better engage employees, this union must be severed. When we see that employees report to managers, not leaders, we can call them associates or partners and stop using the disengaging follower label.

Followership's claim to legitimacy is based on the following argument:

  1. There are no leaders without followers just as there are no sales without buyers.
  2. Leaders occupy roles in charge of teams (used to be managers).
  3. Therefore all employees, by virtue of their roles, are followers.

But followership is a bastard if the union of leadership and management is illegitimate, that is if we reject the second premise of this argument. If leadership is only a discrete act of influence, not a role, then there are no followers because there are no leaders.

Many have tried to separate leadership from management. But they have failed because their concept of leadership is really just the icing on a cake made of management. Their leaders are managers on steroids. If leaders occupy roles in charge of teams, what managers used to do, then their similarities are greater than the differences invented to separate them.

When a business acquires another, it assimilates the latter's best parts and rejects everything else. This is what leadership has done by taking over the role of management while rejecting its negative aspects. This is the union that must be dissolved for deeper employee engagement.

The Illegitimate Union of Leadership and Management

In the 1960s when Blake and Mouton created their managerial grid, managers were respectable. But when management got tarred and feathered following the scandalous success of Japanese business in the West, nobody wanted to be a manager anymore. You were either a leader or nobody. Sensing the shift in sentiment, Blake and Mouton started calling their grid a leadership style instrument but, feeling stuck with the name, it is still called the managerial grid.

Leaders, not managers, are now in charge of teams. They direct the work, motivate people, maintain team spirit, coach employees and coordinate their efforts. But such leader behavior sounds so much like how a manager behaves that only their mother could tell them apart.

Because leadership and management compete for the same territory of getting work done through people, we concocted some totally arbitrary ways of differentiating them. Some say they have different styles; others a different emphasis.

Leadership and Management Style Differences

To separate leaders from managers, the former must be inspiring or transformational while the latter are uninspiring or transactional. But this is a case of the medicine being worse than the disease. By defining leadership as inspirational, we rule out front-line or technical leaders who lead through technical expertise or factual arguments despite being personally uninspiring.

Quiet, evidence-based leadership is not possible if leaders must be inspiring by definition. We can only maintain this grotesque self-deception by focusing on the glamorous end of the leadership spectrum: CEOs and heads of state. If we took front-line supervisors as our paradigm cases of how leadership works, the shine would quickly fade.

Surely the truth is that what it takes to show leadership is totally situational so, using style to define it is a futile exercise, a way to avoid admitting that leaders and managers really have the same focus of getting work done through people.

Leaders and Managers Have a Different Emphasis

Here are some of the popular clichés to differentiate leaders from managers:

  • leaders do the right things, managers do things right
  • leaders are effective, managers efficient
  • leaders are creative, managers not
  • leaders develop strategy,  managers execute
  • leaders liberate, managers control

These clichés, and others like them,  are a desperate attempt to legitimize leadership's takeover of management by glorifying one and damning the other. The oddest thing about these clichés is that there is absolutely no basis for them. They are nothing but arbitrary articles of faith contrived to justify replacing managers with leaders.

How can we understand such thinking? Well, we like to think in binary terms, like hot-cold, good-bad. Where we now apply binary thinking to separating leaders from managers, we once applied it to managers alone. We used to say that managers could have either one of two styles: they could be theory X or Y, initiate structure or show consideration, be task or people oriented, transactional or transformational. But when the Japanese drove managers out of business in the early 1980s, leaders got awarded all the good guy styles and managers got saddled with the bad guy ones.

What is the rational basis for this move? None. It was a purely emotional reaction to the success of the Japanese that led to a call to be rid of managers, nothing rational about it.

Management Upgraded

Instead of merging management's better half to leadership, we could upgrade management.

Management means achieving goals in a way that makes the best use of all resources. This definition applies to managing yourself, your money and time as well as people and organizational processes.

Management so defined is fully compatible with self-management, thus is not necessarily controlling. If we can't separate leadership from management in terms of style, then there is no reason why managers can't be inspiring.

An inspiring leader moves us to change direction while an inspiring manager motivates us to work harder. Bernard Bass's well known book on transformational leadership talked about achieving "performance beyond expectations," thus suggesting that leadership was about employee performance not about inspiring change. But this is really the territory of management, suitably upgraded.

We say that people want to be led, not managed. But this is only because management has been given an arbitrarily negative image. There is no reason why managers can't coach, nurture, empower, liberate and develop people.

Management reinvented is, first and foremost, a process for getting work done. It can be applied by all employees, not just executives. All employees engage in some management, even if only to manage their time. As work becomes ever more specialized and complex, employees need to be more self-managing. The key point here is that management is the same process whether we apply it to ourselves or to others.

Managers can be creative, but they can also use their facilitative skills to foster creative thinking in others and, thereby, stimulate innovation. They can think strategically and do the right things, not just execute or foster efficiency.

Whenever you decide how to spend your time, you are prioritizing, hence managing yourself. You decide both WHAT to do and HOW to do it. So, in managing yourself, you aim to "do the right things" not just "do things right." If you have this latitude in managing yourself, why wouldn't you grant the same privilege to managers?

Management aims to get the best return rather than operate in a chaotic or reactive way. It works by making decisions, prioritizing and, if people are managed, facilitating the efforts of others. Because all executives use management processes, all decisions they make, strategic or otherwise, are managerial. If leadership is an influence process, then it doesn't work through decision making.

Blinded by Roles

Talk of self-management shows that management is a process that all employees can apply outside of any role. Talk of roles prevents thinking outside the box about organizational functions. If management is a tool or process used by executives and other employees, then leadership is not a role either. Like the process of management, leadership is something that executives, and others, do occasionally.

We don't need to reject management, just its outdated version. As soon as we recognize that management is a process that all employees can apply, not just managers, we are free to reinvent it as a positive function for the good of all employees, including managers.

What is Leadership?

Leadership is, first and foremost, not a role. It is an occasional activity engaged in by executives and other employees. Just as executives think creatively on occasion, they also show leadership on a discrete, one-off basis. For instance, when CEOs promote a new vision, they turn their attention to other matters once it gets accepted. Promoting a vision to show leadership is thus a temporary activity, not a role.

Being an influence process, leadership is an action or, more precisely, an impact on a particular audience. This is how all influence works. Consider sales. The sales process starts at a point in time and ends when a customer buys. Similarly, you don't keep persuading your children to eat their vegetables once they start eating them.

Leadership means showing the way for others, either by example or by explicitly promoting a better way. Leadership promotes new directions.

But, crucially, this doesn't imply that management is stuck with implementation or preserving the status quo as popular clichés would have us believe. Managers can take groups in new directions too, either by unilaterally deciding where to go or by facilitating a group's choice of a new direction. Leadership, with no decision making power, works through influence only.

This means that there is no such thing as participative leadership. Decisions can be made in a participative manner. But no leadership is shown if no one clearly influences others to accept a particular decision. Like military intelligence, participative leadership is an oxymoron. There is no autocratic leadership either because leadership is an influence process so all unilateral decisions are managerial. Leadership can only be participative or autocratic if it is a role.

The reason we confuse leadership with occupying a role in a group is that we overlook kinds of leadership that occur outside of any role.  Here are some instances of discrete leadership impacts that are not role-based:

  • A front-line employee convinces management to adopt a new product idea thus showing leadership bottom-up.
  • Your least inspiring colleague convinces you to change direction by citing hard evidence thus having a one-off leadership impact.
  • Martin Luther King's speeches against segregation on buses led the U.S. Supreme Court to declare such discrimination unconstitutional.
  • When a country adopts unusually green practices and other countries follow suit, the latter have been led by the former.
  • Jack Welch's mantra of being number one or two in a market had a leadership impact on other companies around the globe.
  • Apple's innovations in computing, music and mobile telephony have had a leadership impact on their competitors.

Leadership as a discrete impact occurs between groups as well as individuals. By defining leadership as showing the way for others, we cover many kinds of leadership that are overlooked by our narrow focus on being in charge of a group. Clearly, if one group can lead another, then leadership isn't restricted to occupying a role within a group. In fact, it can't be a role at all if we want one definition of leadership to cover all cases.

The above instances illustrate pure leadership because those showing it have no managerial authority over those who follow. Such leadership works through influence alone, not by  making decisions for those who follow or by facilitating a discussion. Not being a role, there are only acts of leadership and acts of following. There are no followership roles here.

Leadership can be shown with a number of styles, including a factual appeal or by example. It can be inspiring when required. Where there is conflict, an inspiring leadership style can help. But being inspiring is only a situational influencing tactic, nothing to do with the actual meaning of leadership.

Benefits of Reinventing Leadership and Management

By saying that employees report to managers, we are free to call them associates, partners or anything more empowering than the patronising follower label. Just as leadership is a discrete act, so is following. Yes, leadership does entail followership. We just need to see that both leading and following are occasional acts, like buying, creating or inventing. They aren't roles.

This move paves the way for deeper employee engagement. Followership advocates have their hearts in the right place. They rightly see the need for employees to be more proactive and for managers to work  more closely with them in partnership. But the language of followership is self-defeating. Calling employees followers is patronising. It helps to keep them in their place just when businesses, crying out for faster innovation, need them to think and act like leaders.

One of the ironies of the followership bandwagon is that leaders are allegedly empowering while managers are portrayed as controlling. But calling employees followers is hardly empowering.

A second major benefit of this switch in perspective is wider sharing of the leadership load. It is no longer exclusively top-down. But it can only be bottom-up if we recognize that leadership is a discrete act that can come from any direction, even outside the organization.

A third major benefit of focusing on processes instead of roles is the reinvention of management. We may rightly criticize industrial age managers for being controlling, but management upgraded is a facilitative, supportive and nurturing process that we apply to ourselves as much as to coordinating the efforts of others.

The Death of Followership

Being a bastard, followership should never have been born. Its staunchest advocates argue that, if there are no followers, then there are no leaders. Well, this is not even a price to pay let alone a steep one. It is a blessing in disguise. Yes, there are no leaders, only acts of leadership. Thus there are only acts of following, no followers. How liberating!

We are now free to get on with engaging employees as associates or partners with none of the subservient-sounding followership language. We can encourage all employees to show leadership by finding and promoting a better way, thus both engaging them and fostering innovation.

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