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The Death of Followership

The current push to call employees followers is a massive drag on efforts to engage them. The followership bandwagon needs to be derailed if we are to realize the full potential that employees have to offer.

Calling an employee a follower is disempowering, not to say patronising. Followership conjures up images of the industrial age, a time conveyed by the metaphor of the organization-as-person, where the "head" thinks and the "hands" do. It is no coincidence that employees were once called "hired hands."

Industrial age organizations were rigid structures with everyone in fixed leader/follower roles where direction flowed top-down only. In this Dickensian world, only managers could think; employees had only their "hands" to bring to work.

Followership is founded on good intentions, however. Its champions recognize that employees have more to offer than their hands. But the language of followership makes efforts to engage employees like trying to bail out a boat with a hole in it.

Followership's Dubious Rationale

No doubt leadership in the abstract entails followership. Just as you can't sell without a buyer, you're not a leader without followers. Thus, it is argued, we must call employees followers if we are to refer to their bosses as leaders.

But this argument skips a premise: that leadership and followership are roles. We need to break the stranglehold of static roles to fully engage employees.

From Roles to Occasional Action

If leadership is not a role but occasional influence, then when employees influence the boss to think or act differently, they are showing leadership bottom-up, not acting as followers. Old fashioned role-talk obscures this perspective.

Suppose you are a health care Chief Executive. Let's say that you have a finance background. What leadership do you show to doctors, highly educated knowledge workers?  You can't direct their day to day work. You might take a lead on cost effectiveness or other broad issues. But, for the most part, your role is to create a supportive environment, then get out of the way, so that highly skilled professionals can do their work without specific direction from you.

This example suggests that being a Chief Executive is a role, but leadership is not because you only show leadership on certain issues and maybe not at all if it isn't required. We say that leadership is an influence process and you may well influence your doctors to use more cost effective treatments, show more empathy to patients or make other broad process changes.

Occasional influence, however, is an act, not a role. When doctors follow your lead on a particular issue, you are both engaged in an occasional act, one of leading and one of following. Thus, if leadership is not a role, then doctors are not stuck in a followership role either.

Suppose you are a CEO in a business and you are promoting a new vision. Once the change is achieved you stop beating this particular drum. Thus you show leadership occasionally. While employees may choose to follow this particular lead, this does not consign them to a follower role on an ongoing basis.

What if some employees passively resist your new vision? They go through the motions but are not committed, thus choosing not to follow your lead in this instance. Surely it is odd to call such rebels followers just because they report to you.

Suppose you need your team to fully own a change in direction and you opt for a democratic approach, hoping that they will come up with an action plan that is acceptable to you. In fact, their proposal is better than yours and you are happy to adopt it. Now, are your team members followers in this situation? We can only call them followers here if you are a leader and they are followers by virtue of your roles, regardless of the situation.

When you coach employees to help them find their strengths, you ask questions and listen. Perhaps you give them special projects to help identify their strengths. But if you are operating in facilitative mode, how can this be leadership (assuming that leadership has something to do with providing direction)?

Perhaps we should say that executives behave in a number of ways, only one of which is leadership. Sometimes they coach employees rather than lead them. Other times they negotiate with suppliers or build relationships with customers, neither of which is leadership. Hence leadership is an occasional act; it is only being an executive that is a role.

Our image of a leader is like that of a tour guide who leads every step of the way. If you were the only person who knew the way out of a dangerous jungle, you would be in the lead continuously until your group reached a safe destination.

But, in a modern, complex organization made up of intelligent, self managing knowledge workers who, for the most part, can find their own way, you don't need to do much leading. Thus, in knowledge intensive contexts, leadership has shifted from an ongoing role to an occasional activity. Employees who mainly think for themselves may occasionally follow your direction but they are NOT followers by virtue of their role.

Leaders may have followers in a role-based, ongoing sense in simple groups like street gangs, but we need to recognize that leadership is different in large complex businesses where it becomes more of an occasional activity than an ongoing role.

Contrast modern business with a 19th century factory. As a front-line supervisor you have just hired a new, totally unskilled employee with no education or work experience. In this situation, you have to provide nearly constant direction to your new employee, at least for the first few months. Also, all direction flows one way and the employee is by no means self managing.

In an industrial age factory, talk of leadership and followership as fixed roles made some sense but it is obsolete today in a world of highly qualified knowledge workers who can think for themselves, manage their own work and whose ideas are often better than their boss's. Ironically, followership advocates appreciate how the world has changed. They just need to abandon their Dickensian language.

Employee Engagement and Followership

While they were passive in the industrial age, modern employees take initiative. They manage themselves far more today. The empowerment movement was not just about pushing decisions downward. It also encouraged employees to take more responsibility for managing themselves and their own work.

While we have made a lot of progress, the old metaphor of the organization-as-person is still lurking below the surface. Executives are still supposed to have the answers while employees are expected to implement the boss's decisions. The rationale for delegation is to free up the manager to do more strategic thinking (as "heads") thus confining employees to execution (as "hands"). Until employees are more involved in plotting direction we have a long way to go to fully engage them.

With competitive advantage depending more and more on innovation, executives have fewer and fewer answers. The power of knowledge workers is rising because they are the primary source of this form of competitive advantage. When innovative knowledge workers promote new products to management, we have to wonder who is leading whom.

It is a huge challenge to change cultures so that employees are more like self-managing businesses, suppliers, collaborators or partners. We need new language for a new way of working, thus avoiding labels that cast employees in concrete as followers. The language of followership is getting in the way of deep employee engagement and must be abandoned.

In fact, to achieve deeper engagement, organizations need to encourage employees to STOP thinking and behaving like followers. Instead they need to think like leaders, especially like Martin Luther King, Jr. The essence of his leadership was to champion changes to a system he saw as faulty. He showed courage, the courage of a leader, not that of the so-called "courageous follower."

With such a premium on innovation, organizations need employees to seek leadership opportunities: ways of improving products and processes where they can lead the way by promoting changes that benefit the business. The language of followership hampers this mindset. The truth is that the followership bandwagon rests on a keep-it-simple abstraction (leadership entails followership) that doesn't hold water once you look below the surface.

Surely it is time to start calling employees collaborators, associates or team members and abandon the patronising, disengaging followership language.

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