The Death of Followership

Mitch McCrimmon
Posted: 01/19/2011

On LinkedIn has "connections," Facebook has "friends," and on Twitter you have "followers." But calling employees followers is disempowering. The followership bandwagon needs to be derailed to achieve full employee engagement.

Followership conjures up images of the industrial age, as conveyed by the metaphor of the organization-as-person, where the "head" thinks and the "hands" do, when employees were called "hired hands."
Industrial age organizations were rigid structures with everyone in fixed leader/follower roles where direction flowed top-down only and where only managers could think; employees had only their "hands" to bring to work.
Advocates of followership recognize that employees have more to offer than their hands. But their language makes efforts to engage employees like trying to bail out a boat with a hole in it.
Followership's dubious rationale
No doubt leadership 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 roles to fully engage employees.
From roles to occasional action
Suppose you are a health care Chief Executive with a finance background. What leadership do you show to doctors? You can't direct their daily work. You might lead on cost effectiveness or similar issues. But, your main role is to create a supportive environment, then get out of the way, so that medical professionals can do their work without direction from you.
Thus being a Chief Executive is a role, but leadership is not because you only show it on certain issues and not at all if it isn't required.
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 promoting a new vision. Once the change is achieved you stop beating your 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? Surely it is odd to call such rebels followers just because they report to you.
Suppose you invite your team to develop an action plan so they will own it. Because their proposal is better than yours, you adopt it. Who is following and who is leading now? In this situation, employees are only followers if leadership and followership are roles.
Executives behave in several ways, only one of which is leadership. Sometimes they coach employees rather than lead them. Other times they negotiate with suppliers or 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 modern organizations 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. Employees who mainly think for themselves may occasionally follow your direction but they are NOT followers by virtue of their 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.
The leader as tour guide
1. A tour guide leads people on foot through ancient ruins. The tourists are followers because the leader goes first, literally leading the way. Such following is a passive activity because followers contribute nothing to getting anywhere. When leading people from a burning building or who are lost in a jungle, following is equally passive.
2. But suppose our tour guide takes 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 are not literally following him.
3. A ship's captain needs to recruit a crew to transport a valuable cargo through pirate-infested waters. This is very different from our bus tour because the captain can't go anywhere without a crew. The crew is propelling the ship. Crew members are therefore the captain's partners not his followers.
Convincing the crew to help run the ship is like influencing people to sign up for the bus tour. 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 need a crew to get anywhere. Once on board, the crew propels the ship. CEOs motivate their crews and drive the ship in the right direction, but they do not literally lead the way because they cannot go anywhere first.
But, do employees not follow direction? No, because following direction really means agreeing to a request. Alternatively, if they are ordered to do something, they are not following because being told what to do is not leading.
We can surely choose another label for employees other than calling them followers. A person who is sold to can be called a customer, buyer, client, consumer or purchaser. Similarly, we can call employees partners, associates or contributors.
Employee engagement and followership
With competitive advantage depending on innovation, executives have fewer answers. The power of knowledge workers is rising because they generate this form of competitive advantage. When innovators promote new products to management, we have to wonder who is leading whom.
To be fully engaged, employees need to operate like self-managing businesses, suppliers, collaborators or partners. We need new language for this way of working to avoid casting employees as followers. The language of followership hinders deep employee engagement and must be abandoned.
Indeed, to achieve deeper engagement, employees must 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 the status quo. He showed courage, the courage of a leader, not that of the so-called "courageous follower."

Mitch McCrimmon
Posted: 01/19/2011

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