If you’re the type to focus obsessively on becoming a better leader, then let this quick video from entrepreneur Derek Sivers remind you of the power of followers (if not the universality of dance skills):
Sivers isn’t the only leadership thinker out there who is convinced we’re generally a little too focused on those at the top at the expense of the all-important supporting cast. Barbara Kellerman, a professor at Harvard’s School of Government, has made her career out of studying and celebrating the power and importance of followers. She feels that, perversely, an obsession with being "the leader" can actually make those at the top less effective.
"The modern leadership industry, now a quarter-century old, is built on the proposition that leaders matter a great deal and followers hardly at all. Good leadership is the stuff of countless courses, workshops, books, and articles. Everyone wants to understand just what makes leaders tick," she has written in the HBR. "Good followership, by contrast, is the stuff of nearly nothing."
The Declining Power of Leaders
So what, you might say. Being a great contributor is doubtless important but it’s a separate business from leading. Not anymore, argues Kellerman. These days, thanks largely to the social upheavals starting in the 1960s and the empowering forces of technology, the lines between leader and follower are blurrier than ever before with the two sometimes blending into one another and other times swapping places.
"Leaders today are vulnerable, as never before, to pressures from once-mute followers who now have the cultural temerity and technological capacity to protest loud and clear," she has written, pointing to popular protest movements that have ousted ineffective and corrupt regimes around the world. But it’s not only bad political leaders that feel the effects of these changes. Even good business leaders are finding they need to do things differently.
"In an era of flatter, networked organizations and cross-cutting teams of knowledge workers, it’s not always obvious who exactly is following (or, for that matter, who exactly is leading) and how they are going about it. Reporting relationships are shifting, and new talent-management tools and approaches are constantly emerging. A confluence of changes… have influenced what subordinates want and how they behave, especially in relation to their ostensible bosses," Kellerman points out in her HBR article.
Less Leaders More Citizens?
In order to be a truly great leader in this new world, Kellerman argues, you need to have a real and profound appreciation for followers and their power, as well as the willingness to take the follower role when the time is right. Which can be tricky if you’re too invested in the idea of being "the leader."
No doubt, if you’re a business owner keen to lead, you’re interested in the subject for good rather than egotistical reasons -- you want your business to thrive, your employees to be happy and your community to benefit. But what if Kellerman is right and the traditional prism of "leadership" is actually an outdated way to think about those goals? Is there a better alternative -- a new way to look at things that acknowledges the increasing power of followers?
"It should not be a universe of leaders. It should be a universe of global citizens," Kellerman told Eva Shang in an interview for the Harvard student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. Shang sums up the implications of this shift nicely: "If we want to cultivate a world of global citizens, intent not on the personal glory associated with being the 'leader', we must recognize the value of being a follower. Both leaders and followers are fluid categories that should allow for shifting of power between the two. If the ultimate goal is a better world, maybe it should not matter so much who is doing the leading."
Ironically, are you too focused on leading to be a great leader?