Leadership, Schmeadership. What REALLY Makes a Leader?

Good question. We can consult authors, dictionaries, and consultants and get different answers. I will not even presume to have a better answer. It is your answer, after all, that matters.

As my wife and I were doing our regular morning walk along the creek one day, I saw six ducks. They were living their lives doing duck things in their natural environment, totally oblivious to us up on the path. One was flapping its wings, making all kinds of racket, and chasing a second duck. It was not immediately successful, but eventually prevailed and the other duck moved farther away-for a while. A third duck was peacefully swimming downstream with three ducklings right behind. Can you picture it? You’ve probably seen similar leadership vignettes-but without the ducks.

Have you ever watched someone who seemed to have his act together, knew where he was going, and confidently went there, followed by some folks who seemed quite content to go there with him? Conversely, have you ever watched someone else with bluster and animation try to enforce his will on others? What was different about the results each obtained? Can you remember noticing? In my 30 years in management and consulting, I have seen these scenes-and the corresponding results-play out over and over.

They both get results. Both kinds of leaders are generally convinced their style is the best way to get results. Briefly, what I have seen is that the first team was probably less stressed, more confident, and more productive. (Why more productive? How is YOUR productivity when you are agitated, fearful or reluctantly agree to do something?) It has also been my experience that the first style overall gets better results faster.

I suggest the first was leading and the second was bullying. You may not agree, but that is okay. What I really want to talk about is why people follow, “followership,” if you will. That should give us good clues about how to lead so others willingly follow instead of resisting.

When I follow someone, it is usually because they are going somewhere I want to go and because I trust them to go where they say they are going and get us there safely.

By that measure then, the first implication for creating “followership” is that you need to know where you are going (“vision,” “plan”, “goals”, the usual). If you are reading this, chances are good you already know and do this, though jokes and cartoons abound about those who try to lead without knowing where they are going. You probably know some.

Without followers you are not a leader, you are just out for a walk. “Leadership” is a gift given by followers. The most effective leaders do not have to use force, threats, or the power of their position to be given the gift of leadership. So the second implication for creating “followership” is that you either need to find people that want to go where you are going, or you need to sell others on the value of changing their minds about where they want to go.

Can you do the latter with badgering or commanding? Yes, but it does not get as good results as helping them sell themselves on going there. They need to know what’s in it for them. (By the way, a reason like “So you will keep your job!” is not a useful answer, because the REAL message that carries with it is the threat of LOSING their job. Psychologists will tell you negative motivations are never as effective as positive motivations for inducing long-term, productive effort toward a desired, common goal.) Followers follow most willingly when they expect not just less pain if they follow, but more satisfaction and reward, that there is something they truly desire in it for them. That requires knowing your team well enough as people, as individuals, so you know what they value, why they would want to do something willingly.

The third implication for creating “followership” is to create an environment where team members feel safe to trust you. Strong leaders know they need to make sure they are creating an environment in which people feel safe to follow, safe to contribute, safe to think, safe to be creative, safe to take calculated risks with or without the leader’s pre-approval-even when going someplace they may never have gone before. That means they need to know where the “fences” are, the limits as defined by the leader, but not be micro-managed. This requires openness, participation and feedback.

The point is investing yourself in building up their capability to do excellent work. If they get better and better, their collective results will ultimately blow your socks off over and over and over! In my experience, a team led by a leader who is solidly in control, focusing on the current project, rarely creates those kinds of results. The truly awesome results have come from teams where the leader focused on helping the team do their best on projects in general, including the current project. They exerted a subtle, influencing kind of power that was more effective and less onerous. That requires a long-term perspective, intentional persistence and patient consistency in action and words.

In today’s rapidly changing markets, leaders that want to succeed cannot afford to have a team that is only as successful as one person can make them. They need to build teams where everyone is being all they can be.

Summarizing today’s Leadership QuickTip:

  • Develop and follow a vision that can be shared by your team.
  • Focus on creating long-term loyalty to team goals, not immediate compliance with short-term demands.
  • Be patient and persistent, strategically aligning today’s actions with tomorrow’s goals, including the key goal of developing the capabilities in your team to do exceptional work day after day after day.

How long does it take to create that kind of inspired “followership”? I have seen it done in months without external help and within weeks with the help of a professional coach. You can do it, regardless of which approach you choose!

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Leadership QuickTip Application Question: What are you willing to do today to make it easier and more attractive for others to follow you?

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Please feel free to use the blog comments to share hints from your personal experience in creating “followership.”

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Lead as though the future depends upon it!

(originally posted to my “Leadership QuickTips” blog in July 2006)