A Wolf in Sheeps clothing

An article was slyly placed under my nose some time back and has since kept a warm space in a corner of my mind on what may seem like random topics. However random it may seem, our shared national political:social climate redeems its relevance. The subjects I refer to are leadership and followership.

When I think of natural leaders and followers my mind is immediately drawn to wolf social structure. Pack culture is traditionally thought to be lead by an alpha pair who dominate in power and strength, heading the pack for the safety of all involved; yet, research may tell us it is not due to stereotypical “Alpha” qualities that these leaders hold position. “It may be that among wolves the alpha is the dominant not by virtue of an aggressive nature or a sharper bite, but by virtue of an ability to hold the pack together, to give it comfort and coordination and belonging.” (Steinhart, 1995)


In an article published in a 1988 edition of the Harvard Business Review, Robert Kelley concisely laid out the importance of Followership to organizational success. He stated that what distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is “enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation — without star billing — in the pursuit of an organizational goal”. His chart, as seen above, details these attributes of following as such:

  • Sheep are passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and sense of responsibility. They perform the tasks given them and stop. (Nigel Tai, 2020)
    Yes People, they are a livelier but equally un-enterprising group — deferential and even servile (somewhat over-valued and attractive to weak bosses who become reliant on their validation).
  • Alienated Followers, are critical and independent in their thinking but passive in carrying out their role. (Nigel Tai, 2020)
    Somehow, sometime, something turned them off. Often cynical, they tend to sink gradually into disgruntled acquiescence, seldom openly opposing a leader’s efforts.
  • Survivors, who perpetually sample the wind and live by the slogan “better safe than sorry.” They are adept at surviving change. (Nigel Tai, 2020)
    Survivors are malleable and purposefully seek to adapt their posture and attitude to fit in with the prevailing culture of their cohorts, re-moulding as day-to-day requirements dictate.
  • Effective Followers, who think for themselves and carry out their duties and assignments with energy and assertiveness. (Nigel Tai, 2020)
    Effective followers, think for themselves, carry out their duties and assignments with energy and assertiveness, are well-balanced and responsible and can succeed without strong leadership.

The article aforementioned feels quite timely and speaks in praise of followers. When our world and our country appear to have hit record tensions the position of leadership is as hot a topic as you can discuss. Now more than ever I would emphasize for our leaders and innovators to understand the importance of Followership in everyone’s overall success. Following has held many negative stigmas, society often views followers as people of little motivation, ambition, importance, even minimal competency. I argue you cannot be a compelling leader without thoroughly understanding and considering the importance of the role of the follower. This role is what holds our pack together and keeps us strong. Without Followership we are nothing.

“Innovators must be both followers and leaders; moving between roles as the situation demands it, and always considering the implications of their day-to-day business on those teams they are leading, and those leaders that they follow… Effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts at different hours of the day (Nigel Tai, 2020).”

In order to gain the freedom to be part of a movement larger than yourself, you must be courageous enough to place yourself within a hierarchy. You must be committed enough to be part of an effort which works towards a goal you are not capable of accomplishing as an individual. You must be humble enough to relinquish ego and work as a group. Being a member of a team and not being the leading figure does not make you any less vital to the mission, the lesson to be emphasized is understanding it is the communal strength which drives the success of the whole. Do I have you singing Kumbaya or calling everyone comrade yet? No? Solid – Moving on.

Deannadh gach neach a dhicheal
Whatever Thou Art, Act Thy Part Well — Gaelic Proverb

Following as well as leadership has been picked apart in as many ways as one can imagine, in this instance I continue to lean on the wisdom of Kelley to assist with role definition. What qualifies a strong follower? How do we characterize the role even further? Are there desired qualities a follower should exemplify? According to Kelley, the ideal follower is seen as someone who is:

Self-Managing
Self-managing followers don’t depend on the Leader instructing them how to do a task or how to think about that task; they are able to understand the rationale for the chosen innovation goal and to lead themselves to a set of actions that enable them to achieve this. They will seek just enough direction from their leader to understand the expectations, boundaries or rules that condition their work, and then they will execute their plan. Key to achieving this sweet spot of leader-follower interaction is insight and trust. Effective self-management requires the follower to have good insight in to the strengths and weaknesses of their own ideas and capabilities so they can seek additional help where required.

Committed
We should commit to keeping our eyes on the bigger relational picture as much as the project at hand. In order to accomplish this we require insight to be nurtured and trust from leadership to accept learning and room for innovation. If you are looking to keep your crew involved and your values mutually respected, a healthy work environment has to be sustained.

Competent
At the beginning of this journey the question is more about being professional (timekeeping; attitude; initiative; attention to detail and follow-through) whilst also giving full reign to the curious, creative and collaborative aspects of our work personas in pursuit of innovation.

Courageous
Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway: delivering the pitch, the counter-argument or the unpopular view even though someone will think it foolhardy, immature or downright crazy. A good leader knows the importance of followers that will stand up and make their voice heard even when the view is opposite to her own and create the atmosphere that affords this.

A good follower can make their case politely and with good humor, and respect the honest feedback that follows. Similarly, courage is needed to seek out feedback from different quarters. (Robert Kelley, 1988)

**PAUSE HERE** Sidebar: The fear of looking stupid holds you back. If you don’t know/understand, ask.

Myth: Asking for help signals incompetence—especially at work.
Reality: Seeking help at work shows others that you want to do the job
right—and to develop and learn.

“When it comes to internal barriers when asking for help, fear and pride are right at the top. Imposter syndrome or excessive pride can blind you to the people and resources around you that can answer difficult questions. It may feel good to do it all on your own and give your ego a stroke, but it make take much longer than if you ask someone who has done it before and learn from their mistakes (don’t undervalue the negative data!).” (Anjali Gopal, 2015)

Take the time to identify precisely what you need, who to ask, and what to ask.

“..people who are willing to ask for help have a really great attribute. Because it means that you’re willing to put yourself behind the importance of the project you’re working on.” (Kruse, 2018)


As with wolf-pack culture, to be a successful leader you must intimately understand the needs of the pack. If we allow our future leaders to stumble down the same misguided outlines and stereotypes we will continue to chase our own tails. If we can learn to grow less as individuals and more as communities and a society armed with equality, mindfullness, and willingness to adapt perhaps positive progress could be achieved.

Alpha, Omega; Introvert, Extrovert; Right-wing, Left-wing; Leader, follower… The bigger issue lies in forgetting there is in-between space, we can be many things and improve upon the whole, thus creating greater understanding overall.

People become more effective leaders when their behaviors reflects the shared values, concerns and experiences of the group. The rapport which is established by being “one of us,” who is “doing it for us,” when looking out for the invested interests of the group rather than the individual is undeniable.  Those leaders who distance themselves from the group only serve to fall in love with their own image and self-importance. Detachment is the fastest and best way to create followers who fall out of love with their leadership. Not only will this stifle the followers willingness to follow, but the leaders capacity to lead. This can only ever be a path to organizational mediocrity.

Being a good leader means:
Being a good follower; identifying yourself as a member of the team, releasing the temptation to “fall in love with your own image”, embracing change with the flexibility/resiliency required and working with the purpose for group success.

Being a good follower means:
Being committed to the task at hand, competent and able to self-manage, courageous enough to offer constructive feedback (even in the face of adversity), and humble/confident enough to ask for assistance when the job is unclear or exceeds your personal limitations.


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