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Follower Power

Most people think power falls on leadership; and leaders do in fact have power, but only because it is given to them. Power really rests with those who follow. This is because followers always have the choice to follow or not to follow a leader. If there is no choice, then it isn’t actually leadership, it’s coercion, manipulation, slavery. Let me explain in three main points.

To start, let’s first define power. Power comes from one's ability to influence another person, and that power typically comes from a relational component. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but generally, people choose to be influenced, and that happens through some sort of established relationship, like when a follower positions themselves to be influenced by someone in authority or leadership: boss - employee, doctor - patient, coach - athlete, teacher - student, therapist - client. Obviously there are several variables at play here, like integrity and trust, to name two biggies, but it’s a no-brainer to state that if followers did not choose to submit to a leader’s vision, direction and coaching, there would be no leader because there is no relational influence upon the follower.

The second point addresses follower characteristics. Speaking primarily about the work-setting, let me address what makes a great follower (which should scare some of you who call yourself a “leader”). The most effective followers are neither passive nor subservient, but humbly active, recognizing their individual ownership in choosing, not wielding that influence dominantly over others. They are collaborators and partners, encouraging and challenging leaders, demonstrating independence and critical thought. In my experience in coaching and consulting, not every person in position of leadership likes this type of follower, despite their effectiveness at increasing the bottom line and forwarding missional objectives. They are viewed as too threatening. This speaks more of the one in leadership, rather than the follower though, which takes us to the third point.

To be a leader over the best followers, you must be well thought out, organized and confident in your own abilities to guide others. Effective leadership, in my opinion, is based on service, not hierarchy (another article for another day). But at the heart of the point, those who make the greatest leaders, serve rather than rule because they recognize that those they lead entrust them with leadership responsibilities. It’s a two-way relationship, and followers aren’t dumb; they discover pretty quickly if you are worth their trust and devotion. In other words, you are only a leader because someone has deemed you worth following. And when I say it is a two-way relationship, I mean that great leaders protect and enable the success of their followers so well, that they give them freedom, great freedom, to create and produce. I love what Laszlo Bock (2015), former Sr VP of People Operations at Google, says about follower freedom: basically, if a leader is comfortable with the level of freedom granted his or her employees, then the freedom hasn’t gone far enough. That’s a really strong statement. What do you think about that leaders? And how about you powerful followers, how do you respond to that thought of freedom? It is critical to note that follower freedom is the absolute opposite of coercion, and makes the above mentioned variables of integrity and trust huge factors in the leader-follower relationship (another  topic saved for another day’s writing).

Pulling this together, the best of both leaders and followers always respect the choice of others. If you believe, as I do, that leadership is foundationally relational, then we must admit that looking at both sides of the leader-follower relationship is critical to the success of the whole. I wholeheartedly believe that followers are not positioned as servants of the leader(s), but that both leaders and followers are positioned to serve a common mission. How this occurs is transforming, in my opinion. Both the role of leader and follower are fully active, and should be journeys in personal and professional growth, maybe even to the extent that at times, the leader temporarily follows the follower (which can often be quite a growth point for the leader). If you are a great, at the top percentage of the best best of them, then you are not threatened by strong followers. You are not threatened because like that strong follower, you have done the hard (and potentially time consuming) work of knowing yourself, and each of your followers. Think about the show Undercover Boss for a moment. In almost all cases, the employees are moved to a greater degree of followership because their boss has learned who they are and their personal stories. The boss becomes a better (and often more generous) leader, and the employee in return becomes more devoted. THIS is the leader-follower partnership that creates the most successful outcomes.

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