There are no leaders without followers, no Leadership without Followership. The sooner we realise this, the better for all.
This article was written by guest writer Nestor Rondon, group psychologist and talent development professional.
Group psychology has taught us that groupality seems to precede leadership.
Leadership is a natural function, a system born within groups oriented to maximise cooperation and preserve the well-being of people, of the followers.
In essence, leadership is about followership.
In the last forty years, we have had an exponential increase in attention to the leader’s figure but not so much to the followers.
It is necessary to build a new narrative that helps us better understand followership and its importance.
It all started with cooperation
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari offers the interesting theory that one of the keys to human supremacy has been our ability to cooperate in complex and large-scale ways.
Being able to organise an entire tribe or clan around a common goal has been what has tipped the balance in our favour since the beginning of time, allowing us to survive glaciations, droughts, epidemics, and predators and organise migrations or navigate.
To cooperate is to operate in a shared way.
It is an operation in which a group of people contributes to the solution of a common problem (as opposed to collaborating, which is contributing to the solution of a problem that concerns only one person).
The psychoanalyst Pichon Rivière argues that the nature of a group is the movement. If we put a few people together, they will soon define and share a task (purpose) that will give way to the movement of the group, thus starting their cooperation.
However, even though purpose triggers cooperation, the latter is only sustainable if the group achieves a certain structure and organisation.
The group will generate, on the one hand, rules that will provide harmony and shared frames of reference (what we are, what can and cannot be done), and, on the other, roles that will emerge as a mechanism to assign participants and responsibilities.
At this point, leadership appears as one of the roles that, by nature, are born within a group’s life.
Rather than essential or necessary, leadership is simply natural.
Leadership is a byproduct of the group’s movement. The dynamic of the group generates leadership, not the other way around.
Regardless of the type of members a group has, leadership will always appear. This is because leadership is a role, a function, NOT a person.
Leadership only exists to maximise the cooperation of followers.
Without followers, there is no possible leadership. Regardless of the leadership qualities that someone may possess, without followers, there is no leadership, or, in any case, leadership will only be potential.
I am not seeking to reduce the concept but to expand it, incorporating (or perhaps restoring) what should be its central axis by definition. A teacher can be understood without students, but a leader cannot be understood without followers.
I’m aware that leadership is a complex phenomenon, but its essence should be the same: to contribute to the dynamics of the followers.
Barbara Kellerman tells us in her book “The End of Leadership” that leadership is a “function” that occurs thanks to the interaction of three elements with an equal level of importance: Leader, Follower, and Context.
Anyone who aspires to have a leadership position should learn primarily about followers and develop some contextual intelligence.
Followers seem to be the “missing point” in the leadership equation.
I am convinced that many of our readers have participated in at least some leadership seminars or have read some literature on the subject, so I would like to ask you, dear reader: how many times has the word follower appeared? What proportion of any leadership training curriculum at any respected academy or multinational corporation is devoted to gaining a detailed and accurate understanding of followers?
In the last forty years, we have had an exponential increase in attention to the leader’s figure, which has seemed to be inversely proportional to the interest aroused by the followers.
Being a leader is fashionable and sexy, while being a follower is seen as passive and negative.
Today it is almost impossible to visualise professional growth without feeling the call of leadership. The leadership narrative has gradually been transformed until it is virtually merged with the success narrative so that to be successful, you have to be a leader.
This begins to take shape in the academic world.
The mission statement of the Harvard Business School is “educate leaders who make a difference in the world”. The Harvard School of Dental Medicine states that it “develops and fosters a community of global leaders dedicated to improving human health”. Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Graduate School of Education also have the word leader in their mission statement.
Many companies and institutions guide the development of their talent based on “leadership competency” models, measure performance using leadership scales that are applied indiscriminately and independently of the role that the person occupies, and invest vast sums of money in training that, in most cases, has the word leader somewhere.
Throughout my professional practice, I have witnessed the impact caused by facing a team of people for the first time from a leadership role. Colleagues who have long dreamed of a promotion to a leadership position suddenly find themselves overwhelmed and surprised by the experience, even thinking that “if it weren’t for the fact that I have to manage people, my new leadership role would be great.”
Restoring the importance of the followers in the leadership equation is essential.
Thanks to social media, followers are increasingly de-individualised and blurred, becoming an asset numbering in the millions.
At the same time, the trend is to develop leaders by guiding them to think about themselves and exalting the most individualistic components of leadership, such as charisma, influence, persuasion, hyper-competitiveness, or strategic thinking.
It is not surprising, then, the proliferation of narcissistic or authoritarian tendencies that we see in our leaders and that increasingly marked inclination to understand companies or institutions in a mechanistic way.
Restoring the follower is incorporating the human dimension of leadership (which is almost redundant). It is nothing more than understanding how people behave both individually and in a group situation. It is to know and enhance the dynamics that are activated when people interact with each other:
How are they linked to each other, or what kind of link have they generated with the task at hand? What kind of roles and norms does the group establish, and to what extent can they be limiting? How are the resistances acting? How to strengthen alliances, dependencies, and identifications? How to build purpose or distribute power?
There is always a final objective: to maximise cooperation and guarantee the well-being of people.
Some words from Barbara Kellerman
Barbara Kellerman tells us the following:
“…there are other parallel truths: that leaders of every sort are in disrepute; that the tireless teaching of leadership has brought us no closer to leadership nirvana than we were previously; that we don’t have much better an idea of how to grow good leaders, or of how to stop or at least slow bad leaders than we did a hundred or even a thousand years ago; that the context is changing in ways leaders seem unwilling or unable fully to grasp; that followers are becoming on the one hand disappointed and disillusioned, and on the other entitle, emboldened, and empowered…”
As a talent management professional, I consider it a priority to stop and begin to critically reflect on some fundamental issues associated with leadership, even before continuing to launch any attempt to develop it:
1) It is necessary to build a new narrative about leadership that, among other things, restores its fundamental purpose or at least broadens our conception of what we understand as a leader.
2) We must incorporate the followers in our reflection and achieve a deeper understanding of the group’s dynamics, the followers’ place in the system, and the mechanisms we put in place to support their performance, but above all, to guarantee their well-being.
3) Finally, it is necessary to minimise the follower-leader dichotomy and understand leadership more as a system or a function, which supposes adopting a group perspective.
I believe that another leadership is possible, but real change will only come when we understand that beyond persuasion, charisma, or strategic thinking, the most defining quality of a leader should be a deep and genuine curiosity for the human condition, that leadership has much more to do with serving than with leading, and that perhaps in the future, the greatest challenge for a leader will be knowing how to give up leadership when appropriate.
There is a story of a drunk man who lost his keys on his way home. In the middle of the night, growling on his knees and hands, he searched over and over under a lamppost. After a while, he moved to the next lamppost and repeated the search. After watching him for a while, a man asked if he had lost something near a lamppost.
The drunk answered, “No”.
“Then why do you keep searching under the lampposts?”
The drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is”.
Maybe it’s time to start looking for answers in the places we haven’t looked at yet.
For more on leadership, read The 4 Leadership Qualities of the Future Leader