Leadership: not the be-all and end-all of business

Australian workplaces are underperforming and do not get the ‘basics’ of leadership and management right, according the biggest study of Australian leadership capability in 20 years, The Study of Australian Leadership.

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Australian leaders and managers are not well trained, according to the study, which was commissioned and published by the Centre for Workplace Leadership, a joint initiative to research and train leaders by the Federal Government and the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Business and Economics.

"There is no evidence to support the view great leaders create successful organisations." -Kath Walters

How can this be? Well, for one thing, too much is written about leading. Precious little about following. And it appears high performance following is critical.

Every year, $US50 billion is spent on leadership training and development, writes Barbara Kellerman in her book The End of Leadership.

Books about leadership have exploded. In the early 1980s, publishers released an average of three books on leadership a year! By the end of the decade, that number had grown to 23. And today? There are hundreds, if not thousands.

The underlying assumption about leadership is it is so important the success or failure of any organisation depends upon it. Yet, there is no evidence to support the view great leaders create successful organisations, Kellerman tells us.

However, it is absolutely true when it comes to bad leadership. Bad leadership will take any organisation down. Corruption. Hubris. Greed. All fatal.

When these are the kinds of messages communicated from the top of any organisation, expect the worst.

The world got the worst with the global financial crisis. This was, as Kellerman points out, a failure of leadership in nearly every kind of organisation from banks to regulators to the credit-rating agencies. The list is long.

The problem, she argues, is there is too much focus – and money spent – on leadership, and not enough on ‘followership’.

The followership stigma

Followership is an underrated idea, says Peter Gahan, the chief executive of CWL.

“The idea of followership gets talked about in jokey way; people taking the mickey out of it,” Gahan says.

“It is characterised as passive, as if followers are automatons without feelings, interests, or preferences, with no views, judgements of their own. They only react to the vision of their heroic or enigmatic leader.”

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the distinguished service professor of management at Carnegie Mellon University, Robert Kelley, notes most organisations “…assume that leadership has to be taught but that everyone knows how to follow”.

“This assumption is based on three faulty premises: (1) that leaders are more important than followers, (2) that following is simply doing what you are told to do, and (3) that followers inevitably draw their energy and aims, even their talent, from the leader,” he says.

Kelley wrote this articleIn Praise of Followers, in 1988 – that is 29 years ago! Little has changed since.

The stigma associated with being a follower — or a mere follower – remains. A good employee or citizen might be described as supportive and selfless at best.

More often, the qualities associated with anyone who does not aspire to leadership are not so generous: weak, unambitious, dispensable, lazy, exploitable and irresponsible.

What words do we associate with leadership? Good words when we think about the idea of leadership. Inspiring, influential, visionary.

The reality is often different. How many leaders might be better described as egotistical, arrogant, obstructive, unfair, unforgiving, irritating?

Cultivating followership             

Momentum is slowly building to shift the focus away from the heroic leader myth. Carlton Lamb, a leadership trainer and partner at accounting firm Deloitte, says the issue is one of communication.

Leaders need to become outstanding communicators,” he says. “The thing that most impacts that is their ability to listen, to stop and listen deeply, and resist the temptation to jump to solutions.”

“People want to feel listened to; leadership is making people feel that, in an authentic way that is not spin.”

New research provides a deep insight into the role of followers.

Gahan says followership has two functions.

“Followers work with leaders to get things done and to make sure there is movement after decisions,” he says. “But good followers are also about interrogating leaders.”

Unfortunately, leaders are not always comfortable with followers who interrogate them.

‘There is an inherent tension between the two roles,’ Gahan says. “Leaders often interpret active followers not so much as questioning but as recalcitrant or incompetent.”

“One classic issue is that leaders invite criticism and interrogation and then hear stuff they don’t want to hear. Then they punish which leads to silence.”

Lamb says leaders need to develop empathy: “As a leader, it is about everyone else. It is not about you [as leader], but about them [as followers]. Get your head into where they are at.”

In his HBR article, Kelley argues that a program of follower training should focus on topics like:

• Improving independent, critical thinking;

• Self-management;

• Disagreeing agreeably;

• Building credibility;

• Aligning personal and organizational goals and commitments;

• Acting responsibly toward the organization, the leader, coworkers, and oneself;

• Similarities and differences between leadership and followership roles; and

• Moving between the two roles with ease.

Reframing followership

Followership is not about democracy or consensus, Gahan says. Organisations have authority structures and leaders are held accountable and responsible for the success or failure of the companies they lead; that cannot be delegated.

Followership is about shared involvement in decision making - and not all decision making. Leaders must distil those diverse views and decide. Not everyone will agree with it.

For Australian organisations keen to lift their performance the challenge is to reframe followership. While leadership education has not delivered, according to the findings of the SAL, the skill of followership does not get much attention.

It’s up to leaders to embrace and nurture followership in a systemic way, Gahan says.

“Leaders have to think about having systems in place that enable followers to enact constructive rules of interrogation and shared decision making,” he says.  

In other words, to develop the quality that Keeley describes as “disagreeing agreeably”.

Keeley’s research revealed four key characteristics of power followers:

• They manage themselves well;

• They are committed to the organisation and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves;

• They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact.

• They are courageous, honest and credible.

These are all the psychological conditions for followers to be constructive, Gahan says.

“It’s not just about chucking rocks but having a more constructive view of the interrogative function,” he says.

At its best, power followership is creative and collegial. It offers the satisfaction of participating in a collective effort and outcome.

Power followers are, collectively, a source of action, creativity and wisdom. But the skill of following needs to be trained, fostered and valued by leaders.

Kath Walters is a content marketing consultant and freelance journalist

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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