Volume 12, Number 8
Chaleff is president of Executive Coaching & Consulting
and chairman of the board of the Congressional Management
He is author of The Courageous Follower (Berrett-Koehler,
San Francisco, 2003).
different situations, different qualities are most needed and
productiveócourage, diplomacy, consistency, firmnessóare all
virtues which have their place.
But any virtue taken to an extreme and used in the wrong
situation can become a vice.
Courage becomes recklessness, diplomacy becomes
appeasement, consistency becomes rigidity, firmness becomes
a leader acquires power, qualities that contribute to success are
affirmed and reinforced and may begin to be relied on excessively.
When a leader receives only positive feedback, these
qualities can be reinforced to the point where they become
Similarly, flaws that may be of minor consequence when
power is small can become magnified with the increase of power.
In either case, the leaderís talents may be eclipsed by
leaders are the spark, the flame that ignites action.
With vision, they generate and focus power.
But followers are the guarantors of the beneficial use of
Dynamic leaders may use power well, but they cannot be the
In their passion, their expansiveness, their drive, dynamic
leaders are prone to excess: a deal too large, a bottom line too
important, a cause too righteous, an image too pure, a lifestyle
too rich, and enemy too hated, a bridge too far.
We provide the balance if we can stand up to our
the heart of that balance is the necessity for relationship.
Genuine relationships will not tolerate extremes, which
The key to personal balance for leaders is the quality of
their relationship with followers.
Honest, open relationships will provide a steady stream of
It is only through this feedback that leaders can
accurately perceive and modulate their behavior, policies, and
we are not willing to risk whatever relationship we have built
with a leader by providing honest feedback, we instead risk losing
the whole dream for which we have both been working.
We will grow more cynical about the leader, and the leader
will grow increasingly unreal about the impact of his actions.
Two essential elements of relationship are developing trust
and then using that trust to speak honestly when appropriate; one
without the other is meaningless.
The challenge for the courageous follower is to maintain a
genuine relationship with the leader, not the pseudorelationship
of the sycophant.
enough, one of the challenges followers often face is helping
leaders develop tolerance, decency and, in a sense, maturity.
All humans struggle with the need to grow up, to accept
that the rest of the world is not here to serve us, that people
are going to differ with us, and that this is okay.
The world soon teaches most of us these lessons, and we
find ways of coping with our younger egocentric view of life even
if we do not fully transform it.
skill and circumstances combine to put us in a position of formal
leadership, our early egocentric impulses are vulnerable to
If, as too often happens, leaders are surrounded by
followers who kowtow to them, the immature parts of their
personality, which have not been fully transformed, tend to regain
the immature aspects of a leaderís personality appear with
increased frequency, this leaves us in the odd and difficult
position of serving a leader who is competent, even brilliant in
some dimensions, and a spoiled brat in other respects.
The internal confusion and conflict that a follower may
feel when confronted by the discrepancy between the mature and
immature traits of a leader should not be underestimated:
Is this brilliant, sometimes abusive leader deserving of my
support or not?
would not be such a difficult question if we felt empowered to
challenge a leader about the immature behavior while supporting
the mature skills and judgment he brings to the group.
If our behavior is disruptive to the group, the leader is
expected to raise the issue with us; similarly, we need to break
the taboo against our raising behavior issues with the leader.
is difficult to break the taboo because our early conditioning
about leaders takes place in childhood, at home and school, where
others are held responsible for our behavior but we are not held
responsible for theirs.
The power of our early conditioning is so strong that for
most of us it is an act of courage to confront a leader about
counterproductive behavior, instead of an ordinary act of
in so many aspects of relationship, if we have difficulty with a
leader who displays immaturity it is because we also have issues
Too often, because of our sense of powerlessness, we
complain protractedly to others about a leaderís behavior
instead of taking effective action.
We do not serve the leader or organization well by
immaturely whining about a leaderís behavior instead of
confronting the leader and participating in a process of mutual
requires a courageous follower to confront a powerful leader about
The situation can resemble confronting a young child
holding a loaded gun; you may be shot persuading the child to put
it down. It
requires a skillful follower to confront a leader in a way that
simultaneously respects the accomplished adult, preserves the
adultís self-esteem, and challenges the immature behavior.
the sometimes very large differences in position within an
organization can be a challenge in establishing a true
relationship with a leader.
Though we may work closely with the leader, the difference
in relative status or elevation of our positions can form a chasm
in the relationship.
The sources of an elevation gap are varied:
conditions may prompt us to think, ďWho am I to question this
person?Ē and disregard our perceptions or interpretations of
We must stay highly alert to this reflex reaction and
question it carefully.
If it is the premise of our relationship we will fail both
ourselves and the leader.
Bennis reports that 70 percent of followers will not question a
leaderís point of view even when they feel the leader is about
to make a mistake.
From their elevated positions leaders are prone to losing
touch with the common reality.
we have thoughtfully considered the merits of our observations,
our challenge is to rise above the intimidating nature of the
difference in elevation and present our ideas.
Speaking forthrightly to an ďelevatedĒ leader is not
presumptuous; it is an essential part of courageous followership.
Equal Footing With the Leader
look a leader in the eye and credibly deliver unpalatable
observations or sharply differing opinions requires an internal
sense of equal worth.
Followers usually cannot match up to a leaderís external
qualities, such as the trappings of formal power, and must find
their equal footing on intellectual, moral, or spiritual ground.
How can we do this?
we remember and speak to our common humanity, we need not be
seduced, dazzled, or intimidated by the symbols of higher office.
Neither we nor the leaders we support are our titles,
whether this be secretary, boss, or president.
We are human beings who pass through this existence with
gifts and needs, anxieties and dreams, strengths and
If we, as leaders and followers, remember our common
nature, we will deal with each other out of mutual respect, not
out of disdain or awe.
need to closely observe ourselves in the presence of power to see
how we behave.
If we find ourselves speaking or acting with exaggerated
deference, we are relating to the title, not to the person
If we observe ourselves being even subtly obsequious toward
a leader, we should try to look past the title, trappings, and
power of office to see the human being occupying the office.
Who is the leader outside of this specific role?
on how private the leader is, we may not be able to answer all
And the answers are not as important as our ability to
touch the leaderís humanity.
We need to demythologize leaders, to see them holistically,
to be able to identify with their pain and joy so we can talk to
them as one human being to another.
We need to be able to comfortably ask ourselves, ďHow can
I help this fellow human being whose lot has been cast together
As we answer this, we affirm the worth we bring to the
relationship and find our equal footing.
Courage to Listen to Followers
courageous followers are successful at steering leaders away from
potentially disastrous behaviors, actions, or policies, we rarely
see the process or even recognize its results.
The media do not typically report preventive actions they
do not see or catastrophes that didnít occur.
when leaders or organizations self-destruct, we only see the
visible acts, or failures to act, of the leadership.
Unfortunately, courageous followers do not always succeed,
despite their best efforts.
Attempts that courageous followers may have made to head
off the disaster usually remain invisible.
we begin the new millennium, contrary to this general rule of
courageous follower public invisibility, people around the world
got a rare glimpse of attempts from below to head off disaster in
a range of U.S. institutions.
In time, these specific events and personalities will fade
from popular view, but leaders would do well to remember such
examples as cautionary tales.
examples include a midlevel vice president attempting to caution
the CEO of Enron, the countryís largest energy trading
corporation, that its accounting procedures were egregiously
misrepresenting the real financial position.
She took a large personal risk by breaking with the
corporate culture and sounding the alarm.
Instead of treating the vice presidentís information with
utmost seriousness, he quashed further investigation.
In the months after the infamous September 11 terrorist
attacks, information emerged on the attempts by law enforcement
field personnel to alert headquarters to signs of impending
Another example of leaders not paying deserved attention to
real concerns is the U.S. Catholic Church pedophilia scandals.
events, and our own experience, confirm that all the courage and
skill in the world canít assure that a leader will listen to
This in no way excuses followers from making vigorous
efforts to communicate effectively.
But it does require an examination of what responsibility
leaders have when followers do their best to raise important
This is especially so when we, ourselves, are in the
by definition, want to succeed.
Sometimes their road to success does not lie in the
direction they think or cannot be traveled at the speed they
By failing to allow for this possibility, despite the
signal flags being raised by loyal supporters, many leaders before
them have crashed into walls and shattered the dreams of all those
who had a stake in the journey.
Leaders must learn how and when to listen.
If they donít they may as well cover the instruments on
their dashboards, fire their pit crews, and race with abandon down
the track, until they run out of gas or are stopped abruptly by