#582  Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 8        August 2003                 

Leader-Follower Dynamics
by Ira Chaleff

Mr. Chaleff is president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates (www.execoach.com) and chairman of the board of the Congressional Management Foundation.  He is author of The Courageous Follower (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2003).  

In 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 brutality.

As 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 dysfunctional.  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 weaknesses.

Dynamic 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 that power.  Dynamic leaders may use power well, but they cannot be the guarantors.  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 leaders. 

At the heart of that balance is the necessity for relationship.  Genuine relationships will not tolerate extremes, which become abusive.  The key to personal balance for leaders is the quality of their relationship with followers.  Honest, open relationships will provide a steady stream of uncensored feedback.  It is only through this feedback that leaders can accurately perceive and modulate their behavior, policies, and strategies.

  • Because of the unknowns, it takes courage for us to be open and direct with a leader while building a relationship.
  • How open is this leader willing to be with anyone?
  • How open can I be about myself?
  • Do I know how to read this person yet?
  • How does this individual respond to feedback?
  • If an issue is emotionally laden for me, how do I know my concern isnít exaggerated, or that Iíll present it well?
  • As I am rewarded for serving the leader well, how do I make sure I donít begin seeing the leader through self-serving lenses?

If 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.

Mature Relationships

Oddly 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.

When skill and circumstances combine to put us in a position of formal leadership, our early egocentric impulses are vulnerable to reemergence.  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 dominance.

If 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?

This 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.

It 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 relationship.

As in so many aspects of relationship, if we have difficulty with a leader who displays immaturity it is because we also have issues with maturity.  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 development.

It requires a courageous follower to confront a powerful leader about immature behavior.  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.

Differences in Elevation

Overcoming 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:

  • The leader has been elected and the follower has been hired.
  • The leader founded the organization.
  • The leader owns the company.
  • The leader is considerably older and has held many elevated positions.
  • The leader holds a formal senior rank.
  • The leader is wealthy.
  • The leader has made major contributions to the organization.
  • The leader is widely regarded as a genius, hero, or a celebrity.

These conditions may prompt us to think, ďWho am I to question this person?Ē and disregard our perceptions or interpretations of events.  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.

Warren 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. 

If 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.

Finding Equal Footing With the Leader

To 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?

If 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 vulnerabilities.  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.

We 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 carrying it.  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?

  • Where has he come from?
  • What are his values?
  • Does his private persona differ from his professional one?
  • Does he feel supported or lonely?
  • Is he genuinely confident or perhaps masking insecurity?
  • Can he be playful?
  • Does he have a sense of serving a higher ideal or power?
  • Can we envision him as a parent, a son, a husband?
  • What failures and tragedies has he experienced?
  • What are his fears?
  • What are his aspirations?

Depending on how private the leader is, we may not be able to answer all these questions.  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 with mine?Ē  As we answer this, we affirm the worth we bring to the relationship and find our equal footing.

The Courage to Listen to Followers

When 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.

Similarly, 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.

As 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. 

The 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 terrorist activity.  Another example of leaders not paying deserved attention to real concerns is the U.S. Catholic Church pedophilia scandals. 

These events, and our own experience, confirm that all the courage and skill in the world canít assure that a leader will listen to important feedback.  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 issues.  This is especially so when we, ourselves, are in the leadership role.

Leaders, 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 believe.  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 hard reality.

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