Learn the Art of Followership

s the second Clinton administration establishes itself with a flurry of senior appointments, the relationship between leaders and followers will determine the effectiveness of each agency and the White House. It is the relationship between leaders and followers all the way up and down the organization chart that makes programs, breaks programs, and makes or breaks careers. Members must smoothly shift between the leader and follower roles if work teams are to function effectively. Regardless of how many people you lead, you are also at times a follower. Yet, for all the formal training available on leadership, there is remarkably little, if any, available on followership. Superior followership requires loyal, energetic support of the leader's agenda, as well as willingness to challenge the leader's policies or behaviors if they are harmful to the common purpose. We are a society in love with leadership and uncomfortable with followership, though the two are inseparable. Therefore, follower skills are learned informally, like street fighting. Too often, the orientation of this informal training is personal survival, not group success. Where authoritarian relationships still prevail, team members "play the game" and outwardly conform, regardless of the cost to the common goal. But their impulse to act mature and interdependent makes them uncomfortable with their passive behavior. Here legitimate self-interest potentially merges with the communal interest to transform these relationships. If we find ourselves followers of a leader who is not using his or her power wisely, why risk our careers by seeking to change the status quo? The simplest answer is that it is a better way to live. It also happens to be better for society. The building blocks of a free society are vital individuals forging vital relationships to achieve innovative and beneficial goals. How do we go about the awesome, some would say hopeless, task of transforming bureaucratic relationships, especially from "below," when power is so unequally distributed? The answer to transforming leader-follower relations has two parts: ourselves and our leaders. At the heart of improving relationships is changing ourselves. This is where we have the most power to create change and the most reluctance to confront the need for it. The process starts with an honest examination of how we cope with authority relationships. Are we subservient, cynical and unwilling to take risks? Focusing on ourselves rather than on what is being done to us enables us to shift the balance. We need to examine our attitudes and behaviors to transform our relationships. Some of the key questions include: What common purpose do I, the leader and the group share? Am I vigorously pursuing the common purpose and appropriately aligning and balancing my self-interests with my role? Does the common good require that I take more initiative to ensure that the group changes the way it works? Will my behavior in this relationship permit me to do that or do I need to risk new behaviors? What is my power based on in this situation that would enable me to take greater initiative? What combination of knowledge, skills, reputation, networks and communication channels can I draw upon? Why am I hesitant to act? Have I given up hope? Do I vaguely think that someone else will take the first step? If action involves risk-taking, what is my personal source of courage? The greatest error we make is losing our respect for the human being who is in the leader role. In a deteriorated relationship with a leader, like a deteriorated marriage, we are so painfully aware of the other's shortcomings, that we lose sight of that person's strengths and value. To be effective change agents or partners we need to reconnect with what is right about the leader's behavior. It is only from genuine respect that we can initiate change without being perceived as a threat. It is helpful to ask ourselves: What skills and attributes enabled this individual to attain a leadership position? How were these adaptive in the environment in which the leader developed and what respect do they deserve? Are there ways, with some modification, in which these attributes can help accomplish the organization's mission? What pressures and challenges does the leader face? Are those challenges pushing the leader to rely on old habits rather than risk new behaviors? If the group gave the leader more or different support in dealing with those challenges would there be less reliance on the dysfunctional behaviors? How can I repair or strengthen the trust between me and the leader so my concerns are given more weight? What in the leader's self-interest can I appeal to that would make the leader more receptive to changes? In the world of hardball Washington politics, personal vendettas, careerists biding time until retirement, and fads with each new agency head, attempting to improve relationships can seem quixotic. But whether or not we successfully change the world, the government, or our agency, transforming ourselves and our relationships is a worthwhile first step. Ira Chaleff is an executive coach in Washington and former executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation. He is the author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders (Berrett-Koehler, 1995). Courageous Followers, Courageous Leaders, a video based on his book, is available from CRM Films in Carlsbad, Calif. (800) 421-0833.

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