A Powerful Follower
As students in the Jon M. Huntsman business school at Utah State University, most of our lectures elude to leadership in some shape or form. In entrepreneurship we learn about inspiring, smart, and unique CEOs and small business risk-takers that turn ideas and passions into thriving organizations. In finance, we learn the CFO’s highest obligation is to increase welfare for their shareholders. And the list goes on in the respective roles...CMO’s, COO’s...etc.
All of these are major leadership roles, given to individuals at the top of the business hierarchy who, most likely, earned that title because of incredible competence. Given information from their employees, they seek to make wise decisions that have year-to-year ramifications and move the entire company one way or another. They work more in the realm of strategy than in management and operations. The tremendous impact that powerful leaders can have is evident everywhere in organizations across the world. But I want to take a spin on this topic, and discuss the potential influence and power of those who the leader leads: the follower.
To do so, I want to discuss two concepts that you certainly won’t find in typical business literature. You might even question their practical value, yet I have found them to be meaningful and revealing in so much, even in a typical leader-follower relationship. We’ll only go into these ideas shortly today, but will possibly expound further on them in the future. That’s where you come in! Make sure to share your ideas, critiques, and comments below!
These ideas have been reeling in my mind to be articulated cleary, and in concept mostly originate from study of Jordan B. Peterson’s book 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos. In short, Jordan Peterson talks about the existence of hierarchy as inevitably inherent in our psychological and biological perception. It exists necessarily so that we can perceive the world, reality, and value. I’ve thought a lot about this, and with an opportunity to write about leading and following in a business sense, my mind began to reel with words.
Deeper knowledge invites thorough awareness that fosters wisdom, and that wisdom, hopefully, will manifest itself across our decisions. For example, we will talk about why the follow-lead dynamic inevitably exists in the first place. Proper and thorough understanding of this concept can not only bring wisdom and empathy into your leader-follower relationship (no matter which one you are), but can even set you on the path to a more enjoyable, synchronous, and effective relationship.
These principles are
- Every person in an organization including you is a follower. Your title, day-to-day responsibilities, or leadership influence doesn’t excuse this.
- A hierarchy exists necessarily and importantly in every social unit, and as such, creates hierarchical relationships - like one of leading and following. An alternative is not possible and to pursue otherwise is dangerous and ignorant. (We’ve seen this throughout history in communist regimes that seek to level the hierarchy and by doing so take out the incentive inherently found in innovation.) Because that is a whole other topic to chew, we won’t get into that for now.
Every Person is a Follower
no matter where you lie on your organizational hierarchy! Consider that an employee follows a manager, but a manager follows a chief officer. Furthermore, a chief officer follows a chief executive officer (CEO), and the CEO follows the stockholders, and then this chain kind of turns around. The CEO, stockholders, managers, and employees all follow their customers. From this viewpoint, the business hierarchy, or chain, is a self-perpetuating cycle that maintains its integrity simply by design. Each role is absolutely essential to the organization in its own respective ways with customers as the driving force behind the wheel. Certainly then, learning how to follow is beneficial considering it impacts every member of the chain not just indirectly, but inherently! YOU are a follower, and learning what competent following looks like will impact your contribution!
It’s paradoxical - a leader cannot exist without a follower, and a follower cannot exist without a leader. They rely on each other in the most fundamental sense - that their existence is only so because of the other. Not only that, their existence is so only because they aren’t equal! There are real differences between a leader and follower, and they are necessary to the existence of each. While a leader and follower may be equal in some sense, you can’t equalize them entirely and nor should you try. Otherwise the two together would cease to exist. And NO, you can’t ‘make everyone a leader’. Keep reading.
As I previously mentioned, major leaders usually achieve those positions because of incredible competence (i.e. they are able to accomplish things in an efficient and successful manner). Perhaps years of industry experience or a renown school degree constitute their competency, but either way, it has in some way been displayed so that their superiors trusted enough to place on them those responsibilities that are leader-like. Consider this:
“If anything can be done, then it can be done better or worse. If anything can be done better or worse...then it is inevitable that a hierarchy be established to do that thing. There will always be people who can do something better or worse than others.” Jordan Peterson continues, “Whenever two or more people are put together, it’s inevitable that a hierarchy will be established, because someone can always do something better or worse than the other” (Peterson, 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos).
A follower showing respect, and even gratitude, for this competent leader could certainly build a more cooperative, less stubborn, and more open follower. Simply understanding that your organization actually is based on a hierarchy of competence and that your boss actually did obtain that job because of his or her competence should in itself foster some sort of respect. Respect for a leader’s experience can enable one to better take correction or critique, and increase one’s willingness to oblige to recommendations, feedback, and leadership from their superior. As two communication writers stated, “Workers who do not appreciate the challenges of being a boss are more likely to be uncooperative..and probably less suitable for advancement..(Adler, Proctor, 10).
The Leader-Follower Dynamic
It’s wise and humbling for you and every other in an organization to think yourselves s a follower in at least some sense.
Most of us have experienced, or at least seen, a good or bad dynamic between a manager and employee. A good leader tends to be a powerful driving force - someone that motivates, inspires, and learns. They also teach, listen to, validate, correct, incentivize, and give opportunities to their followers so that they can prove themselves. When a leader (manager, supervisor, team lead, etc.) manifests these characteristics, their employee has the greatest chance at success in becoming a leader themselves.
On the other hand, when a follower (employee) reciprocates these ideals, they then act in accordance with the environment their leader has created for them, and thus fulfill the potential given to them in that specific opportunity and environment. Incredibly, this also fulfills the wishes and goals of the leader for you and the company, builds the company, and builds you.
In some sense, a leader builds the environment for their employee that shows what is possible, but it’s up to the employee to determine what they will achieve within what’s possible. It’s an employee’s choice, then, to exercise their own diligence in seeing that potential filled. We see all the time when an employee maxes their potential in a specific role, and so their leader promotes them or gives them new opportunity (reconstructs what is possible for the employee to achieve).
In a proper leader-follower dynamic, a manager, supervisor, etc., will properly construct an environment which fits the employees, businesses, and their own needs. It allows that employee to productively reach their potential. When this synchrony is achieved, that employee becomes a powerful, influential, and reliable follower that supports their leader and will likely gain opportunities at leadership roles later on. The leader is then able to have more opportunities to make good strategic decisions, or at least make more informative decisions regarding the business’s movements.
I just threw a whole lot of ideas at you in a short amount of time and reading. Of course, a whole lot more can be considered when discussing these topics, and we hardly discussed problematic scenarios and what happens when a leader or follower does a poor job. But this is enough of my ideas for now, and we can build on them going forward.
For now, we can try to answer the many questions that these topics spur. Here are a few I’d like to ask you. And I ask you because you’ll benefit most by asking yourself these things.
According to your understand of this and other principles, why is your following so important?
How do you as a follower fulfill the ‘essential role of following’ that’s needed to your organization?
How do you properly lead and follow?
How can I best support my leader, and how can my leader best support me?
What would need to change so that you could follow powerfully?
Until next time,
Grant @ Motilek Wood Bowties