By Jamuna Rangachari
Being a follower is as important as being a leader. The courageous follower is not afraid of challenging leadership to stand up for what he thinks is right.
The bio-data of the average applicant for a corporate management job is likely to have as the ultimate goal, the desire to be CEO. All well and good, but the truth is that not everyone can be a CEO. Certainly not from day one. Most people join organizations and establishments as ‘followers’. Unfortunately, so focussed are they on their goal to be leaders that they often lose sight of their duties and responsibilities as followers. Most choose to believe that they have no responsibility in what happens and follow instructions mechanically. When things go wrong, they shrug, while fantasizing that matters would have been different had they been in charge.
‘What can we do?’ is the typical attitude of most followers.
This is exactly the problem plaguing corporations and nations today, says Ira Chaleff, founder and president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, USA, and the author of Courageous Follower: Standing up to and for our leaders, published by Berett Koechler publications (and recently, in India by Tata Mcgraw Hill). Taking this concept to the private sector, non-governmental sector and government agencies, Ira has conducted workshops for Amtrak, Ernst and Young, LLP, Volvo, National Osteoporosis Foundation, the Senate of Nigeria, US Department of Agriculture, US House of Representatives, US Senate, and others. Ira was in India recently for a series of workshops for leading corporate firms.
As a child, he was shocked that the Holocaust could happen. Surely, all Germans were not convinced that Hitler’s vicious agenda was right? Why then did they not have the courage to speak out?
In later years, this spurred him to look into the area of ‘followership’ as he realized that management studies focus heavily on leadership but not on its complementary role, followership. A serious gap, as, most often, it is the effectiveness of followers that determines the success, or otherwise, of an organisation. Fortunately, most of us may not have to deal with horrific situations such as the Holocaust, but we do often come across blunders which our seniors make, but don’t bother to speak up.
For too long, we have confused followership with obedience.
As Ira says, ‘Leaders rarely use their power wisely or effectively over long periods unless they are supported by followers who have the stature to help them do so.’
The key word here is ‘stature’. A follower can have stature only when his primary allegiance is to the purpose of the organisation and not to any specific person. For this, he must have the courage:
o To assume responsibility. Courageous followers assume responsibility for themselves and the organisation. They do not hold a paternalistic image of the leader or organisation, nor do they expect either to provide for their security and growth or give them permission to act. They initiate value-based action. Their ‘authority’ comes from their understanding and ownership of the common purpose.
o To serve. Courageous followers are not afraid of hard work and they assume additional responsibilities to unburden the leader and serve the organisation. They stand up for the leader and the tough decisions that he/she has to make. They are as passionate as the leader in pursuit of the common purpose.
o To challenge. Courageous followers give voice to the discomfort they feel when the behavior or policies of the leader or group are in conflict with their sense of what is right. They are willing to stand up, stand out, risk rejection and to initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of the leader or group when appropriate.
o To participate in transformation. Courageous followers champion the need for change and stay with the leader and group while they mutually struggle with the difficulty of real change. They examine their own need for transformation and become full participants in the change process as appropriate.
o To take moral action. Courageous followers know when it is time to take a stand that is different from the leaders. It may involve refusing to obey a direct order, appealing the order to the next level of authority, becoming a whistleblower or tendering one’s resignation. This may also involve personal risk but service to the common purpose justifies, and sometimes demands, such action.
This does not mean being belligerent and hostile, because that wouldn’t serve the purpose.
An editor working with a large publishing house recalls the time when she was forced to point out to her chairman that the CEO of the organisation was dividing the company into factions. The fact that she was very good friends with the CEO added a piquant touch to the whole episode, but it also enabled her to speak out in front of the CEO. And indeed, their friendship not just survived but thrived through the whole episode because the CEO knew that she was speaking from disinterested motives and appreciated the fact that she had not gone behind his back.
‘I learnt that day that if one can keep the interest of the organisation foremost in mind, one can take courageous steps without offending even the erring party,’ she recalls.
Supporting the Leader
However, it is equally important to support the leader. It is difficult to appreciate the pressures on the leader unless you have held that position. Hence, it is imperative that a follower realizes this and supports him to the best of his ability. Specifically, he needs to
o Understand his power and how to use it. Followers have far more power than they usually acknowledge. They must understand the sources of their power, whom they serve and the tools they have, to achieve the group’s mission.
o Appreciate the value of the leader and the contributions he makes to forward the organization’s mission. Particularly, one should understand the pressures upon the leader that can wear down creativity, good humor and resolve. These forces need to be minimized to bring out the leader’s strengths for the good of the group and the common purpose.
o Work toward minimizing the pitfalls of power by helping the leader to remain on track for the long-term common good. We know how power can corrupt, and it takes courage and skill to speak up.
The first person who came to my mind after I spoke to Ira was Vidura, King Dhritarashtra’s minister in the Mahabharata. Firmly committed to the good of the kingdom, he unfailingly pointed out to the king the folly of his blind love for his son. He did not succeed in averting the war but it was never due to lack of effort on his part. Till today, we remember him as a person of ‘stature’, who stood up for what he believed in.
Another endearing example from history is that of Emperor Akbar and Birbal. Surrounded by sycophants, it was Birbal whom Akbar valued for his sharp insight and clear thinking, and Birbal unfailingly delivered an honest assessment of any situation with his tactful wit.
The philosopher-sage, J. Krishnamurti, revealed all the qualities of a courageous follower when he stepped down from his role as heir-apparent to the vast wealth and huge membership of the Theosophical Society. Unable to agree with their philosophy or approach to transformation, he walked out, even though it meant that he would be without a shelter over his head. He subsequently carved out a radically different path that repudiated the need for all received wisdom or realized masters.
Mahatma Gandhi too believed firmly in this principle and said, ‘We must be the change we wish to see’. Echoing this, Ira says, ‘Thousands of courageous acts by followers can, one by one, improve the world.’
This is by no means easy or straightforward, but then, most meaningful things in life do take effort.
Mr Anil Bhatnagar, a corporate trainer, author, and motivational speaker, shares his personal experience while he was working in one of the companies he served. He was asked by his senior to include the name of a contractor in a limited offer tender and then got to know from his subordinate that this contractor was actually blacklisted. It was clearly a situation where he needed to choose between his value system and his relationship with his boss. He agonized over this, considering many options. Finally, he shared with his boss his apprehension that both he and his boss would seem guilty of malpractices if this contractor were to be recommended. Amazingly, his boss responded positively and thanked Anil for pointing out such a lapse. Not only this, throughout their association, he lauded Anil not just for his intelligence but also for his courage and commitment.
Courageous followership will really happen only when this is enabled by the organisation. In other words, the onus is on management and leadership to create a conducive climate for people to speak up. If they don’t, they are the losers.
Unfortunately, most often, the leader/follower relationship is based on power. The leader has traditionally had the ‘power’ to award or withhold perks, benefits, bonuses, choice assignments, promotions and the like.
This has led to a relationship in which the follower avoids jeopardizing his chances of obtaining these rewards. Hence, the follower tends to do what the leader wants and, just as important, not offend or create a negative impression of himself.
A relationship based on this kind of power does not serve the organisation, the leader or the follower because it shuts down the open flow of communication that a leader needs to do his job effectively. Most people, including leaders, are not perfect. It is a tremendous burden on the leader if he has nobody who points out his mistakes to him. Someone, after all, has to tell the emperor that he has no clothes on!
A good leader would encourage constructive ideas, no matter what his personal preferences are.
For this, some of the suggestions that Ira makes are:
o Promoting and not just parroting an open-door policy.
o Making sure there are minimal barriers.
o Accepting and appreciating support and creative responses.
Fortunately, a few organizations are moving in this direction.
Sundeep Waslekar, President of Strategic Foresight Group, a company that works at political and social change, believes that all team members are leaders in their own functions. As he says, ‘Ours is a value-driven entity.
The principles are superior to any hierarchy.’ To enable better communication, a regular confidential feedback system is followed where everyone is free to point out lapses while maintaining each other’s dignity.
This is echoed by Bindu Sharma, CEO of Pollen Communications, who encourages creative dissent from his entire team. ‘Only insecure leaders like to be surrounded by yes men. Open communication works for the good not only of the organisation, but also of my personal self. It is only by being open that I can keep the peace of my soul intact,’ says Mr Sharma.
Essentially, the concept is about personal integrity and meaningful relationships. For both of us are leaders and followers. Growth as a person means growth in both these roles.
Perhaps it is time we asked applicants to write about, ‘If I saw something happening in my organisation/ society/ nation/family which is not quite right, what would I do?’
This is much more likely to create a better world than one in which we imagine ourselves to be wielding power in a submissive company.
For more information, see www.exe-coach.com or
contact Ira Chaleff at email@example.com
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