Followers and not leaders are change makers

MORE than ever before within South Africa’s chequered history from its controversial colonial-apartheid past to a present-day democratic state –  particularly the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – there is a clarion call for strident leaders to step up to the plate and inspire new confidence in their followers. Pete Laburn, founder of Lead with Humanity, an organisation that promotes positive change in society, makes a case for followers ahead of leaders as catalysts for change –especially now as we navigate an uncertain future brought about by the outbreak of coronavirus.

DURING THE PAST 30 YEARS, I have worked with organisations and leaders to assist them to understand their purpose, see possibilities, craft bold, forward-thinking strategies and enhance their leadership effectiveness, and I am convinced of the conclusion that: Followers change things – leaders don’t.

So, if you think you are a leader, but nobody is following you, you are really just talking a walk.

As the 21st century chalks up another new decade, it is still entrenched in history and permeates in modern leadership theory that the notion that people holding positions of authority are extremely important – and followers – matter far less.  

In a whole repertoire of academic literature on the world’s most topical subject, attention is only really given to followers in the context of how the behaviour of subordinates impacts the effectiveness of leaders.

But the home truth is that all the global greatest challenges will not be solved by leaders alone, especially within a transforming workplace, society and the world over.

I hold the firm view that it is followers – not leaders – who can change things. And things will change, only when followers voluntarily choose to act positively and forthrightly. 

Let me then shatter the myth – or societal stereotype – that followership is not necessarily about coercion, collaboration and obedience.   

How then, do leaders inspire and influence their followers to act?

At Lead with Humanity, we believe that true leaders are connected to the context in which they lead and engage with empathy, compassion and humility.  They understand their followers and where they come from, and are therefore able to inspire them to commit to a shared vision.  As a result, their followership is empowered, capable and loyal. 

According to Mary Slaughter, of the NeuroLeadership Institute, leaders who effectively create followership share three beliefs: 

  • I am not better than anyone else.  I generate followership by treating others as though they matter more than me. 
  • To be followed, I must be trusted.  To generate followership, I intentionally work on finding common ground with my followers and building trust.
  • I derive my power from my followers. Without them I am powerless.  To generate followership, I must give power back to my followers. 

Therefore to create, grow and maintain their influence, leaders must understand that followers cannot all be painted with the same brush. 

Followers adopt different types of behaviours and Barbara Kellerman identifies five levels of followership which is a useful tool in understanding the complexities of truly influential leadership.

  • Isolates: Isolates are completely detached, unaware of their surroundings.  They do not care to know anything about their leaders and will not be influenced by them.  This behaviour results in them passively supporting the status quo.
  • Bystanders: Bystanders, on the other hand, observe and care about the outcome, but they deliberately choose not to participate often because of the effort or risk involved in taking any form of action. 
  • Participants: Participants are engaged in some way and are driven by their own motivation.  They will act for or against their leader, depending on what they believe in. 
  • Activists: Activists are eager, energetic, and engaged.  They are heavily invested in people and will either work hard on behalf of their leaders, or work equally as hard to undermine them.  
  • Diehards: For diehards, the cause is more important than their health or well-being and they will go to extreme measures to defend it or fight it.  

According to Kellerman, with ‘’isolates’’ and ‘’bystanders’’, leaders would do well to determine the cause of their alienation and work to increase their levels of engagement.  With the more engaged follower types, leaders need to know who they are and what they believe in. 

It is only leaders who are truly connected to their followers and their context that can influence meaningful and enduring change. 

And there is one indispensable quality – trust – in the relationship between followers and a leader:

It is through building connections that leaders will a find common ground with their followers.  A common ground will create a sense of belonging and with a sense of belonging will come elevated levels of trust. 

However, establishing a common ground is not just about garnering trust for the leader’s agenda. It is about rallying trust in the leader themselves: trust in the leader and in their values. 

In fact, a true leader, who has the trust of their followers, will create a buy-in culture for a shared group agenda.

This trust requires genuine and unwavering strength of character.  It also requires a demonstrable vulnerability of being unashamedly real.

With consistent, authentic, and tangible behaviour, leaders can dispel feelings of doubt, and apprehension in their followers. 

And so, let’s ask the question again.  How do leaders inspire and influence their followers to act?   

They connect.  They listen.  They build trust.  They develop a shared agenda.  They lead authentically. 

David Augsburger said that ‘being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.’

It is the leader who leads out of who they are, truly connecting with their followers, who builds a followership that will lead to the greatest changes the world so desperately needs – especially now with the myriad of new workplace and organisational challenges and crisis that are underpinned by the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak and its ruthless march across the world.

Also leadership is like oxygen – akin to trekking from the base camp and heading for the summit when you begin to climb every mountain of life and work.

South Africa, and many parts of the world, continue to battle the current health pandemic and wrestle with an uncertain future as millions work from home and remotely via digital communication platforms.  As salary slips are cut back as high as 45%, and with massive retrenchments looming, leaders and their followers must play a far more positive role in conscientising and mobilising our multiracial and culturally diverse people towards achieving a nirvana of an inclusive and prosperous society.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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