In the Shadow of Leadership

(by George Telfer)

"You're gonna have to serve somebody."
(Bob Dylan)

So many books, articles and academic papers have been written on the subject of leadership that it can be difficult at times to pinpoint the universal values and behaviours attributed to truly effective leaders. Given the wide diversity in the personal traits and qualities exhibited among historic or contemporary leaders, defining the quintessential traits in those men and women who hold the accolades bestowed upon them as great leaders remains wide and varied.

When we lead; as much in parenthood, in our social and sporting worlds, our schools, or in the business world, we surely strive to display characteristics and behaviours consistent with the values and principles needed to win both the ‘hearts and minds’ of those whom we lead. Yet in truth, we have few if any real choices when it comes to leadership. Leadership is ubiquitous; a central board in the walkway of life and prevalent in almost every aspect of how we live our lives. The only real choice open to us, therefore, is how we do it. To lead effectively is to somehow engage people in both a common purpose and a compelling vision. In this context, the term ‘transformational leadership’ was first coined by James Macgregor-Burns who set out to focus management thinking on the emotional drivers in people and the more intrinsic, self-motivated elements of human behaviour rather than a ‘transactional’ style of leadership based heavily upon contingent rewards. Transformational leadership has become a more enlightened view of what is essentially good in human behaviour and is more about creating not just an understanding of what needs to be done to achieve organisational success but more so an ability in some leaders to tap into the deep rooted and fundamental desires in people to want to achieve it.

Mohandas K Ghandi certainly led in a transformational sense and by his own actions and personal sacrifice: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”, he claimed and by consistently ‘walking the talk’ and ‘showing the way’, he was able to unite the Indian nation both in a unified purpose and an immovable sense of direction that ultimately, through peaceful means alone, brought about the end of more than a hundred years of British rule in India.

Other great leaders have also been able to inspire others through the power and impact of language. Shakespeare clearly understood this when he scripted Henry V’s impassioned ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech at Agincourt: “Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George …” Winston Churchill; certainly Britain’s greatest war-time leader, promised a nation in its ‘darkest hours’ nothing but “blood, toil and tears” yet won both the hearts and the collective will of the British people through his compelling “We’ll fight them on the beaches” oratory. Today, do we see signs of change in modern America? Tracing the historic steps of Abraham Lincoln on January 20, 2009, one man’s rhetoric alone brought new hope, not just to Americans but to millions of people around the world and although actions will ultimately speak louder than words, Barack Obama’s inauguration speech did herald a ‘wind of change’ in the politics of the world’s most powerful nation; “…we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

If, however, there was a single, common strand able to bind great leaders together, what would it be? In Bill Clinton, we may readily identify charisma and statesmanship and in Aung Sang Sui Chi the strength of fortitude and morale courage. The world has been changed forever by the vision and drive of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the resilience and extraordinary personal sacrifice and stoicism of Nelson Mandella. These qualities, among others, are consistently portrayed as key leadership traits, but even these remarkable individuals with all their undeniable qualities still fall short when defining the consistent attribute present in all forms of leadership:

The single common factor in those leaders above is the same one they share with Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pott and more recently Nicolae Ceausescu and Robert Mugabe. That is that they all had followers; and for a time at least, willing followers at that. Leadership and followership are, in effect, ‘two sides of the same coin’. Yet, among the growing myriad of books and leadership courses, few make more than a passing reference to the essence of ‘followership’. Too often, and particularly when it comes to charisma, the tributes and acclaim remains vested in the leaders themselves. The rhetoric is that of ‘my vision’ with followers regarded as the mere recipients of instructions and commands; simply ‘task driven’ as supporting actors in the grand overall scheme of things and denied more than merely a token role in eventual outcomes. The whole world watched in amazement in 2010 as Captain Chesley Sullenberger safely landed his crippled passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York. His outstanding leadership, coupled with his extraordinary flying skills were undeniable; deserving of the plaudits and praises heaped upon him. But how many of us heard mention the name Jeff Skiles, his equally courageous co-pilot that morning? Was it simply one man alone who saved the lives of hundreds of passengers? What went on in the cockpit of that aeroplane as it touched down safely on those icy waters was surely an example of quite remarkable followership too. Rudyard Kipling certainly recognised followership as an outstanding although more often unwritten human quality: “You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din”, he wrote; movingly describing a wounded British soldier’s sentiments as he watched his regimental ‘bhisti’ (water carrier) sacrifice his own life under fire whilst trying to bring him a cooling drink in the heat of battle.

For Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, (and to some historians, the greatest leader of the 20th century), his followers’ stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ alongside him. They felt ‘empowered’. His language spoke of ‘our aims; our goal.’ For a leader who failed to achieve his life ambition of reaching the South Pole, his “glorious failure” shows us what Shackleton’s true achievement was; that of being able to keep every one of his crew alive and well for almost two years on the ice flow, with every one of them testifying that they returned safely and from near disaster as better men. The language of “we”, “us” and “together” can be difficult to grasp at times when the business world’s view of leadership is more often seen as having to be out in front leading the charge, knowing best and doing most, and being the sole custodian of those elusive leadership qualities more often thought to be lacking in mere followers.

People follow leaders either because they have to, or because they respect them for what they are and identify with the things they stand for and because they have the confidence that their leaders will ultimately bring them success. In a team context, good followership can achieve wonders but the caveat can also be one of acquiescence and ‘group think’. Jerry Harvey illustrates this amusingly in his ‘Abilene Paradox’; describing a Texan family of four who make a round trip of more than two hundred miles across the desert in a hundred and four degrees temperature; end up having a terrible meal in some ‘hole in the wall’ restaurant and on returning home, discover that none of them had even wanted to go there in the first place!

In his book, ‘The Web of Life’, Fritjof Capra writes; “The world we see is not the world, but a world” and how true this statement reads. We each create our own worlds around us; be they our social worlds, our family worlds or our world of work. And the quality of these worlds is so often equal to the quality of our thinking. And in each, we are more able to lead and influence others (including our own leaders) than we may at first think. More than two and a half thousand years ago, Socrates, the first of the great Greek philosophers and someone who never wrote down anything in his life, leastways a book on leadership, said “know thyself.” As followers as much as leaders, this must be our starting point; before we follow others, we must follow ourselves. We need to stop seeing leadership as superior and followership as simply a passive compliance. Both are integral to achieving our common purpose.

Without good followership, leaders will rarely hear the truth because good leaders need good followers as much as good followers need good leaders. “And when we think we lead, we are most led” penned Byron in ‘The Two Foscari’ and here we discover that good followers are loyal and supportive team players with the morale courage to tell their leaders what they need to hear; the truth and the reality. Thereby, when they give them the bad news they’re thanked by their leaders and respected for it. And when they give them good news, then they’re appreciated and actually believed. The lowest followers are the ‘yes-men’; the sycophants, acolytes and lickspittles who tell their leaders not what they need to hear but what they think their leaders want to hear. That is when they demean and betray their leaders because they infer that they don’t have the courage to take the truth. They mislead them because they send them up blind alleys by giving them false information. At best, they’ll leave them second guessing.

Today, the management of information and knowledge is one of the undeniable keys to success in the 21st Century, but it must retain the timeless qualities of truth and honesty. Followers cannot follow blindly; passively dependent on traditional leadership styles and traits. They must be even more ready and willing to lead ‘outwards’ within their own teams and ‘upwards’ to their leaders. “I’m their leader, I’ve got to follow them.” said the French politician, Rollin. In truth, we are both leaders and followers. Good followership requires the right kind of leadership - not leadership simply by rank or title but ‘transformationally’, through those less tangible qualities such as integrity, moral courage and decency. As leaders and followers we are linked by our own ‘personal power’. Is this then what lies at the heart of both leadership and followership?

What then do all good followers have in common? Could it be that we all have that ‘personal power’; if we knew it and chose to use it? Hermann Hesse, the German poet and novelist wrote “To change the world, change yourself.” The core of this is surely to empower oneself. In this new age of knowledge and information, it will be followers who will increasingly know more than their leaders, although Lao-Tzu, the father of Taoist philosophy may already have recognised this as far back as the Sixth Century BC:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists.
Not so good when people obey and acclaim him.
Worse when they despise him.
But of a good leader, who talks little,
when his work is done, his aim fulfilled.
They will say:
“We did it ourselves.”


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