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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 03-Jan-07


Wednesday 03-January-07

The leader-follower dance 

Leadership and management are often used in the same breath, largely because those who are appointed managers seek also to be leaders. Leadership, however is much harder than management. Managers have subordinates who obey commands in a basic transaction of obedience in return for pay and conditions. Leaders, however, have followers who choose to follow the leader. Working for a manager means doing what you are told. Following a leader is a voluntary position which you can resign at any time.

The leadership motivation model is thus very different. It is also makes leadership somewhat more difficult as followers may cease following at any time. Leaders have to pay close attention to followers to ensure their ongoing motivation and if followers' buy-in decreases, then the leader must act to re-motivate them. In this way there is a leader-follower inversion, in which the leader becomes the follower and vice versa.

Leadership and following thus becomes a complex interaction, where smooth movement on the surface may cover up an underlying, and perhaps unconscious, struggle for control. The circle of 'leader influences follower influences leader' can lead to a merry dance where who is actually leading at any one point may not be clear.

This is complicated further in groups where many people with differing motivations fluctuate in leading and following activities. Like a flock of birds a group moves and swoops as one, yet how this harmony is directed can be very unclear. Task leadership and social leadership may intermingle. Subject experts may take the reins when their domain comes to the fore. Individual enthusiasm for particular actions may hold sway for a while.

Good leadership achieves the leader's goals with catalytic motivation and minimum intervention. Whilst others may seem to be leading, they are also conforming with the real leader's wishes. The effective overall leader agrees the overall goal and keeps the team pointing in the right direction and moving forward apace.

In weak leadership, the titular or originating leader lets others change direction and take excessively risky actions. Whilst the weak leader may start the action, others soon grab and fight over the reins. Leadership may engage followers in decision-making but it does not abdicate control.

Leading and following is thus a merry dance, a balance of give and take, influence and motivation. It achieves strategic and practical goals through professionally social means. And it is one of the highest arts of changing minds.

Your comments

 This is an interesting perspective on the influencing interactions that take place between leaders and followers. Whether employees are free to choose in terms of following a leader is worthy of some debate. In a commercial environment I am not sure whether there is any choice. The followers may be coerced into responding to the leaders power and hence become reluctant followers but never the less they are still followers.

-- Paul R

Dave replies:
It's a good point, though I personally wouldn't describe the coercive situation as being 'following' (I'd call it 'compliance'). Followership, for me, is a voluntary activity -- it's not about being dragged on the end of chain. Hence the idea that leaders have followers whilst managers have subordinate.

I like the idea of the dance concept. Very nice. I'm studying some information for a presentation that I have to do. I thought it was a bad idea to pick followership as a topic to present on, basically because the idea of saying "yes I'm a follower and this is when and where I performed such a skill," its kinda of hard to accept. The world doesn't want followers, they want leaders. But that isn't the case at all. Like someone told me, you have to follow before you can lead.

-- Sable M

Dave replies:
I'd say the world needs more followers than leaders. On the other hand it still needs good leaders and it sometimes seems that those at the top are not worth following. A good leader is also a good follower -- hence the dance. A good follower also is not blind. They empathise with the leader and also with other followers. They do not just do as they are told but, buying into the overall vision, they help explore and find the way forward.

I am also doing some research on "followership" but in a political context. I found this material helpful in that I am now considering a survey to collect opinions on the idea of personal responsibility in following government leaders and some other things - still loose and in the planning stages. I like Dave's remarks about buying into the vision- not being blind-especially helping to find the way forward. We have attached stigma to follower and made it a negative term on a lot of fronts. I especially dislike the sheep analogy often used. Time to wake up! I am hoping to advance these ideas through my research.

-- Karen E


Dave replies:
Good to hear I'm helping. Political followership is critical and (at the time of writing - Jan09) President Obama has many followers and we're all watching with interest to see if they keep following him and how the dance will turn out. I think he's got as good a chance as anyone. A problem with the sheep thing is that many people want to be sheep. Particularly in times of crisis they seek a shepherd, a saviour, and place unrealistic hopes on them. Obama is saying 'No - we've got to do it together'. He mobilised the masses in the election campaign - let's hope he can keep them enthused.

Fantastic text. I?m starting a research on Leadership and after reading this article I want to redirect it into a followership view. I liked your comments too. They are very inspiring to me.

-- Marcelo Mello from Brazil

 I too am starting research on the topic of leadership and followership for my final MBA research paper. I previously completed an assignment in Strategic Leadership on this topic but the final research paper is much more in depth. The information here has been very helpful. Any other suggestions for my literature review are also appreciated.

-- Lori B

Dave replies:
Hi Lori. I don't have key references but I did try putting 'followership' into a university library search engine to which I have access and it came up immediately with 105 articles, such as 'Followers' Personality and the Perception of Transformational Leadership' in the British Journal of Management and 'Leaders in Need of Followers: Emerging Powers in Global Governance' in the European Journal of International Relations. Look up such articles and then follow the references they give. Before long, you'll have a reading list as long as your arm.

I think you\'ll appreciate this video, created by author Ira Chaleff, which does a beautiful job illustrating the leadership/followership relationship with tango dancers: 

-- Jimmy

Dave replies:
Lovely video, Jimmy. Great use of an oblique topic to make useful points. Well produced and worth anyone watching (only seven minutes).

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