Why People Follow
When considering leadership, it is a good idea to understand why people follow, for if you think you are leading but no one is following, you are out for a nice walk. So, why do we follow?
That is a very interesting question. Another very interesting question is; why do we follow someone? After all, the nature of the object of our following can take on many guises. We can follow an idea such as a religion or political affiliation, we can follow rules because there are penalties assessed if we do not. We can follow directions, because I certainly know that the entertainment unit I bought at IKEA last week will turn out very different from the picture on the box if I don’t follow the directions. Or, if I don’t follow the directions given by my oftentimes annoying GPS app, it will be very unlikely that I will reach my destination.
I brought up following ideas and directions to illustrate a point; there is a variety of reasons why we follow. Consider the following list (feel free to replace what with who):
I follow because…
- If I don’t I will experience pain or loss
- If I don’t I will not fulfill my desired outcome
- I believe that what I am following is correct
- I believe that what I am following is good
- I believe that what I am following is greater than I
- My beliefs, morals and goals are aligned with what I am following
- I can learn from what I am following and it will make me better
There are probably dozens of similar statements one can make as to why they follow. Look at the list above and notice three very distinct groups or reasons.
The first two reasons are me-focused, in a negative sense. In other words, if I don’t follow, some punitive action will result. Whatever is leading is doing so by coercion. How does this manifest in the workplace? In a word, management. I am pretty sure you have heard or read about the differences between managing and leading. Management exists to utilize resources most efficiently while achieving or exceeding goals. The tools of management are measurements, targets and performance evaluations. Employees do not follow managers. They are told what to do and they follow the rules and directions of managers, and they know their performance in terms of how well they follow rules and directions will be evaluated. To net, managers lead by coercion. There is no ‘buy-in’ from the employee, no emotional attachment to the rules and directions imposed by the manager. The manager does not have a vision, does not have strategy, does not have a plan. The manager has rules and directions to follow, a way to measure if the rules and directions are being followed, and a way to evaluate that performance against a standard. Now, before I continue, and to make all those reading this article who are in a management position not feel so bad, let me make the distinction between the position of manager and the role of management. The picture above of the role of management is based on the theory of management, and describes a pure command-and-control environment. Those in the position of management, post-1900, partly play the role of manager and partly play the role of leader.
The next three reasons are leader-focused, whether that leader is a person, and idea or an organization. At the root of leader-focused reasons is trust. Any reason that you can add to the list that begins with the phrase “I believe that what/who I am following is…” is based on trust. You have imbued the leader with a quality you see as positive. You follow because you have placed value on the leader, and that value is based on trust. The leader has some type of charisma. As long as the leader exhibits this quality, you will follow. As soon as the leader takes an action that does not follow this quality, you will cease to follow. This falls into what I call ‘crowd-following’. The role of the leader is to show that he or she has a quality they believe important to as large a group as possible. But, is this authentic leadership? Clearly an example of this type of leader is the elected government official. They view their job is to craft a set of qualities into their ‘brand’, a set of qualities that appeals to the largest number of their electorate. One could argue, assuming the leader takes that set of qualities fully into their role of governing, that this is the bedrock of democratic principals. I’ll leave to the reader to decide and comment on how the ‘takes that set of qualities fully into their role of governing’ applies to their elected leaders. Now, I am not stating that this type of leadership is bad. The problem comes in when things go too far and the trust is measured and coerced, in essence trust becomes managed. I just love the questions on the dreaded annual employee satisfaction survey that ask about trust. We have all seen what happens when the ‘trust score’ comes in too low. Managers try to manage it, try to coercively improve it. This leads to a downward spiral, and not a slow one.
The final two reasons turn the focus again to ‘me’, but this me-focus is now a positive focus. It is a ‘what I want from a leader’ instead of ‘how I am being measured to perform’. The focus is not so much as trust in the leader to do the right thing for the organization and for me, but specifically ‘this is what I expect from you as leader’. However, there must be some level of trust in a leader. It says ‘what I believe in is aligned with what the leader believes in’. This is different than a single quality or set of qualities a leader takes on to appeal to as large a group as possible. This is personal, or me-focused. The focus is on my interests, my beliefs, my morals, my goals. This focus and the last reason, learning, places the leader in a position of servant and teacher.
What should we, as leaders, make of all of this? First, recognize that although management is quite different from leadership, both really are needed. Any organization that operates solely in just one of these three groups is deficient and will not excel. Leadership is difficult, which is why there are so many books devoted to it. It is also very personal to a given organization. The right balance between leadership by coercion, charisma or by being servant and teacher is often difficult to find. And, leadership is dynamic. Just because you think you found the right mix for today doesn’t mean it will be the right mix for tomorrow. Forces both internal and external to the organization are always present. These forces will dictate the right balance point. The insight and recommendations from others will certainly help the leader find his or her way to the right point, but leaders should take comfort knowing that there in no prescription, no single book that will fit their particular set of circumstances. A quote I frequently use, that seems appropriate for this subject comes from H.L. Menken; “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, elegant, …..and wrong”.