Courageous followership speaks truth to power. It overcomes the groupthink that fails to challenge leaders in ill-considered and potentially dangerous decisions.

As a UK citizen, I have been fascinated by the political heat generated by the recent US election. I have friends who ardently supported Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

Emory University published a study of presidents up to, but not including, Barack Obama, and concluded that every popular president has been a narcissist.

It is important to differentiate between the anti-social personality (ASP) and the narcissist. Both are classified as forms of psychopathy or sociopathy, but ASP might properly be called “criminal psychopathy,” where the self-obsession of narcissism does not necessarily lead to significant harm to others.

There is an argument that narcissism may be a helpful quality in leaders. I don’t favor that argument, but narcissists may be able to extend their sense of self-promotion to their own family, and even to a whole nation, protecting the wider circle as an extension of themselves. When this happens, they will act in the best interests of the nation – as long as those interests don’t compromise their own (and the mirror on the wall keeps tells them they are the fairest of them all).

Lord Hailsham – an eminent Conservative politician in the post-war period – said that our system is not true democracy, but “elective dictatorship.” We elect new dictators every four or five years, and we’re usually stuck with them (in the UK, a government can be dislodged through a parliamentary vote of “no confidence,” but it doesn’t happen all that often).

The point is that under the present system of “elective dictatorship” our leaders do not need to consult us on their decisions, and often those decisions are in conflict with their manifesto promises.

Our culture is very much focused on celebrity, and we celebrate our leaders without necessarily understanding that behind every great leader there is usually a great team. Roosevelt’s New Deal is a case in point – he inspired others, but they did most of the work.

Leaders are usually seen as heroes or devils – there is little mid-ground. Most Britons revere Churchill and revile Chamberlain, but Churchill’s excesses and failures are disregarded, as is Chamberlain’s considerable political acumen. The same can be said of many leaders – they are a mix of sense and folly, as are we all.

Sociologist Max Weber pointed out that “charisma” is a quality given to leaders by their followers, rather than something intrinsic. He was among the first to study the role of followers, rather than concentrating on the capacity of leaders.

At times, opposition is the only answer. Gandhi stood up to the cruel imperialism of the British Raj. Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King gave their lives to oppose racist oppression. But courageous followership is appropriate in all situations. It is “courageous,” because there are risks involved.

As a one-time whistle-blower, I understand all too well the pressures brought by the majority to silence any protest. We rock the boat, and the passengers don’t like it – even if we’re pointing out that the boat is heading over a waterfall.

Legend says that the Trojans disbelieved Cassandra, rather than leaving that notorious wooden horse outside the city walls. Courageous followership demands that we stand up for what we know to be true.

Robert E Kelly, a pioneer in the field, has set out five basic styles of followership: the sheep, who simply follow the leader; the yes-people, who are highly supportive of the leader and uncritical; the alienated, who are generally critical of the leader; the pragmatics, who wait to see which way the wind is blowing before weighing in on the stronger side; and the star followers, who think for themselves, are active and contribute positive energy.

Courageous followers fit into this last category – they are “star followers.” As Kelly says, “They do not accept the leader’s decision without their own independent evaluation of its soundness. If they agree with the leader, they give full support. If they disagree, they challenge the leader, offering constructive alternatives that will help the leader and the organization get where they want to go.” (The Art of Followership).

Irving Janis developed the concept of “groupthink.” He spoke with people involved in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which had taken place 90 days after John F. Kennedy became president. There was never the slightest chance that the invasion would succeed – 1400 against an army a hundred times larger – but no one warned Kennedy, because no one wanted to upset him!

The Bay of Pigs could have been the start of World War Three, as Cuba was a Russian ally, but senior politicians and military strategists somehow believed that the charisma of Kennedy’s “Camelot” would triumph.

Janis suggested that all groups should deliberately include a devil’s advocate. The Catholic Church used to appoint a devil’s advocate to dispute the reputation of any proposed saint. The advocate’s job is to find contrary evidence. The best devil’s advocates would be star followers.

I opened with a statement about the current US president. Of course, in a free country, people should show their opposition to statements and practices that they disapprove of, but we might also consider how to be better followers: how to influence the incumbent president by using (and perhaps improving) the system to complain, and make suggestions toward betterment.

We need to inhibit criminal psychopaths, and we should seek empathetic people to lead us, but good leadership will only win out if we are courageous followers.

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further reading: Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, 3rd edition, 2009. []

Chaleff, Riggio and Lipman-Blumen eds, The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations, 2008. []