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Courageous Followership2020-01-22T22:46:33+00:00

by Jon Atack

Heroes or Devils

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

Courageous Followership - Healthy Skepticism

Focus on the Leader

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 enabling that leader.

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.

Charisma Is Not Always Intrinsic

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 simply 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 racism. But courageous followership is appropriate in all situations. It is “courageous,” because there are risks involved. Courageous followership demands that we stand up for what we know to be true.

Five Styles of Followership

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.

See Chaleff, Riggio and Lipman-Blumen eds, The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Create Great Leaders and Organizations

Devil’s Advocate

In his study of groupthink, Irving Janis suggested that all groups should deliberately include a devil’s advocate. The Catholic Church used to appoint a devil’s advocate to argue against any proposed saint. The advocate’s job is to find contrary evidence. The best devil’s advocates would be star followers.

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.

No Test for Politicians

It is surprising that there is no test to ensure that politicians are psychologically competent. We need to inhibit psychopaths and narcissists, and we should seek compassionate people to lead us, but good leadership will only win out if we are courageous followers.

Courageous followership is absolutely about questioning, when needed; about helping positional leaders see their blind spots, and helping them understand the impact of their actions on success and on morale, as well as taking an ethical stand when needed. Crucially, these actions are effective if the follower performs their own job well and authentically supports the leader.

Test of Core Values

If what the leader  is asking has a reasonable chance of success, and doesn’t violate core human values, even if the follower would prefer a different course, following is inherent to the follower role. In other words, following requires not continuously competing for the lead role. So the courage to serve or support the leader and the mission is foundational. In that context the positional follower can then successfully question, offer candid critiques, suggest alternative courses, and so forth.

Further Reading:

Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders

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