Can you be a leader without followers? The simple answer is no, of course not. All good leaders have the capacity to inspire people to follow them. Yet, the cultivation of followership is one of the most ignored aspects of leadership today.
Coaches and mentors tend to focus most of their advice on basic tactics--how leaders should act and sound to motivate the people they are leading. When many of those leaders get out in the real world, they try to apply those same tactics to every interaction and relationship in the belief that, eventually, the people they are leading will follow.
It’s like throwing seeds on a rock and then expecting plants to take root.
In my research I have found that leaders are successful when they pay close attention to the specific characteristics of the people they want to lead before reaching into their bag of tactics.
In other words, if you have a bad match between tactics and individual, then you’re likely to end up marching into the organizational future—alone.
To be truly effective, leaders must think of themselves first and foremost as influencers who are comfortable employing a wide array of tactics that can cultivate as many effective followers as possible.
Unfortunately, far too many leaders don’t appreciate, or simply choose to ignore, the specific characteristics of the people they are leading. These leaders believe they will succeed simply by getting their people to do what they want, when they want, through whatever means necessary. This is a naïve and immature view of the role of a leader, and a myopic view of the world. It assumes that everyone else thinks like you and shares your values and beliefs.
Wielding positional power through direct orders can look like success but it will not, in the long run, produce great results. This approach cultivates only compliance, which will produce passive, ineffectual outcomes. And that should not be the end goal for any leader.
As leaders, we must hone the capabilities that allow us to inspire our employees to greater success. But we must also learn more about the people we are leading. Only then will we know if we are applying the right tactics for the right individual.
Let’s face it, you will never be leading a group of people who are identical in their outlook on life, their appreciation of their current jobs, or their career goals. Every leader gets dealt a widely varying hand of individuals, all of who represent different leadership challenges.
Consider these broad examples of the characteristics of employees and the challenges they represent as potential followers. This is not a comprehensive list; every office has a wide spectrum of people to interact with. These are, however, some of the people you are going to meet in your day-to-day leadership experience, as well as some of the approaches you can use to produce a dedicated, committed follower:
The Agreeable Doer
I hear often from leaders about the challenge of leading employees who do what they are asked to do, whenever they are asked to do it, with virtually no muss and fuss. There is a lot of trust in this relationship.
However, there is a real danger here for leaders to take the easy-going employee for granted and exploit the relationship by asking them to do increasingly more. This continues right up until the moment that the leaders assign one task too many, and the normally accommodating employee starts to push back.
These employees will often take on roles or tasks that make them really unhappy, largely because they don’t want to disappoint their leaders. But that doesn’t mean they will be doing their best work. Getting compliance from a very loyal employee may seem great at first, but over the long run it will hurt the quality of their work and their level of engagement.
In managing relationships with these kinds of employees, be mindful of their tendency to say ‘yes’ to any request, and encourage them to express their true feelings and perspectives. If they do you a solid favor, make sure you reward them with something they really want. And if their committed followership has helped you out of a difficult spot, make sure they know that they are appreciated for having that quality.
The Natural Skeptic
Every office has a population of natural skeptics and they can be both a help and a hindrance. These are the employees who question every decision, project, and strategic policy. They are not necessarily non-compliant when it comes time to produce results, but they certainly take a toll on leaders and colleagues before settling down to work.
In the extreme, this employee can be dismissive, even disrespectful when given a directive. Generally, it’s not even because they don’t want to do the work, but rather because they need to see the value and purpose of the work on the front end. It needs to make sense to them before they can buy in.
Cultivating a skeptic as a follower is all about doing your homework in advance. Anticipate arguments against your request, and devise concise responses that do not belittle those who want to challenge what you are asking them to do. Above all, be prepared to sell your decision to get them to buy in.
Just as importantly, you need to truly open your mind to what the skeptic is telling you. This can be very tough for leaders to do. Listen with patience to someone who seems to be opposing you just for the thrill of being contrary. Many times there is a germ of a great idea in what the skeptic is saying. And by actually listening sincerely to what the skeptic has to say, you’ll be earning loyalty down the road.
The Enthusiastic Innovator
Do you know someone in your office who is a constant source of ideas and a seemingly endless source of initiative? If you know that person, it’s likely that you have an enthusiast and innovator in your midst.
This person has many of the qualities you desire in a highly engaged employee. They have lots of good ideas and energy, and are always willing to jump in on new work. But beware—the enthusiast’s energy can wane.
If they don’t get to act on their ideas or do not get picked to take the point on new initiatives, these employees can become disillusioned and even despondent. Often, these are people who have risen quickly through an organization and have not experienced a lot of failure. Every time someone rejects one of their ideas, they take it as a crushing defeat.
As a leader, you obviously cannot fulfill every aspiration or goal of every employee. If you find an employee pressing particularly hard on an idea, take the time to talk with him or her directly. Engage them in a dialogue of what can be done, what can’t be done, and why. Transparency and clarity will help the enthusiast survive a letdown on any one idea.
Regardless of the type of person you are relating to, it’s important to remember that effective leadership is not about issuing orders or creating fear. You must influence the people you are leading, and help them choose to be loyal, productive followers. It isn’t about creating a workforce of employees who blindly do what you want them to do; it’s about inspiring people to follow you because they enjoy the journey and find meaning in their work. A lack of meaning is a huge reason why people leave jobs…and leaders.
For years we have been told to look at things from someone else’s point of view, to walk a mile in their shoes. It’s excellent advice but it takes hard work and practice to build it into your approach to leadership.
However, by making the conscious effort to learn what motivates and engages your people, you will find the right tactics for the right person. That is a strategy that will make for more successful leaders and more engaged, productive followers.