Follower-focused leadership: how to become a better manager
Effective leadership does not come from being an expert in business theory but from paying close attention to your followers and closing the perception gap between what leadership is and what it should be.
A great deal of leadership training involves encouraging managers to think of themselves as leaders. Perhaps you yourself have been encouraged in just such a way: “don’t be a manager, be a leader!”.
But while such demands are often appealing – after all, many of us do grow up wanting to be leaders – trouble arises when we start to ask more seriously what being a leader actually entails.
Take the time to search for an answer through articles and blogs online and you are likely to find many different points of view. There are indeed a range of theories on the leadership market (a $24 billion industry): including situational leadership, servant leadership, transformational leadership, relational leadership, etc.
Despite the imposing scale of the task, leadership is a big topic in business and an important area for any entrepreneur, manager or business owner to get a handle on.
Even if you had a lot of time on your hands it would be difficult to get to the bottom of the literature – there are over 60,000 books listed under ‘leadership’ on Amazon, and more than 13 scientific studies published on the subject every single day.
But despite the imposing scale of the task, leadership is a big topic in business and an important area for any entrepreneur, manager or business owner to get a handle on. The question is: how do we find our way through the leadership jungle?
I recently attended a lecture delivered by Frederik Anseel, professor of Organisational Behaviour at King’s Business School, on the subject of ‘The Future of Leadership’. Here are a few thoughts for budding leaders based on my take-aways from the lecture.
1. All leadership theories can work
Professor Anseel described exactly the difficulty I mentioned previously, with regards to the sheer volume of leadership research, apparently it is impossible even for academics to keep up.
For Anseel however, what is really frustrating, is that while on the one hand the leadership literature is indeed vast and complicated, on the other hand everyone in the leadership business seems to have their own pet theory.
The truth, Anseel emphasised, is that all the leadership theories can work – it depends on the situation in which they are put to practice.
2. Find your own way through the leadership jungle
We need to find the theories and approaches that work best for us and for the specifics of our organisational contexts and environments.
Being familiar with a range of different leadership theories may be helpful here, as we juggle perspectives to find the right fit for our particular environment.
Needless to say, this is a process which might take a little time to unfold, and depending on the kind of person we are, certain styles of leadership may come more naturally to us than others.
3. Think about your followers
If you are feeling a little apprehensive about being left alone in the leadership jungle, Anseel went on to emphasise a crucial (though often overlooked) aspect of the leadership literature: that is the importance of the relationship between leaders and their ‘followers’, and especially the way in which that relationship is perceived by the followers.
Leaders and followers
Part of the attraction of leadership is that it allows us to imagine ourselves as leaders. The size of the leadership industry is intimately caught up with the romance we invest in the idea of leadership, and it is no wonder that books and training programmes about effective ‘followership’ are so much harder to find.
Truly effective leadership actually involves precisely the opposite: it is about paying attention to our followers.
Whether we grew up idolising Che Guevara or Captain America, the leadership industry is so seductive because it allows us (however fleetingly) to put ourselves in the shoes of our heroes.
But for Anseel, rather than being about enjoying a fantasy of ourselves as glorious and wonderful leaders at the centre of the world, truly effective leadership actually involves precisely the opposite: it is about paying attention to our followers, the people who are supposed to be following us.
Now you don’t need to be an expert in philosophical logic to see that the concept of leadership doesn’t make much sense without the corresponding concept of followership.
In the same way that it is difficult for example to think about what it means to be a parent without thinking about what it means to be a child, or a teacher without a student, it is rather difficult to think about what it means to be a leader without thinking about the people who are supposed to be following you.
Key questions your followers should be asking you:
Anseel suggested three things that followers should ask about their leaders (whether consciously or not) and which we can use as starting points for reflection:
- Do you know what you’re talking about?
- Can I trust you?
- Do you care about me?
Although they are distilled from a wealth of academic research, these questions aren’t particularly complicated. But that doesn’t mean they are easy to answer.
You may feel confident that you know what you are talking about when it comes to advising and directing your team members, but how trustworthy are you? Do you keep your promises? Do you bitch behind other people’s backs? And to what extent do you show authentic care about employees’ lives and careers?
These three questions reflect the effort to be a good human being, rather than merely a good practitioner of ‘leadership skills’.
It doesn’t matter how many leadership books you’ve read or how many models you are able to cite: if you can give a good answer to those three fundamental questions, you are probably on your way to effective leadership already.