Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Leader vs Follower

This title suggests that one can be only a leader or a follower and this is possible but often with disastrous effects. A single person can be a leader or follower and anyone that is one now can be the other next. Many searches for "leader vs follower" bring readers to this blog but the results page that is chosen doesn't explain this principle of the leader-follower relationship.

Using illustrations from the proposed tetrahedral model, " A Vision of Leadership" (now Leadership for Collaboration and Innovation), we can see it is respect that keeps leader and follower in relationship, each respecting the other for the role they are taking. With no respect the relationship becomes dysfunctional and one or both will give up their roles or, if both choose to be leaders they will compete and if both choose to be followers nothing will happen! Respecting is a leadership practice necessary for leading and following in at least two different, important contexts, organization and collaboration.

By organization I mean the structure that is formed by leaders for implementation in which followers conform. This is typically the traditional hierarchy structure used to reliably and repeatedy implement routine operations according to policy, a necessary component of all collective activities. A leader leads followers even while following his/her leader. Really there is no such thing as a leader or a follower. Each person is both, a leader-follower, following one or more people and leading one or more, different people. (Notice that this applies to the person lowest in the hierarchy if they are taking initiatives with respect to others.)

The leader-follower behavior is quite different in collaboration. In this case the person leading improvises in order to innovate and the person following responds to support the innovation. Unlike in a hierarchy the leading and following roles are not fixed according to positional power but are situational, according to whoever can contribute most effectively at any moment. Rather than choosing a leader or follower role according to the position of the other, it is selected according to the value of the other's contribution.

The question, "Am I a leader or a follower?" implies a person can be only one or the other which leads to very unfortunate consequences. Someone who is just a leader will give orders, take independent action, be answerable to no-one and be unable to collaborate; such a person is a dictator. On the other hand the person who chooses just to follow can exist only at the lowest level of a hierarchical organization and be unable/unwilling to take any initiatives with respect to another person; this person is a slave. "Leader or follower?" implies only bad choices unless the response is "both."

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Anonymous said...

The best leaders are excellent followers.

Chris Newham said...

Yes, this is certainly true. One of the ideas that focused the development of this model was, "A conscious decision to follow is an act of leadership."