Leadership Insight: Why Would We Follow You?

This story is so familiar that I am sure you have heard it, experienced it, or are living it. Following success in a previous, project, department, or company, a manager or executive is promoted into a new leadership position and fails.

The premise for the promotion is that if someone is successful at leading one team, they will be successful leading any team, but this assumption is based on a common misconception of what leadership is, and how it works.

You Can't be a Leader without doing Leadership

I had a coaching client who was a brilliant marketer. She was creative and led her team to deliver excellent work for her company. She felt she deserved a promotion and the title of CMO. When this finally came, everything changed. The expanded team resented her, complained that she was absent, and the quality of work from her department suffered.

This CMO had confused being a leader with doing leadership, and she is not alone. Leadership books, posts, and memes focus heavily on the attributes of a leader, such as confidence, charisma, trustworthiness, and fairness.

In a 2015 paper titled 'There is no leadership if no-one follows', authors Platow, Haslam, Reicher, and Steffens, argue that leadership is a psychological group process in which followers effectively make someone a leader. They emphasize that:

"There can be no leadership if no one follows."

The paper highlights the key linchpin to all leadership is social influence. The leadership qualities that we all admire are the outcomes of shared psychological group membership rather than intrinsic to the individual.

I was chatting with a colleague, Christopher M. Barlow PhD about the importance of self-leadership in high-performing teams. Christopher is fond of saying, to his MBA classes,

"There is no such thing as a person having leadership"

Instead, people do have a process of followership, of giving their trust to certain people on certain issues. When someone invokes that followership response, we call the interaction leadership.

My coaching client thought that the CMO title would give her leadership, but in getting the title she stopped doing the activities that triggered 'followership'. The self-awareness of this enabled her to return to focusing on 'doing' leadership rather than being a leader.

Influencing People to Follow You

A key tenet of self-leadership is:

"You can't lead others unless you first lead yourself."

You wouldn't trust a fitness trainer who was out of shape or a tour guide who was always lost, and so before leading others, you must audit your own self-awareness, self-management, and self-learning. 

With your self-leadership in mind, you can then assess the various followership triggers within your team because they vary greatly and can even be contradictory.

Do your team members prefer you to be confident or humble, direct or nuanced, in-person or remote, friendly or authoritative?

These preferences are further complicated by the context in which you require followership, is the situation or stable or volatile?

The solution is to consider leadership as a conversation, a one-to-one or a one-to-many conversation. By engaging your followers in conversation, you learn what they need from you as the leader, they understand your competencies and you become part of the team.

I have articulated 12 leadership conversations in The New Leadership Playbook; Being Human whilst Successfully Delivering Accelerated Results and you can download a free chapter here.

Trust is the Essential Ingredient

Trust has been shown to be the essential ingredient in the leader-follower relationship. By having conversations and understanding followers' triggers, you can accelerate the creation of trust.

There is one final thing that I will share from my experience in facilitating Executive Leadership Teams to be high-performing, and that is vulnerability.

In any relationship, there are things that are known to ourselves but not known to others. This is our facade. Trust is formed in the arena when the facade is lowered and things are brought into an open space, known to self and known to others. If there is a psychologically safe space, a leader can share their own challenges, fears, and failures and invite team members to do the same. 

By embracing vulnerability the leader can be authentic, and this in turn influences followers to be more trusting, providing the leader provides a vision of where they are leading the team.

Leadership is not simply about being, it is about doing as well. Because leadership is a social and psychological process, effective behaviors include those that 'do it for us', and those that actively construct the meaning of 'us'.

Now can you answer the question:

"Why would we follow you?

I share more of these insights in my Leadership Keynote Speech: Driving Accelerated Results through Self-leadership. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss this.






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