Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Sunday | December 30, 2012
Home : Commentary
Effective followership critical to success
Canute Thompson, GUEST COLUMNIST

PERHAPS THE single most talked-about issue that has dominated discussion on the future of society, the fortunes of a country, the performance of businesses, the outcomes of education, and the challenges facing the church is leadership. But, an important variable in the discussion that has been woefully missing is the issue of followership.

Effective followership is critical to the success of every successful organisation. One of the problems that this assertion may present to some persons is that followership is viewed as an act of unquestioning obedience and loyalty to the expectations and dictates of the 'boss'. The conception of followership that is used as intended in this article, however, is the very opposite. Effective followership is, in my view, a kind of re-imaginative engagement of a leader who, while functioning in a structurally followership role or position within the organisation, understands the importance of assuming leadership responsibility for the purpose, direction, process and outcomes of the organisation. In this mode of engagement, followers do not behave as though they are 'yes' men and women, rather they are willing to interrogate the views and proposed paths and programmes of the organisation and are prepared to offer their own ideas to the leadership on what may represent better ways of achieving the desired, or even better, outcomes.

The dangers of 'Yesmanship'

The old adage, 'the boss is always right', is just that - an old adage. This notion came out of the 'scientific' era of the early 20th century and has its genesis in the doctrine of Frederick Taylor and Henri Fayol, who (along with others) advanced the view that there was 'one best way' to get the job done and workers needed to be trained in specific ways to be able to carry out the tasks of the organisation. While no reasonable person would dispute the importance of training, it is self-evidently senseless to construct the training of human beings in ways similar to that of training dogs and horses. In training animals, the important element is the ability to follow instruction and to execute according to prescribed ways. The element of thinking is what is missing. Thus, the average worker during the 1900s - 1930s (the scientific era) was expected to be good at remembering and to execute consistent instructions.

This kind of approach to using human resources works well when the tasks are repetitive and straightforward and the context predictable. In contexts of uncertainty, even when the tasks are routine such as in customer service, workers must be able to troubleshoot and innovate or at least think outside the box. To simply do as one is told can prove unhelpful or even harmful to the organisation.

The higher up the followership chain an employee is the greater the need for critical thinking which, for all intents and purpose, is the antithesis of 'yesmanship'. A leader who is surrounded by 'yes' men and women could take the organisation down a cliff. It is a most unfortunate state of affairs for any organisation to be populated with senior managers who do not have the guts to say to the leader, "But, sir" or "Boss, that can't work".

Perspectives on followership

Kelly (1992) provides a perspective on followership that gives insights into how we may interpret the roles and behaviours of followers. He lists four types of followers:

1. Alienated followers are mavericks who have a healthy scepticism of the organisation. They are capable, but cynical.

2. Conformist followers are the "yes people" of the organisations. They are very active at doing the organisation's work and will actively follow orders.

3. Passive followers rely on leaders to do the thinking for them. They also require constant direction.

4. Exemplary followers are independent, innovative, and willing to question leadership. This type of follower is critical to organisational success. Exemplary followers know how to work well with other cohorts and present themselves consistently to all who come into contact with them.

Barbara Kellerman of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, in her pioneering 2007 work, 'Followership: How Followers are Creating Change', argues that the needs of followers are every bit as important as the need of leaders. One of the critical needs of followers is a working environment in which they feel valued and where they are given an opportunity to bring their vast knowledge to bear on the direction of the organisation.

This is so because we no longer live in an era of restricted access to knowledge, and followers have access to information that can inform the creation of useful ideas to advance the organisation.

The smart and effective leader will, therefore, be the one who has learnt how to engage the multiple ideas and diverse perspectives in finding solutions to the complex problems of the modern workplace.

Dr Canute Thompson is a leadership coach and certified management consultant and co-founder and convener of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, of the Centre for Leadership and Governance, UWI.

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