Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Followership behaviors of leaders

A few years ago, while I was working with one of my previous employers, I got an opportunity to attend a 'global HR leadership team meeting' of that company. This meeting brought together senior HR leaders of the company from various countries and from the corporate office. Though the main purpose of my participation in the meeting was to lead a working session (on an initiative that I was managing at that time), it also gave me a great opportunity to observe the HR leaders of the company for three days.

What struck me the most was the 'followership behaviors' of some of these leaders (i.e. their behavior pattern when they are interacting with leaders who are even more senior than them). In quite a few cases this was very different from their behavior in those situations where they were the senior most person present. The supreme confidence and aggressiveness that were often present in their behavior in the latter case were completely absent when they were in the presence of leaders who are more senior than them. Initially, this difference caused some amount of 'dissonance' in my mind. But it helped me to develop a more realistic/balanced understanding of these people as individuals and also of their degree of power/influence/importance in the organization. This proved to be very helpful in working more effectively with these leaders later.

I do wonder how much difference is there between the 'leadership' and 'followership' behaviors of most people. May be we can say that the difference is there in the case of most people (this is a common phenomena among primates !) and that the difference becomes more 'noticeable' in the case of people who are in leadership positions in organizations (or at least that people who have seen these leaders in action in both the 'leadership' and 'followership' roles tend to notice quite a bit of difference). Of course, this difference is a matter of degree and in the case of some of the leaders there won't be a significant difference in the behavior. It might also be that the difference would be more in the case of more hierarchical organizations (and in the case of more 'authoritarian leaders').

An even more interesting question is whether it is 'OK' to have a difference between one's 'leadership behavior pattern' and 'followership behavior pattern'. I feel that some amount of difference is 'normal' - in the statistical sense of the term (i.e. fitting into a normal distribution). I do feel that a very high degree of difference (resembling 'split personality') is not desirable - especially when the difference in behavior is used to manipulate one's subordinates and/or superiors.

All of us are leaders and followers. It can be argued that 'leadership' and 'followership' are present in all of us and that one of them ('leadership' or 'followership') becomes 'active' in a particular situation. This leads to some interesting questions. To what extent is 'leadership' and 'followership' a choice of the individual concerned? Is this always a conscious choice? To what extent does the situation influence this choice? If we treat leadership as an 'emergent phenomenon' can one do anything to improve one's chances of 'emerging' as a leader?

Any answers/thoughts/comments?


Evolving Ideas said...

I don't think our leadership and followership should be divorced behavior patterns. Moreover, I don't think leadership and followership should be characterized by aggression, dominance and antithetically, deference and submissiveness.

At least in my mind these two behaviors are balancing acts between taking the initiative and stepping back and listening. Granted in a work group setting the mantle for the final call generally rests with one person, but if that decision hasn't evolved through the leader 'following' the ideas and inputs of everyone in his/her group, it isn't going to be a very good call.

At least in my head leading & following are like the yin-yan, you gotta have both of them represented, especially in people carrying the tags of managers, VPs yada yada.

But then these behaviors get contaminated by power structures, cultural norms around authority and the individuals desire to ingratiate themselves with seniors. What results is the scenario you so aptly described.

And this turned into a long response! Thanks for another thought provoking post Prasad :)

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Astha.

I agree that 'leadership' or 'followership' need not necessarily correspond to any 'standard' behavior patterns (let alone with dominance and submissiveness). I feel that we all have our leadership and followership styles and that these could further vary based on the context. Regarding yin and yang, I think that the challenge is to 'hold' both of them in one's 'personality' at the same time and still maintain 'autonomy' (in the transactional analysis sense of the term).

Evolving Ideas said...

I like your transactional analysis analogy- apt and elegant.

While we're on this, I also think that our training and education systems fail to emphasize this balance.

Prasad Kurian said...

Thanks Astha.

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