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Joy Wilson

Spectrum Training services

Learning and Development Consultant

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Leaders, are you encouraging followersheep?


Many years ago we were approached by a large public sector department to deliver a leadership development programme. Prior to receiving the materials I had formed expectations about the content of the course; however, when I received the material the content was so fundamentally different to what I had expected that it revolutionised my approach to the future design of Spectrain’s leadership development programmes.


This programme focused on the concept of followership, few leadership development programs focus on developing followers. Instead, the focus is upon discovering the individual characteristics of leadership style and potential and yet someone who is a leader one minute could be a follower the next and so perhaps the key to leadership goes beyond the person as an individual and to their effectiveness as a group member.


Collaboration is essential to the success of our work whether we are a leader or a follower both roles are intricately linked with competencies shared between effective leadership active followers.


 In his book “The Power of Followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves”, Robert Kelley describes effective followers as individuals who exercise superior judgment, critical thinkers, who possess several essential qualities: self-management, commitment, and focus, courage credibility and honesty - many people would recognize these traits as leadership competencies

Never Follow!

In 2002 Audi created an advertisement with the tag line “Never Follow”. What started as an advertising campaign developed into a worldwide communications programme which honoured innovators in the fields of sports, literature, film and music who embraced the never follow approach. The campaign was abandoned in 2007 but what made it attractive for so long? Perhaps it is our dislike of being associated with the concept of being a follower, one of many, passive, one of a herd that attracted us to the never follow philosophy that encouraged us to embrace the independent thinking that was borne out of the advertising campaign.  There is learning from this for leaders.


We, Us, and I

John Adair noted that the most important word in the leader's vocabulary is 'we' and the least important word is 'I'. If we put the focus of our leadership development initiatives from “I” to “We”, we shift the focus from personal qualities to responsibility for the relationships with the groups that they lead.


Developing a sense of “We” is much more likely to encourage individuals to align with the group and its members and contribute to the groups goals. Everyone has a sense of “self” as both a group member and an individual, our contribution to the group appeals to our collective, self interest, and social identity, This need for positive distinctiveness and affiliation means that people’s sense of who they are is attractive when defined in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.


Defining Leadership

Perhaps its time to examine how we interpret definitions of leadership.

Northouse’s definition - Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. This is interesting because, to influence requires social interaction and identification with the group and a common goal is a collective goal and demands a sense of “we”.


Leader and Follower Competencies

We are all leaders and followers, Kelley categorized followers into five different types based on their " independence, critical thinking versus dependent, and uncritical thinking. We tend not to fall into combinations of these categories depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. Take a look at the categories and ask yourself, “What type of follower am I and “What type of follower do I wish to encourage”?


  •  Alienated - independent and critical thinker, lacking in engagement due to a sense of dissatisfaction with the organisation
  •  Conformist - highly active in their organization but lack independent, critical thinking skills.
  •  Pragmatist - straddles the "middle of the road”, either questions their leader too much or too little.
  •  Passive – fails to think for him/herself is not an active member of the team
  •  Exemplary - a constant critical thinker and is actively engaged in his or her organization.


Avoiding Leader Sheep

The question is how do we develop independent, critical thinking, how do we encourage response-ability? Well the first step is to examine your faulty thinking, if any of what is to follow sounds familiar > STOP IT NOW!

1.     Don’t think – do! restricting thinking by acting in ways that tell people their thinking isn’t highly valued.

2.     Issuing directives, not providing directions. When people don’t know what to do they wait until the boss steps in, because they’ve not been trained to think things through for themselves and don’t know what to do to achieve the goals they’ve been given

3.     Let me tell you what you did wrong. If you know so much, why don’t you provide us with guidance before we go down the wrong path?”

4.     This is important - I’ll do it myself (Implies I can’t trust you with anything really important)


The Antidote

Leadership implies a relationship; you can’t lead without people who are willing to follow and who feel a sense of shared responsibility. The following ideas will enable you lead in ways that engage others to follow:

  •  Develop your emotional intelligence. The model introduced by Daniel Goleman focuses on emotional intelligence as a wide array of competencies and skills that drive leadership performance he  identifies five categories of personal and social competence: (personal) self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, (social) empathy, and social skills. Any leader is going to be more effective when s/he is in control of how to express emotions in a business setting, how you fulfil the role can encourage and inspire others, or it can alienate and stifle them.
  •  Treat people as though they are your business partners – for that’s just what they are!  The key to unlocking the thinking skills of your people is to provide opportunity for them to discuss their preferred approach to a situation, and as their mentor help them to explore the pitfalls and consequences of their approach.  Respect them enough to encourage and settle for nothing less than rigorous thinking on their part.
  •  Push people to challenge your ideas. Encourage people to develop their own ideas and reward people for doing so. Thinking is a skill that requires practice and support empowering weak thinkers only leads to them developing poor solutions and that leads to demotivation quickly.  Therefore, teaching people to think, learning from each other and then thinking together as an organization are fundamental activities for avoiding leader sheep!


Want to avoid leadersheep? Our innovative development programme will enable you to develop your leadership and followership skills without once using any of those models you’ve seen before and come to us for details....

Author Profile Picture
Joy Wilson

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from Joy Wilson

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