Contrary to many dearly held stereotypes, the military has been leading the effort to redefine leadership over the past ten years or so. Recently I read an excellent article in the Ivey Business Journal about how concepts from military leadership apply to the business world, written by Dr. Peter Voyer, an experienced officer in the Canadian Forces.
The Canadian Armed Forces adheres to the idea that everyone, no matter rank or role, has the responsibility to act as a leader. Which of course, begs the question, who is the follower?
Dr. Voyer presents four traits of effective leaders: Loyalty, Knowledge, Integrity and Courage. All of these traits are admirable. I would propose that everyone, leaders or followers, needs to demonstrate these traits. Followers demonstrate courage, when they challenge the opinions of their organization’s leadership, risking career disaster to ensure that the organization’s leaders see the risks that they might be taking on. Whistle-blowers almost inevitably face career backlash when they do what is right in the face of bad leadership.
Technical competence and organizational knowledge are essential to effectiveness whether you are a leader or a follower. An incompetent follower can destroy a business, if their mistakes are big enough. Recalls, lawsuits and bad new product launches have all been known to bankrupt companies, the source of which is often followers, not leaders.
Integrity is also an important ingredient in effective followership, (to which many companies who experienced rogue trades can attest).
I’m beginning to believe that there really isn’t as big a difference between leaders and followers as we would like to believe. It would be reassuring to know that someone better than ourselves, someone with courage, integrity, knowledge and loyalty is leading us. But the reality is that most leaders are real people, just like most followers. Although there are some patterns that suggest that certain personalities are more likely to become leaders, that doesn’t mean that they are better leaders.
The lesson for me from Peter Voyer’s thoughts on leadership? That good leaders and good followers share many of the same traits and behaviours. So to find tomorrow’s great leader, perhaps we need to be looking at today’s great followers.