Hard Work

Leaders and Followers: How Different Are They?

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.

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2 replies »

  1. There is one overriding, undeniable and unquestionable difference between followers and leaders. The leader has to have the courage and fortitude to be responsible and accountable for the actions of his/her subordinates.
    The statement above, “Recalls, lawsuits and bad new product launches have all been known to bankrupt companies, the source of which is often followers, not leaders”, is one that I would consider a cop-out. The leaders either condoned the actions of the followers or failed to see the risks and dangers headed at them. The leader was responsible. The leader is accountable.
    The idea of “The buck stops here!” is both valid and valuable. A good leader knows that this is the dividing line. This person may not have all the above traits of the mythical perfect leader, however, this is the leader I would trust and definitely respect. That example would foster in me the courage and fortitude to be responsible and accountable as a follower for my actions whether or not I have leadership traits.
    I believe the idea that you present for the armed forces is correct. If you are responsible and accountable for your actions you are acting as a leader and you will be trusted and respected as a follower on your way to leadership.
    Unfortunately, we don’t have a society where this is common. We have a “Victim Mentality” society that finger-points, ass-covers, dodges, deflects and denies and that hide whenever the s#!^ hits the fan. The position one has in a hierarchy does not give them the title leader or follower, it’s just a momentary delusional position of status.
    You last statement has always been true, however, I’d really be careful of the criteria being used when looking at these great followers. They may have great traits but are they the correct traits?

  2. Colleen. I love this article (…and the comment left by Skotia)! In both cases the points raised are excellent, reflecting my observations and views in some detail. The statement, “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” is interesting. I still believe that effective leaders display traits and characters that reflect these more consistently or with more determination than a less-experienced, confident or self-aware team member. There needs to be a difference (read: Skill/Trait) shown otherwise respect, trust and other relational perspectives are less obvious to the ‘follower’. Ultimately, the leader must have these attributes otherwise, to your point, there are no differentiators, which could lead to apathy, plateauing, reduced results or similar within the team. Although leader’s are people too and we are all imperfect by nature, understanding skillsets and the ability to be seen as effective enough a leader that others want to follow is a key ingredient to leadership effectiveness. To answer your topic question – how different are they? Sadly, too often not that much. In Leadership nirvana their would be a more tangible and real difference in what we see displayed as leadership day-to-day.Great topic!

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