At the end of July, I was deeply honored to be among the presenters at the Global Followership Conference held at Waterloo University, in Ontario, Canada. At this special gathering, the first of its kind, I shared my organizational model of interdependent leadership and followership skills based on social dance. It was inspiring and heartening, to say the least, to hear the wisdom, conviction, and clarity emerging from this community of researchers, teachers, and consultants. I heard many useful methods and real life examples of how to shift the cultural norms in institutions and organizations away from domination and toward cooperation.
We expect a lot from our leaders, both creatively and professionally, and perhaps because there’s such an excess of training, writing, and cultural knowledge about how to lead, I find it’s sometimes hard to acknowledge that leaders don’t always get it right. What happens when leaders are struggling?
In working environments, especially, we tend to give struggling or inexperienced leaders a lot of leeway while we simultaneously attempting to guide, fix, control, and incentivize the work of followers. What about leaders who need help leading well? Who's holding them accountable and guiding them to do their best work?
For a long time, now, I’ve thought of creative practices and spiritual practices as two methods of accessing the same expansive human potential, with that potential often called a variety of things including connection, magic, love, purpose, divinity, self-actualization, transcendence, wholeness, intuition, and many other names. In part, I came to this view as a result of studying yoga philosophy alongside social dance. During those years, I began to see my teaching of dance not merely as a transfer of skills, but also as a way of supporting others in their desire to increase connection and magic in their lives, however they might name it.
On the dance floor, followers frequently accept invitations from strangers, and willingly make themselves physically vulnerable in the arms of their leader. The acceptance of a dance is also acceptance of a certain degree of physical risk. An inattentive leader may twist, squeeze, or manipulate the follower’s body to cause discomfort and even injury. A distracted leader may collide with other couples, occasionally causing bodily harm. Most of the time things go well, but minor bumps and bruises are not uncommon. Dancers accept this risk, and with experience become very familiar with, and increasingly able to tolerate, their own feelings of vulnerability. This tolerance is what builds bravery, the willingness to move confidently into territory before you can see it.
Wherever deadlines, deliverables, and metrics exist, we will experience impatience from time to time. Sometimes clients, supervisors, or board members will be impatient with us or our work, and sometimes we will simply feel impatient with them, with ourselves, or with some part of the process we do not have total control over.
Change can be scary, I know, but when you’re looking forward in your life and thinking, “This can’t go on,” or “I don’t want to live like this anymore,” change can magically become the more attractive option, even if that means stepping into unknown territory. I’ve been at that fork in the road many times myself, and what drew me toward coaching as a profession was the toolkit for navigating those moments with more grace and power.
One big reason I believe many of us have difficulty setting healthy boundaries at work is that we fear losing our job, being passed up for promotion, damaging a professional relationship, or some other negative consequence. While these fears might sometimes be legitimate, they are often exaggerated. How can we evaluate our hesitation with more objectivity and speak up when it’s important, even though we may still feel nervous?
Joe LaSala is Vice President of Marketing at Analytic Partners. He speaks in very practical terms about how crucial good following is to business, both for himself and for those he supervises. He also helped me to see how an emphasis on competent work, the realm of followers, helps to define success in terms of long-term, sustainable productivity for both clients and employees, rather than in terms of short-term gain or a race to an IPO.
Arguments are never fun, but more importantly, they are usually a colossal waste of time and energy. Different from productive disagreement, which can actually be a creative process in itself, an argument occurs when we stop listening to one another and simply defend opposing positions. What keeps us stuck in an argument with another person is usually the same thing that keeps us stuck in our own minds: black and white thinking.
I don’t know anyone who likes this topic – it generates an almost universal “ick” response. And although most of us receive feedback at our jobs on a regular basis, it is often a challenge for our minds to distinguish between criticism of our work and criticism of our self. This is why, I believe, we dread, or feel the need to “steel ourselves,” before these conversations.
There are many useful models for decision making, but what I’d like to highlight in this post are the patterns of thinking that often lead to decision paralysis in the first place. Do you tend to climb on that hamster wheel of information gathering, advice seeking, and pro vs con lists? Are you extremely concerned about which path is the most efficient, advantageous, economical, realistic, or otherwise the RIGHT decision? This post is for you.
As I explore the concept of followership in the workplace, one skill has popped up again and again as simultaneously the most critical and also the most difficult: setting boundaries. Setting boundaries, of course, is not only for work - we all need to set healthy boundaries for ourselves in many aspects of our lives, regardless of whether we’re playing the roles of leader or follower. Professionally speaking, though, I see boundary setting as a followership skill because it primarily addresses the execution of individual or collective labor, whereas leadership qualities tend to address the organization of that labor.