Lead & Follow

Reflecting on the 2019 Followership Conference

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. 

3 Surprising Tactics for Common Leadership Challenges

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?

Strong Followers are Essential: Interview with Joe LaSala

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.

Leadership with Followership: Part 2


This post continues a discussion of how leaders can empower followers to engage more powerfully in the work place. While hierarchical structures are necessary to establish accountability and get things done, collaborative structures are also necessary, to make full use of our human resources and maximize creative potential. To achieve moments or sustained periods of collaboration, a shift in how we understand both leadership and followership is neccessary. If you missed Part 1 of this article, you might want to go back and start there!

2. Articulating core values allows followers to contribute

Naming and embodying your core values not only attracts new followers who are a strong match for your organization; it also provides an anchor for followers who are already there. But embodied values not only increase retention in the traditional sense; they also keep followers’ outlook positive and fuel their work ethic. We all manage fatigue and distraction on a daily basis; it’s part of being human. And the pace of our lives today is more overwhelming than ever. As we build companies that aim to make real and lasting impact in the world, leaders must build an organizational foundation with sincere and deliberate values that will uplift and energize followers over the long term.

The values that leaders choose become a reference point for followers, the ideas that they orient themselves toward and rely on for guidance, whether you are in the room or not. These values keep them connected to the mission of the organization and to their own creative power to fulfill it. Values articulation is not only important at the top-most level of an organization, it is also essential for leadership at all levels, even those of us who may only act as leaders for a few minutes at a time, in the course of a conversation. The inner leader is the part of you who sets your ethical compass; it’s how you make choices about how to arrange your life and navigate the professional world. If you’re out of touch with your inner leader, you may feel uncertain about what to do when conflict arises.

Values, especially when fully embodied by leaders, inspire followers’ patterns of speech, behavior, and decision making. What does integrity look like when you’re meeting a new client? How about when you’re giving a presentation? When you’re alone at your desk? Burying your values in an employee handbook will not inspire. Values need to be visible, practiced in both word and action at all times. Gaps between what the leader says and does will be quickly noticed by followers, and will rapidly erode any accumulated trust, goodwill, and inspiration.

A leader focused on inspiring followers gives time and space for them to do their best work, because only followers, at the end of the day, know what their best work is. By articulating and practicing specific values, followers are free to connect with them and support them in a variety of ways that leaders can rarely predict or think to ask for in the first place. Because everyone connects with a core value like integrity based on his or her own real life experience, the responses that it may provoke are as diverse as the followers who inhabit the organization, and that diversity is a tremendous strength. The leader who provides this kind of freedom of interpretation to followers makes room for that strength to grow within the organization.

Ways to inspire followers:

1. Provide clear parameters for your expectations
2. Embody your stated values in word and action
3. Recognize instances of followers doing the same
4. Believe in your followers’ potential

3. Collaboration encourages followers to think proactively

One of the most transformative positions you can take as a leader, both for yourself and for others, is to place yourself in a dynamic creative relationship with followers. Depending on your context, followers might be customers, team members, clients, investors, or stakeholders of some other kind. Collaboration does not mean everyone has equal influence or decision making at all times, but it does mean that power is shared in a way that fluctuates, and that there is a fundamental and ongoing exchange of ideas and resources. 

By establishing collaborative dialogue in the office or work environment, even if it is a remote environment, leaders facilitate a natural flow of creativity within the team, group, or company. For followers, connecting with individual creativity generates self-confidence and diminishes anxiety around the unknown. Leaders who model creative risk and “productive failure” encourage followers to be open-minded, curious, and optimistic. This kind of internal growth and development makes it more likely for followers to take ownership of their work.

When collaboration is normalized, followers become curious about how aspects of their work or of the business in general might be improved, and how they themselves might participate in that improvement. Once the current situation is made malleable through dialogue and exchange, the future is full of possibilities. By activating followers, a collaborative approach generates a stream of new ideas to discuss and new perspectives from which to gather valuable insight. Leaders, themselves, will begin thinking more expansively.

Different from the navigational directions discussed previously, clear and consistent communication from leaders establishes a collaborative relationship. Following is a responsive mode of interaction, so when leaders initiate dialogue, followers engage. Questions are addressed before problems arise, and relevant information flows between departments.

Ways to encourage collaboration:

1. Setup systems of sharing ideas and information
2. Solicit input and feedback
3. Make decisions that benefit everyone
4. Be curious about followers

Where might you introduce a more collaborative relationship with those who follow you?

Leadership with Followership: Part 1

We’re living in a world in which everyone is encouraged to be a leader, and in which leadership is celebrated and held up as the solution to all business challenges. Thousands of books, courses, seminars, and degree programs have been designed to identify and engineer various aspects of successful leadership.

With so much effort and investment in this single idea, why is there still such a mysterious lack, as there appears to be, of skillful leaders? And if leadership is the answer to every problem, why do we still struggle to establish and sustain healthy office cultures?

One answer is that leadership has become a moving target. Because we use the term so ubiquitously and so broadly, it can be difficult to identify what exactly effective leadership is and how to practice it. There are hundreds of conflicting philosophies on the role of the leader, and dozens of leadership styles. In the aggregate, nearly all desirable professional qualities have at one point or another been labeled aspects of good “leadership.”

But I think there’s another answer, a blind spot in the corporate paradigm. Leading, as essential as it is, is only half of the equation. The collection of skills and qualities needed to build creative working relationships are not aspects of one thing, but aspects of two things: leading and following, and we’ve been completely ignoring the following.

Amidst the avalanche of leadership literature, you may have noticed a paradox. Leaders need to communicate clearly, but they also need to listen; they need to see the big picture but also attend to the details; they must strive for individual excellence but also put the good of the community first.

These paradoxes are, indeed, the mark of great leaders, but that’s because great leaders are also great followers. Leaders who balance these and other paradoxes of the workplace have incorporated crucial followership skills into their roles as leaders. It’s dangerous to group all of these skills under the leadership banner because that can make them harder to understand and learn, and can also make them less accessible to those who are not named leaders, by title, in their organizations.

It is the opinion of this author that the most dynamic teams and companies are filled with employees who are all skilled in both sets of skills, leadership and followership. They employ these skills both as their ranking title requires and also wherever they are needed, to uplift one another in the day-to-day operation of the organization. Companies that overlook the power of followership skills, or restrict them to named leaders in the guise of additional “leadership” attributes, are overlooking valuable resources within their own walls. The rapidly shifting economic, social, and environmental landscape demands that we fire on all cylinders, and we need active followership to balance our business world and help create powerful, integrated, organizations.                                                                                       

How Leaders Can Empower Followers

In order to have a practical discussion of what authentic leadership is and what it can do for followers, it’s essential to recognize that when we currently think of leadership, we’re typically overshooting the target. What we think of as leading is very often over-leading, and we must reset our understanding of the leader’s role if we’re going to become good at it.

Think of leading and following are two inseparable modes of being that want to rest in balance, like two sides of an old fashioned scale. If leading is too heavy, following will be too light. If leading is exaggerated, following will be muted. By nudging the concept of leading toward equilibrium, I believe we will get better and better at creating flexible and robust working relationships with followers, and with the concept of following in general.

How will this nudging occur? By streamlining our idea of leadership, and allowing room for followership to activate in response. This post identifies ways of interacting in work relationships that place us firmly in the leader role without diminishing the value of what those around us can offer. On the contrary, the analysis below hopes to illustrate how specific leader orientations can empower followers to fulfill more of their potential.

Treasure Planet, Disney pictures

Treasure Planet, Disney pictures

1. Navigation provides context for followers to engage their specialized expertise

Imagine the leader in a helicopter (or a flying ship), with an aerial view of the landscape, and the followers on the ground with all of the tools to build a road.

With the benefit of a wider perspective, the leader sends down directions to guide the followers’ work. Go around this mountain, cross this river, turn left, continue straight. As they build the road one section at a time, the followers focus on all of the necessary details of their work. They operate the tools, overcome obstacles, and devise the most efficient way to clear the path. Without the leader, the followers can’t navigate from point A to point B, but without the followers, there is no road at all. Both are fulfilling distinct roles. Both are indispensable, and neither can do the other’s work.

In the office, the map the leader creates is not usually a map of land, but a map of time. When tasks are developed and completed, and how they synchronize with other tasks – these are the kinds of directions that leaders often provide to followers. Leaders stay focused on the long term goal (the aerial view) precisely so that they can give these directions, often in the form of timelines and project plans. These allow followers to maintain a short-term focus, devoting their full attention to one segment of work at a time. This is not necessarily a hierarchical relationship, although we are used to thinking of it that way. Both long-term and short-term views are needed for the work to progress, just as they are for building a road.

Maintaining the big picture focus can feel challenging because it requires us to take our hands off the steering wheel and give followers the freedom to operate it according to their own best judgement. Since we do not share the same perspective with our followers, we have to acknowledge that even if we have driven the truck in the past and know how it works, we are no longer in the driver's seat and cannot see what is immediately in front of us. We can only see the overall trajectory, whether over land or through time. It is the followers who must determine, with our guidance, at what angle to insert the shovel or how to code the program. We as leaders must trust them with these decisions, and prepare to give the next direction when it is time, and then the next, and the next.

Immersion in limited sections of work is creatively liberating. Though paradoxical, it is nevertheless true that rules and limitations are very often what spark creative solutions, and this is precisely what that a focused leader does for a follower by choosing a specific direction or work segment and eliminating all other possibilities. Freed from the need to make decisions or map out the entire process, the follower more readily enters a creative problem-solving mode to address only the current piece, and is able to explore that piece fully and deeply. 

Whether our roles are fixed by rank or shared within a partnership or team, this interaction of the leader’s broad view and the follower’s deep view is a critical aspect of robust, original, and sustainable work.

Ways to navigate clearly:

1. Spend time alone with the map of the terrain (or calendar)
2. Be as specific as possible with requests and assignments
3. Be willing to revise in light of new information (from followers or other sources)
4. Trust in your followers’ abilities

How do you navigate in positions of leadership? And as a follower, are there times you need to exercise the leadership skill of navigation, either for yourself or for others? Check back next week for Part 2 of this article, which shares two additional ways that leaders can empower followers. To join the mailing list and be notified of new posts, fill out the form in the top right column!

How Following Makes Us Better Leaders (And How Followers Make Better Leaders): Part 2

Below is the second half of a 2-part article on how specific following behaviors in the work place make it easier for leaders to excel in their roles. These specific ways of being and interacting are 1. supporting the leader, 2. a commitment to excellence, and 3. active listening. Just like in the social dance world, the following role is generally under-celebrated in the professional world and represents a massive untapped resource. As more and more businesses start to incorporate social and environmental stewardship into their missions, reclaiming followership as an equal and complementary creative force can be a powerful way to re-invent how we work together. If you missed Part 1, you may want to go back and read that first.


2. High quality work allows leaders to advance the vision of an organization

Following roles are often defined by concrete task-based work: coding, writing, drawing, designing, delivering, calling, processing, etc. It is probably obvious that this kind of work is central to the success of any organization, and that the quality of it must be as high as possible. But what exactly does quality work do for our leaders? Why does it matter to the leader that your work is excellent?

Imagine you are managing a team of programmers, and several of them are uninspired and easily distracted. They slow the progress of the team, because others have to wait for them or because you yourself have to regularly check their work. Under these circumstances, a big chunk of your energy will be devoted to addressing negative interpersonal dynamics and adjusting timelines. You might seek a way to transform your followers’ perspective, and perhaps compensate in the meantime by enforcing a strict schedule or coaching them on how to take more responsibility.

On the other hand, when the primary work of the organization is reliably executed by its followers, leaders can turn their attention to envisioning the next evolution of the work, new applications for it, new ways to refine and re-define it. They can identify ways to further improve working conditions and internal communications. They can imagine and propose new projects that are especially suited to their followers’ talents. But leaders can only do this big-picture work if their followers consistently perform at their personal best and take full responsibility for the work that they do. As soon as reluctance, delay, or negative attitude creep in, the leader must compensate by getting overly involved in the followers’ work.

Even as we acknowledge its value to leadership in this way, the day to day activity of our work can be tiring and repetitive, and so maintaining a personal investment in it over time can be challenging. Of course we want to perform at our best, but what does that look like over time? Clearly it can’t be measured by the number of hours spent at a desk or the word count of a report.

Rather than measure against one another or even by an industry standard, I think the we have to measure against our own past history. Have we improved our core skills based on constructive feedback? Have we acquired new knowledge? Sought out new challenges? These are the relevant questions to ask when addressing and cultivating personal best. Challenging ourselves to continually evolve own own talents and professional interests is fundamentally empowering and is what enables every person to keep moving forward with engagement and curiosity.

Ways to cultivate and sustain personal excellence:

1. Determine what genuinely interests you in the work that you do
2. Let go of comparison and competition with colleagues
3. Set reasonable expectations for what you can accomplish each day, week, and month
4. Reduce distractions but take regular breaks
5. Give and receive feedback on specific, nonjudgmental terms


3. Active listening helps leaders think more clearly

When you’re not the one making decisions, it can be tempting to check out, to assume that because your role is not as visible, it is less important or even non-existent. But there is a great deal of power in holding space for a decision to be made, and in responding to such decisions with grace and commitment. By listening actively, waiting calmly, and asking thoughtful questions, followers can actually provoke more inspired thoughts and ideas from leaders. Whether in the context of long-term project planning or short-term assignments, listening without agendas, defensiveness, or critique is a crucial and learnable skill. But if we don’t think listening is important, then we will not train ourselves to become skilled in it, and we will not be able to interact in this empowered way with our leaders.

In the work place, the follower ability to listen actively complements the leader ability to share original ideas or give clear directions. Active listening isn’t necessarily a highly charged state. It can be relaxed and composed, a counterpoint to the leader’s often energized state. By offering this kind of focus and attention, we make it easier for the leader to think and to articulate her ideas. By fully hearing what she is saying, we may well grasp both the big picture and the subtler details with more accuracy. And by consistently offering a receptive space for the leader to express herself verbally, she becomes more comfortable and skilled at doing so over time.

If you’re still unsure about the power of listening, consider the concept of a sounding board, that person you call when you need to “talk through an idea.” With that person’s attention, patience, and occasional commentary, your idea soon crystallizes into something more articulate and actionable. We typically do this when we feel indecisive, the pros and cons circling endlessly in our minds. You call a friend or colleague, lay out your arguments for this new person’s waiting ears. Perhaps her questions prompt you to clarify your priorities, or perhaps simply in expressing your thoughts aloud to her, a realization surfaces. Somehow your path forward becomes clearer.

We do this naturally for one another in order to advance our thoughts and ideas. Listening is an innate human skill, but it is also a professional skill, and it can be honed to a level at which conversations at work (in private meetings, on the phone, around the table, anywhere) become more focused, creative, and insightful.

Ways to develop attentive listening:

1. Take three slow deep breaths before a conversation
2. Stretch, and then relax your body before a meeting
3. Believe that you have something valuable to learn from the speaker
4. Repeat the speaker’s exact words in your mind
5. Ask for clarification if you do not understand what was said

How Following Makes Us Better Leaders (And How Followers Make Leaders Better): Part 1

As it’s generally used, the term follower is not very inspiring, often associated with bland thinking or rote behavior. No wonder, in our daily lives, we sometimes resist or outright avoid situations that seem to put us in a following role, or diminish our sense of ourselves as “leading” our own lives. Think of consulting a doctor or asking for directions. Maybe we’re reluctant to receive these types of guidance because to receive, or to follow, feels somehow inferior or inadequate. Perhaps if we more readily acknowledged the value of being guided, we might be able to stand in these following positions more comfortably, aware that spending some time following actually makes our leading better!

In the case of our health, it’s easy to see how this can be true. The doctor has information that we most likely do not, so when we receive it, we can then make better decisions about our own well-being. But it’s also true in the work place. Our colleagues have different perspectives and insights than ours, regardless of their ranking position. Sharing ideas and opinions is something we’re more likely to acknowledge as valuable, because it’s an aspect of leadership. What’s harder to appreciate is that the willingness to hear those ideas and opinions holds equal significance, and it’s that openness to hear that characterizes effective following. When we really hear one other, we act and choose from a wider perspective, adjust our own behavior, and express ourselves with greater wisdom.

If you’ve ever had an argument with someone, you’ve most likely experienced the frustration of not being heard. You express your view, and then the other person expresses hers. You restate your belief more persuasively, and she counters by restating her own, perhaps with more volume. The conversation goes back and forth, but no real connection or progress is made.

If you were to really listen to the other person, though, and attempt to grasp her point of view, your response may be different. You may well begin to gain an understanding of why she believes what she does, and possibly feel empathy for that position. As a result, you speak different words and deliver them with a different tone, and the relationship shifts. The conversation may now evolve.

We are strongly invested in every person’s individual capacity for leadership, and of course we should be, but what if part of being a great leader is actually being a great follower? And what if the named leaders in our organizations actually do their jobs better when those around them practice followership skills with commitment and integrity? This series of articles explores how that happens by highlighting three aspects of followership: support, commitment to excellence, and active listening.

Illustration by Ray Eckermann

Illustration by Ray Eckermann

1. Leaders excel when they are given strong support

We tend to think of “support” or “help” as subservient actions, and certainly if we make that assumption, we will all limit ourselves in these roles. We’ll expect very little from those who support us, underestimating their capacity and making sure what they do is not critical to the larger project or mission. If I’m baking a cake, I may ask you to clean the flour off the counter, but not measure the ingredients. When we treat helping and helpers in this way, it’s true that they are NOT very important. But what we don’t always realize is that by restricting the scope of what helping can be, and what helpers, or followers, can do, we’re also restricting what leaders can do. The number and complexity of cakes that I bake will be low if I insist on doing everything myself. The more the helper (follower) is permitted to contribute to the baking process, the more the chef (leader) can design and direct, and the more impressive the output of the kitchen. Clear, solid, context-specific support may be among the most underappreciated, and therefore under-cultivated, resource in the work place.

Let’s look at some other examples, in which support is given more equal standing, and where certain goals and achievements are impossible without it.

Imagine you are climbing the side of a cliff, and your helper is a friend holding the rope on the ground, tracking your ascent by letting out the slack, providing counterweight so that if you slip, you will be caught safely in your harness. How about the fastidious editor who spends hours re-arranging and fact-checking your manuscript until it is a finished work? Or, the intelligence officer who informs you, the General, that the field is laced with explosives. The “following” work provided in these circumstances is not optional, but essential, and equally as valuable as the leading work. Only with this kind of empowered support does the leader climb the mountain, publish the book, and safely direct the military.

What if we prized and cultivated this kind of followership in the work place? When your employees help you build a presentation, how much do you invite them to contribute? Are they simply proofreading your copy and formatting your slides, or are they doing research to inform the content itself? Are they bringing their own problem-solving skills to the question of how to structure the information, how to present it visually, how to convey it in language? With this kind of complex support, you might make more sophisticated decisions, see connections where you didn’t before, deliver a more robust presentation to your client.

If we understand how much more our leaders are capable of with this kind of strong support, perhaps we will find it easier to name following as a desirable mode of action, and train ourselves to be able to do it.

Ways to be a supportive follower:
1. align your work with project and organization priorities
2. trust your leader’s judgement and direction
3. know your skills and how they can serve in specific contexts
4. ask yourself what you can do to make the leader’s job easier
5. expect change and be willing to adapt even when it’s inconvenient

What are some ways you have felt supported in your work, or given strong support to a leader?

The Case for "Followership" in the Work Place

Photo by John Healey 2008

Photo by John Healey 2008

As I write and talk with people about leading and following, I find many parallels between the dance floor and the professional world of employment. In social dance, I’m often asked why it’s important for women to lead or why men should learn to follow. Why is the current system inadequate? Why can’t we just go on the way we have been for decades? In the professional world, the question is even more extreme: Why do we need “followership” at all? Isn’t a leader what everyone should be? Aren’t leadership qualities what everyone should develop?

Yes, of course, but I believe that much is to be gained from everyone also being a follower and also developing followership qualities. This discussion may seem like just an exercise in semantics. Can’t we just drop the term follower in the public sphere, since no one wants to be one anyway? Can’t we just say “team player” instead, and get the same effect? To some extent, this approach has been successful, but I don’t think it is enough.

The concept of a leader with her team is still a hierarchical structure, and the unique power of the leader-follower dyad lies in its balanced and complementary nature. The pair is the sociological building block of any community, and it is in the pair (or in lots and lots of pairs, rather) that we can experience the unique alchemy of these two complementary modes of engagement. It is in the pair that we have the chance learn how the exchanging of leading and following actions elevates the capacity of each member of the partnership, and therefore the partnership itself, in a way that is rarely, if ever, achieved by other means. Although he doesn't use leading and following terminology, I highly recommend Joshua Wolf Shenk's brilliant exploration of one-on-one collaboration, Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity.

In social dance, the case for leadership-followership fluency has always been made clear for me by two explicit phenomena: 1. the spontaneous emergence of empathy that comes from literally seeing and feeling the dance from the opposite perspective than you are accustomed to (most of us have a tendency toward one role or the other), and 2. the versatility displayed by dancers who learn in this manner.

As dancers, we may unconsciously diminish the following role, but the reality of physical partnership means that we can never deny the need for its presence entirely. In the work place, though, the term leadership is ubiquitous and the term followership scarce (though this is changing). In dance, there can be no leading without following, but is this also true in the office? I believe that it is.

Without skillful communication among their members, groups will ultimately fall short of their collective potential, regardless of the excellent efforts of individuals. An office community is a matrix of one-to-one relationships, overlapping and interwoven to form either a flexible, robust structure or a tangled mess, or, more likely, something in the middle.

The dynamic within this matrix of pairings determines its level of integrity (think of the engineer who responds defensively to constructive feedback, or the manager who disregards the concerns of her sales reps). What if these breakdowns in communication represent missing or underdeveloped following skills? Conceptually, leading and following as complementary roles give us a wider lexicon to analyze, teach, and learn the communication skills that produce healthy and reliable collaboration within meetings, teams, and departments. We need to articulate clearly not only what constitutes effective leadership in these contexts, but also what constitutes effective followership. If we can name both of these communication modes with equally robust language, we may be able reach our goals more efficiently and successfully.

By becoming fluent in both roles, regardless of the position we hold in an organizational hierarchy, we are more equipped to uplift and be uplifted by other members of our company or our community on a regular basis. And, perhaps most interestingly, in learning both leading and following communication skills, our established, hierarchical positions themselves take on bolder and more complex meaning.


Reclaiming your Inner Follower

I am aware that the current mainstream concept of a “follower” is a lesser or even entirely undesirable status, similar to how femininity has been viewed in the public sphere for quite some time. We push girl children more and more toward science, business, and other masculinized and male-dominant professions, but we do not encourage boy children toward home-making, care-giving, and other feminized and female-dominant areas. This is shifting, of course, but its residue is still very much a part of our collective psyche.

Not surprising, then, that “following” has become a container for all things undesirable in the work world (think of passive, hesitant, uncritical, cog-in-the-wheel cartoon characters). Who wants to be that person? No one. In avoiding the term follower, though, we tend to hold up all desired behaviors and communication practices as examples of effective “leadership.” This is problematic because it’s not entirely accurate. We have a left and right brain. We live in light and in darkness, and we see and understand the world in pairs of things. If leading is good and following is bad, our understanding of collaboration is lopsided, and we operate below our potential.

I propose that reclaiming (and re-defining) followership is one way to design a more balanced, functional, and empowered work force. As we do this, we must also refine and specify our concept of leadership as well, in the same way that the feminist movement ultimately challenges us not only to re-conceptualize female roles, but male roles as well. In undertaking this imaginative project together, we advance our understanding of how we communicate and work together.

If followership were a set of valued and desired traits, what would those traits be? Stay tuned for a series of postings on how to cultivate strong following qualities, coming later this month.

Authentic Leadership Part 3

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

In part three of this series on leadership, I’m exploring two “characters” that I’ve known myself to play when stepping into a leadership role: the Superhero and the Visionary. The perspective of each is distinct, and provokes a certain style of interaction with followers. This post examines the patterns of each one.

Unrealistic Expectation #3: Heroism
Authentic Quality #3: Vision

On the dance floor, the superhero believes she is wholly responsible for the following partner’s pleasure and comfort. When I’m in this mode, I’m convinced it’s my job to ensure that every follower has a musical, creative, and fulfilling dance experience with me. I choose only movements and timings that are familiar and well-practiced, and I alter certain elements of my posture in order to match my partner’s shape, maybe lifting my chest or extending my arm more than is comfortable, or straining to appear taller or shorter than I am.

All of these adjustments may seem generous at first, and sometimes they may well be appropriate, but leading in this way all the time sacrifices something important. Because I’m focused on minimizing risk and prioritizing the following partner’s experience over my own, I find that dancing this way for a long time makes me emotionally and creatively detached. The narrowing of the scope of vocabulary and posture disconnects me from my own natural way of dancing, which is the primary gift I have to offer my follower in the first place. At the end of the night, I feel dissatisfied with the dance experience overall.

In addition to this loss of creative flow, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that although leaders certainly influence the dance experience for their followers, taking full responsibility is impossible. One simply cannot dictate another person’s experience. Operating on this false assumption, though, the superhero exaggerates the role of the leader and diminishes the role of the follower. How can we have creative dialogue if I’m doing everything?

Sometimes the superhero persona is projected onto the leader by others. In the context of dance, following partners might look to the leader to make them feel elegant, beautiful, and sexy as well as balanced, grounded, and centered. In the office, we might expect the leader to arrange for all projects to unfold on time, separate our work into manageable sections that magically fit together with everyone else’s, resolve all conflicts with other employees or with clients, fix our equipment problems, and eliminate environmental stress.

I’m not suggesting leaders do not have their part to play in these matters, but when the superhero character is active, both leader overreach and leader-blaming are common. When I am in the following role, I like to consider what I myself can change to make my work (or my dancing) more comfortable, meaningful, organized, relevant, interesting, or productive. For more on empowered following, see my previous posts on Support, Excellence, and Readiness.

On the other hand, if I’m in a position of leadership at work, I’m usually checking myself on how much responsibility I’m taking for my followers’ professional experience. Do I ask only for what I’m sure will be easy and simple for them, and then compensate by doing extra work myself? Do I avoid asking for creative or logistical help? Design plans and agendas that I think they may expect rather than what I am excited to try? Where am I sacrificing my own creative curiosity to a concern for my employees’ success or satisfaction?

I know when I’m trying to play the heroine and do it all for my follower, instead of with my follower, the dancing never goes as well as I hope. I simply can’t do someone else’s job for them. If I could, I wouldn’t need a partner at all, and social dance is defined by the duet. To access that creative power of two, either in dance or at work, I propose that we replace the superhero with the visionary as often as possible.

Visionaries invite followers to collaborate, to co-create dances or projects with them. Rather than attempt to do things for followers, they invite them to bring their own skills to the proverbial table (see authentic quality #2: Inspiration). Caveat: in dancing and business, there are definitely times when it’s appropriate and necessary to play it safe, and to curtail exploration. I’m just suggesting that as a general rule, heroism will not produce expansive creative dialogue between leaders and followers.

The visionary leader on the dance floor is connected to sensory impulses as well as intellectual ones, responding to a quality in the music that propels improvisation. Clarity of communication in the dance partnership is one of the visionary’s most defining characteristics. This leader’s posture is focused and still. She coordinates well-timed shifts of weight and changes in physical position, facing, and pressure that transmit to the follower a precise direction and speed.

When I manage to embody this character myself, I am in a state of heightened awareness and curiosity. There’s a deep trust that the phrasing in the music, the shifting spaces of the dance floor, and the sensation of my partner’s movement will coalesce to “show me” where the dance is going. I associate the visionary perspective with a focus on “seeing” the dance emerge rather than trying to engineer it intellectually. This sometimes includes a kind of corporeal “seeing” with the body. I articulate this vision to my partner through the non-verbal language of dance improvisation.

When I partner with visionary leaders, I always know exactly where to go next and when, but unlike the "command" state I discussed in Part 2 of this series, there is no rush or urgency. Instead, there is a deliberate quality from moment to moment that makes the dance feel new and fresh, even when the steps and patterns are familiar. There is a sense of discovery that comes from this leader making decisions, and therefore signals, based on what she is hearing or feeling in the moment, rather than based on memory or a habit of “automatic pilot.”

In the work place, exceptional and time-sensitive communication is also, of course, critical, but it may take more diverse forms (for example, speaking or writing, as well as nonverbal signals). Imagining a new product or seeing, in her mind’s eye, the client’s success, the visionary leader must communicate so that followers can then organize to make that vision a reality. The process is continual and back-and-forth, just like a dance partnership. The leader describes, the follower(s) prototype(s), the leader refines the description, the follower(s) develop(s) the work accordingly, and so on and so forth. In the work place, we may may even alternate between leading and following roles, depending on the process. (See my earlier post on how to lead and follow yourself through creative work).

The larger the vision, the more support it needs. By asking for that support, and by inviting the contributions of others through clear and consistent communication, visionary leaders clear a pathway for followers to pursue their individual work in a way that fits meaningfully into the larger picture. Even if the vision changes over time, it’s important to have one, because that is what drives creative dialogue. The more committed we are to our visions, even as they evolve, the easier it will be for followers to devote their energy to fulfilling them.

Do you have a story of visionary leadership? Please share in the comments!

Authentic Leadership Part 2

This week, I'm exploring the second of three unrealistic expectations we often hold of leaders, and a corresponding "authentic quality" that might replace it both on the dance floor and in the work place. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that this comparison is a right-wrong axis, only that we have choices in how we embody the concepts of leadership and followership, and that perhaps we live in greater alignment with our own values when we become more intentional about those choices. In case you missed it, you may like to go back and check out the first installment!

Unrealistic Expectation #2: Command
Authentic Quality #2: Inspire

In social dance, a command pattern in the leader is typically marked by excessive physical force. Even if the touch is lighter, there is still an urgent quality to her signals and requests that interferes with smooth and expressive dancing. Usually, the leader’s torso or entire body is continually moving in advance of the follower’s body, creating the feeling of being dragged along. When I’m partnering with a leader like this, I’m often resisting the extra pressure with strong muscle tone through my arms and core in order to protect myself from discomfort or injury. Because most of my attention is focused on this task, I rarely feel that I’m actually dancing, much less dancing at my best. Rather, I’m struggling to keep up and to stay safe.

When I fall into this mode myself as the leader, my focus is on getting things done, but not really on how they are done, and that generally means that they end up being done poorly. The movement itself is needlessly strenuous and, in more extreme cases, disconnected from musical tempo, melody, or rhythm. Rushing through the dance in this way doesn’t allow space and time for following partners to move organically. It holds us both back from reaching our artistic potential.

Baltimore Tango Festival 2005. Photo by Marty Katz

Baltimore Tango Festival 2005. Photo by Marty Katz

In place of physical force, a commanding leader in the work place might employ negative strategies like intimidation, shame, or threat of punishment to motivate actions or behaviors in followers. These strategies have limited capacity for success. As in dance, no follower can produce their best work when distracted by some external, aggressive force.

Like the follower’s stereotype of Obedience, the expectation of Command is an outdated concept of leadership, and with some rare exceptions, does not serve the practical needs of a contemporary work place. When we lead with the notion of command, we create for ourselves a disciplinary role, coercing followers into specified actions, tasks, or behaviors with little to no regard for their creative, or even human, needs. Like the unrealistic notion of Control, it is fundamentally a limiting approach.

In fact, when we think of leadership as command, it’s tempting to de-value and diminish our followers, to reduce them to instruments with which we, alone, build our projects and companies. In reality, no one can build anything alone. Rather, leaders very much need talented and vibrant followers with whom they can collaborate on the shaping of those projects and companies. (It’s useful to note, here, that collaboration doesn’t mean abandoning leading and following roles. We still need both leaders and followers to come together, and we may even need to switch roles periodically, depending on the situation.) So, rather than commanding our followers, what if we sought to inspire them instead?

Inspiration is a positive, expansive energy. When we inspire, we set a high standard by embodying desired attitudes and values in our own speech and behavior. We focus more on collective reward instead of individual punishment, and we call on followers to connect with their own power, and with their full capacity to engage in their work. Rather than settling forthe bare minimum of "getting it done," this approach focuses on getting it done with excellence.

On the dance floor, an inspirational leader gives a following partner space and time to rise to the occasion, to take the strongest and most balanced step within his or her current ability. The leader’s task is not to force, but to facilitate the creative expression of the dance. When I partner an inspiring leader, I often discover that I am more capable that I thought I was, or that I’m able to execute certain combinations or timings that I didn't think I could.

In the work place, inspiring leadership might raise the level of performance and ingenuity in anything is being produced. Rather than dance steps, it may be software programs, product designs, typography, polymers, backpack designs, or marketing strategies. Whatever we do, we do it better when we feel inspired. In most cases, we want to do our best, and simply need the conditions of our environment to make it easy and natural for us to do so. These conditions in the office may be similar to those on the dance floor: clear communication, respectful advance notice of expectations, priorities, and deadlines, appropriate amounts of space, and appropriate amounts of time.

You may have had the experience of working more efficiently when you’re in the same room with others who are similarly focused. Knowing that another person fully trusts you to finish a report on time might push it a little higher on your list of priorities. Finally, consider that when you're invited to invest your own ideas, perspective, and skills in a project, you're probably more likely to aim high. Inspiration makes us want to do our best, and that positive, internal force is always stronger than a negative, external one.

Do you have stories of inspiring leadership? Please leave them in the comments!

Authentic Leadership Part 1

MIT, Cambridge, MA 1999

MIT, Cambridge, MA 1999

In writing last month on empowered followership, I noticed that the expectations we hold of followers are generally way below optimal. We expect them to under-perform, or to be minimal contributors to a partnership, if they contribute at all. Leaders, on the other hand, are frequently expected to over-perform. The immense responsibility we put on their shoulders, and the unrealistic expectations we have of them, are typically far beyond optimal. In using the terms below and beyond, I’m thinking of the concept of the flow state, the pace we hit when we’re sufficiently challenged by not overwhelmed. Time disappears as we become keenly present and absorbed in our activity. We generally produce our best work when we are in flow, and many of the coaching techniques I study are designed to nudge us toward this state.

In my articles on followership, I suggest that greater and freer engagement supports strong partnerships and creative output. We need to expand our ideas of what following can be in order to reach flow. In reflecting on leadership, though, I think what’s needed might be the opposite: deeper centering and grounding. In the chart below, I've placed conventional expectations of leading and following, as I perceive them, in relationship with the flow state:

No partnership is sustainable when continuously held out of balance, and whereas stereotypical followership patterns lie somewhere short of flow, comparable leadership patterns consistently push beyond it, a different but equally problematic situation. I know that when social dancers let go of false expectations and embrace the the realistic potential offered by each role, creative dialogue deepens and movement becomes more graceful and complex. I’m interested in how those shifts might be cultivated in the work place as well.

I suggest that holding steep expectations of those in leadership positions can create stress and destabilize otherwise functional and creative relationships. By instead seeking to embody authentic leadership qualities, perhaps leaders can more easily approach flow.

Unrealistic Expectation #1: Control
Authentic Quality #1: Direction

On the dance floor, one of the biggest misconceptions of the leader’s role is that she must control the dance or the partner’s movement. You may already be thinking, “Well yes, of course, that’s the leader’s job!” As beginners, especially, we may assume that our task is to control what happens, but of course, control of an improvised situation such as social dance is impossible. Control of a business, an industry or a project is never entirely possible either. Both social dance and life are, to a large extent, unpredictable.

When we step into leadership of any kind, we agree to navigate a sea of unknown events. Placed in this sea will be floating buoys of fixed entities – things we can count on like deadlines and data and contracts (on a dance floor: counter-clockwise rotation, musical structure, shared vocabulary). These familiar elements help us literally and figuratively dance our way through the many surprising connections, failed attempts, and unforeseen events of any creative enterprise. Rather than attempt to control, what leaders must do is remain as aware as possible of both known and unknowable variables, so that they may give continuous direction and create safe spaces for followers to move freely within.

The first thing that happens to me when I try to control a dance, to predict exactly when, where, and how something will happen, is that my body becomes tense. And when my body is tense, so is my mind. I feel anxious and become hesitant, both of which have a negative impact on my ability to communicate, or direct. I may use excessive force on my dance partner, or move in ways that pull us apart or push us together. In an office environment, this situation might be recognized as micro-managing. The term micro, here, is a useful framework, to understand the difference between controlling and directing.

Essential to the giving of clear, precise directions is a wide and inclusive perspective, a macro-perspective, not a micro-one. Like a leader on the dance floor, the leader of a product team must keep in mind the larger goals of the work over time, while followers devote themselves to the equally important realm of shorter-range tasks and details. Taking in the entire dance floor or the entire fiscal year allows a leader to direct her followers in a way that will facilitate their success and creative output. Directing is more general, influenced by the long perspective of months or years or, in social dance terms, the length of a phrase or a song. It’s the macro-dance. Following is more specific, filling out the nuts and bolts of the work in hours, days and weeks, or in social dance, individual steps. That’s the micro-dance.

On the dance floor, leaders who attempt to control the micro-level details of their partner’s footwork are acting in the wrong sphere of influence. They tend to be poor navigators because they don’t see the couple crowding in too close, or the empty space available out in front. Struggling to manipulate individual steps, or parts of steps, they get stuck in a corner or in the middle of the floor. The loss of perspective makes it impossible to communicate clearly, to direct.

Clear directions in social dance are mapped to the room – forward, backwards, left, right. They form geometric pathways so that followers know where to go and when. Interpretation of dance steps, though, is the following realm, like the text of the copy or the design of the user interface. Directions provide a map, and although leaders must know the terrain in order to draw the lines, they are not the ones who literally take the journey. Take this step, design this typeface, or debug this program are tasks that the follower must ultimately do alone, by applying his or her own skills and abilities. No leader can control how that happens, nor is it efficient for her to try.

The more we try to control, the less feedback we take in from the broader context, and from our followers themselves. We become disconnected with the reality that our employees or our clients are living in, and as a result, our directions are less useful. Hiring more sales staff might not be the priority if there’s a conflict with the supply chain. If your programmers are focused on a delivery deadline, it might not be a good week for internal training.

Controlling tendencies make us stop listening; they shrink the freedom and therefore the potential contribution of following partners. Direction, on the other hand, implies a continuous feedback loop: the leader directs, and the follower responds with reports, designs, data, questions, or research, all of which inform the next direction, which catalyzes the production of more content, and so on and so forth. Only by occupying her own side of this cycle, not attempting to control the entire thing, can a leader receive the valuable information and discoveries that emerge from followers' work.

We cannot predict what will happen on a live dance floor, or in the trajectory of an organization or campaign. However, our willingness to navigate the unknown by directing rather than controlling could make us better listeners and connect us strongly to the reality of the day-to-day experiences of our employees, constituents, or clients. That connection, I believe, is an essential aspect of effective leadership.

Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned next week for Part 2!

Empowered Followership Part 3

This week is the third installment of the 3-part series on Empowered Followership, in which I replace outdated stereotypes of this role with inspiring characteristics that we want to see and embody ourselves on the dance floor and in the work place. Thank you to those who have been reading along for the past couple of weeks! If you missed the earlier posts, please check them out here and here, as well as other related posts listed in the right side column.

Stereotype #3: Passivity
Empowered Quality #3: Readiness

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

The idea that the follower role is a passive one is perhaps the most ironic stereotype of all. Think about this: to follow a person down a path, to maintain a “safe following distance” behind another car, to follow an author or media outlet, even to follow a Facebook group, requires an act of deliberate, intentional participation. It implies movement and engagement, choice even. And as a tango dancer, the experience of followership for me is a highly active, kinetic state. Even the Spanish words we inherit for tango make the character of the following role quite clear:

hacer: to do [a movement]
tomar, to take [a step]
responder: to respond [to a signal]

Unfortunately, the term “follow” still carries a negative connotation in everyday English, as if a person taking this role had no power, no animating force of his or her own. Obviously, this is not true, but to fully analyze the misunderstanding would take us down a deep rabbit hole of cultural studies, and I shall not venture that way now. Instead, I will lay out as best I can what happens when we adopt Passivity as a way of being on and off the dance floor, and also what happens when, instead, we choose to embody Readiness.

In dance, a passive posture makes us heavy. There is a lag in our response time, creating excess pressure and resistance against our partner. Thinking that the other will move us, motivate us, or somehow infuse us with energy, we wait, focused not on moving ourselves but on physically being moved. Owing to the laws of physics, it’s not actually possible for someone else to move us without a great deal of force, and force is not the goal of a graceful creative relationship.

Seeing ourselves as passive also makes us less aware of the other person and of the environment in general. With less awareness, our steps are uninformed by important variables such as where exactly the partner’s center of gravity rests in relation to us, or whether the dance floor is crowded, orderly, or chaotic. Without a keen grasp of these variables, we become less able to step precisely, less invested in any given moment as an expressive opportunity, instead hoping the leader will somehow make us feel or look elegant or beautiful.

In Readiness, however, we take responsibility for our part in the dance. We’re light, responding fluidly to the leader’s signal. In command of our own weight, we note subtle changes in our partner and in the environment and shift our balance or position accordingly. There is a sense of possibility in our embrace, in our stride. Strength and softness harmonize in our body. We maintain our connection to the musical thread from beginning to end, filling each step and each pause with our own unique quality of movement.

Passivity in the work place might manifest as unwillingness to contribute one’s own ideas, lack of personal investment or curiosity in a project, or reluctance to engage with a challenging problem. When following in this way, employees may do the bare minimum required, or what they think is required, by the leader. In meetings, they may not express interest in how their work fits into a larger initiative or industry trend, or appreciate the complexity of factors contributing to the company's success, making it difficult for them to communicate and strategize with others about longer term goals or plans.

On the other hand, a follower standing in readiness enters the meeting well-prepared for these conversations. He is up to date on the latest developments in his field. He has done the research on the potential client. He is ready to contribute and confident in his ability to do so, and so when a question comes, he responds with meaningful and relevant ideas. Please note that ready is not the same as obedient. In obedience, the follower acts without personal reflection. He is not so much contributing something of himself but rather fulfilling an established task that is typically a well-trodden path. (See Part I of this series in which we replace Obedience with Support)

In readiness, however, we don’t know what his response will be to any given circumstance. He himself may not know. What he does know is that his preparation makes it likely that he will add something to the conversation that would not be there without him. He is not just anyone in that meeting, he is an informed and insightful voice, often able to gently point out gaps in the logic of his leader, or to articulate a perspective not yet on the table.

In readiness, we know that success of any interaction with a leader depends on us showing up with our A-game. We know that the project will only be as good as what we are prepared to offer, and that abdicating all responsibility to the leader is not only a missed opportunity for us; it puts a drag on the entire process.

Good dance? Successful project bid? The leader gets all the credit. Bad dance? Rejected proposal? The leader gets all the blame. Where are we followers in this equation? When we follow, we are not blank slates on which the leader imposes his or her opus or train wreck. We are not merely instruments of someone else’s fully-formed idea. We are active participants in the dance or in the company, and we share the responsibility for what happens there.

Next up, look for a series on Empowered Leadership Qualities, coming soon. If you'd like to be notified when new articles are posted, please sign up for my mailing list in the right hand column.

Author’s Note: I want to add here that I'm aware that, ultimately, words are arbitrary, and that what I'm describing as "ready" may well be someone else's understanding of "passive." Still, words are often the best indicators we have of the felt experience we’re trying to cultivate. The words I’ve chosen in this series are ones that I hope might help to flip the empowered/disempowered coin, and nudge you toward a more satisfying and expressive experience in whatever sphere you find yourself following.