I’ve been writing about followership at work for a while now. As professionals, we celebrate leadership but overlook followership, and there are real personal and organizational losses that come from that imbalance. But during the past several weeks, I’ve been reflecting on followership in the public sphere.
What is the role of the citizen as a follower?
What are the channels for citizen followers to influence public leaders?
And if there’s something out of balance in our system, how can followers work to re-balance it?
I decided to apply my own set of social dance-inspired principles to these questions.
First, the dance of Connection. How do we connect with our civic leaders?
- Pay attention – For those of us who live comfortable lives, this can be surprisingly challenging. Even now, under pandemic restrictions we are flooded with consumer-based distractions. And because our social safety net is so weak, we tend to focus exclusively on survival. Many elected officials don’t prioritize communication, or communicate deceptively. It’s hard to build a relationship with them that way.
- Participate – I used to think that voting was my primary form of participation in a democracy, but now it seems like just the beginning, the invitation to dance and not the dance itself. If I just vote and forget about it, how can I complain later? So I’ve been familiarizing myself with other forms of participation: town halls, public comment periods, petitions, polls, writing and calling officials regarding specific issues.
How do you choose to participate in local or national governance?
Second, the dance of Collaboration. How do we support civic work getting done?
- Be flexible – Democracy means majority rule; even if I pay attention and participate, I won’t always get what I want. Policies and budgets, because they represent many people, express a mixed set of values. I have to accept this, and build my own life as best I can, according my own personal set of values. There are limits, though. Leaders must also adapt to changing circumstances and to shifts in public opinion. When they fail to do so, we need another aspect of followership…
- Set boundaries – Protest is a powerful expression of boundary setting. It’s a clear rebuke to leadership choices that have resulted in unsafe or unethical social conditions. Strikes, protests, marches, and boycotts are examples of followers saying No to leaders who are asking them, whether explicitly or implicitly, to accept something that is harmful to them or to the community. Civic boundary setting is the healthy response to unjust decision-making, or to unjust laws or policies.
What is your sense of a civic boundary? How do you express your Yes? Your No?
Finally, the dance of Co-Creation. If a political system is inadequate, even violent, how do followers interact with leaders to improve it?
- Be courageous – Followers support the creative process by providing fresh ideas and a variety of first-hand perspectives. Expressing these ideas and perspectives often feels like stepping out of the comfort zone. Standing up or speaking out for something you believe in is an act of bravery at any scale.
- Stay committed – Social change is slow, slower still by democratic process. We stay committed by clarifying our Why, by remembering a greater purpose, and by organizing with others. And by remembering that if we want a different result, we have to do something different.
In what ways might you step out of your civic comfort zone during this time?
All three layers of this public dance are simultaneous and ongoing, and you may find yourself shifting from one to the other, or engaging in all three at once, depending on the circumstances.
But the rift between existing leaders and a massive percentage of followers is deep right now. It needs to be repaired, and where it cannot be repaired, perhaps the roles need to be swapped. I think it would be useful for many of our leaders to follow more by making time to listen to constituents in good faith. And if some of them are no longer fulfilling the leadership requirement to serve the public interest, it may be best if they were replaced.
Likewise, I think we are currently seeing the benefit of followers taking the lead once in a while, if for no other reason than to assert their boundaries more strongly. Some of these most active followers are now poised to step into leadership positions with far more more compassion and understanding than their predecessors.
What do you think about the role of civic followership right now?