I recently joined a staff of young artists and teachers for a short-term community project. In a conversation during our preliminary training, I was startled to hear several of them reject the idea of leadership outright. There seemed to be a sense that in order for a team to be truly collaborative, there could be no leading in any way. I first thought, perhaps, that it was the notion of a single, permanent leader that was undesirable to this group, rather than leadership as a skill set. Yet when I offered the examples of fluid leading and following, of temporary, project-based leadership, or of the distributed leadership of consensus, the term leadership itself was still met with skepticism.
Interestingly, over the next several weeks, I noticed two consistent norms of behavior within the group: 1. A resistance to coordinated planning and decision-making; and 2. A tendency toward spontaneous individual action. Indeed, these folks seemed to be intentionally neither leading nor following, at least not according to my own understanding of those terms. The training placed a high value on collaboration, but what I was experiencing did not feel very collaborative to me. Had something been lost by avoiding the concepts of leading and following?
In one instance of this pattern of behavior, one of my colleagues failed to bring her class in at the scheduled time. When prompted, she explained, “I’m keeping my kids an extra 15 minutes.” This small action may not seem like a big deal, but it delayed two other classes that were expecting to rotate at that very moment, and 15 minutes is a long time for restless students. One Friday, another staff member volunteered to lead two classes the following week. Saturday morning, however, she submitted her resignation, leaving the rest of us to make new lesson plans over the weekend.
Neither person acknowledged the impact of their actions, and when others spoke up, it was only to express understanding, despite the disruption. Ironically, when disruptive last-minute changes were made by the director of the program, who was rarely present, they complained fiercely, and rightly so.
In the interest of providing context, the program was horribly mismanaged. There were many, many challenges, and it was very stressful work. By the end of week three, five staff members had resigned, and I completely supported their decisions to do so. In fact, I was one of them. Still, I remained curious about what appeared to be deliberate non-leading and non-following behavior. What if this phenomenon were not the result of overwhelming stress, but rather a contributing factor? I can’t help but wonder whether we might have made a difficult situation bearable, had we all been more able to lead and follow one another.
Words and Meanings
Still puzzling over this experience, I happened to see a similar rejection of leadership in an online discussion among organizational consultants a month later. The comments in this discussion claimed the terms leadership, leading, and leader to be simply too toxic to be useful anymore, that they needed to be retired from the professional lexicon altogether.
Now, I’m accustomed to defending the terms follower, following, and followership against stereotypical characteristics like passive, unthinking, and servile, but the wholesale dismissal of leadership took me by surprise. The argument for doing so, however, was the same: the term was too aligned with its shadow (in this case authoritarianism, domination, and control) to be relevant in the modern work place. And I suspect that this is precisely the reason my young colleagues in the first story were so leader-averse (and follower-averse) as well.
Tragically, the destructive aspects of both leadership and followership do exist in the world, but rejecting the terms leader and follower outright seems to me a simplistic, even naïve, response to a very dangerous problem. If we stop saying “leader,” does domination just disappear? Likewise, if we avoid saying “follower,” do disengaged employees cease to be so? I propose that only by rigorously calling out and naming both horrific and wonderful instances of leadership and followership, whether they be individual or collective, can we clearly see the nature of both problem and solution.
Humans are wired to survive in groups and we have invented many ways of organizing ourselves into them, some more hierarchical, some more horizontal, and infinite blends of the two. Whatever shape a group structure takes, it requires some interplay of leadership and followership in order to function. Though tainted as they are with cultural stereotypes, lead and follow are the some of the best terms we have to describe what we do when we come together, speak and listen, decide and carry out, and otherwise coordinate around a common goal. What is trust if not allowing another person to guide us? What is community if not relying on another person for help? We all need to be able to sometimes initiate and sometimes support in order to learn, grow, and accomplish shared tasks successfully, safely, and sustainably.
Examples of wonderful and equitable leadership are everywhere, though they may be quieter and less visible than the destructive examples of authoritarian leadership that seems to have sullied the term. They include the research economist who asks for feedback from her staff, the high school teacher who revises lesson plans based on student interests, the neighborhood coordinator who sends out a list of community events each week. On monthly calls with a small organization I volunteer for, facilitation is shared among several members of the group.
These are examples of groups knitting themselves together in order to do good work. They are marked by reciprocal care and a clear focus on serving a shared goal. Maybe the calls I’m seeing for no more leadership are really calls for no more supremacy. Similarly, maybe the aversion to being a follower is really an aversion to being treated as less-than.
On the other hand, to desire no leader, not ever, not even for a moment, is to withdraw the spirit of followership utterly, that is, to withdraw all trust, support and accountability to other people. We need some of us to express leadership, if only for a few moments at a time, so that we can act together, move together, and achieve what we cannot achieve alone. At best, I see functional leaders as individuals who act as an expression of collective will, because only an individual human can logistically do certain things like deliver a speech, sign an agreement, or press a button. And for that person to lead, the rest of us must allow them to do so; in other words, we must choose to follow. More specifically, we must choose very carefully whom, and when, and how to follow.
I fear a civic or professional atmosphere in which a large portion of our population rejects the value of leadership altogether, adopting in its place a free agent, in-the-moment, accountable-to-no-one sensibility, as I observed on a very small scale at my recent community job. Having no leadership at all may seem fair, in a technical sense, but it’s also chaotic and isolating. Without some structure of leading and following, however flexible or decentralized, there can be no substantial collective action, no meaningful innovation or problem solving. The simplest elements of group coordination and planning become difficult, even counter-intuitive.
I, too, often feel frustrated with poor examples of leading and following I see around me. And I struggle with my own leadership and followership failures, past and present. But aversion to both roles as a permanent condition? I can’t quite imagine collaboration that way. If we humans are to live together sustainably, we must not reject but rather humbly accept these roles and seek to express them in ever more courageous and compassionate ways. We must not give up in the face of leadership and followership that disturbs and angers us, but rather embody an alternative.
What are your thoughts on leading and following right now?