Who Leads? Who Follows?

Who Leads? Who Follows?

By Dick Cross

Dick Cross is a corporate-transformation consultant. From Just Run It!: Running an Exceptional Business Is Easier Than You Think (Biblio­motion). ©2012

It’s difficult to go through a day at work without hearing someone talking about leadership or management. We use the terms to differentiate good companies from bad. We also attribute successes and failures to performance in these areas. And everyone agrees that excellence in these skills is a cornerstone for an effective career running businesses.

But judging from the way I often hear the terms used, I don’t think that most people have a clear understanding of the differences between the two. And it’s hard to become really good at something when you don’t quite know what it is.

Thirty years ago, when I was training to become a naval officer, I was given a course on leadership. Mostly, it was about how to present yourself and how to preserve your status as a leader in a system where the number of stripes on your shoulder determined your authority. We studied the “bearing” of an officer. This meant how you looked, whom you talked to and whom you didn’t, what you talked about with whom, and how you disciplined others. Leadership in the U.S. Navy was about fulfilling the responsibilities of the position that the government had given you. And there are some valuable insights to be gained from this perspective. What I never understood from those years, however, was the idea of a universally applicable prescription, or a handbook, for leadership. It seemed to me that leadership was more about who you are than about how you wear your clothes, how you address your troops, your physical posture, and whether you follow the rules.

By the late 1970s, the seeds of a different approach to leadership were beginning to break ground. This, I believe, was an entirely predictable response to the entry of generally better-informed people into the workforce, people who had been taught in the ’60s to question authority, to demand their rights, and to be suspicious of the people in charge. The shift in thinking brought about by the social changes of the ’60s rewrote the rules for anyone who aspires to stand in front of others as a leader. True authority is not granted today by position or by statute. Rather, authority is bestowed by those who agree to be led. Today, leadership is not about achieving position. It is about creating followership.

But blind followership is not enough. Effective leadership creates a following that is committed to more than doing what they are told. Effective leadership means creating effective support. The difference between followers and supporters is this: Followers follow because they don’t have a better alternative, while supporters support because they believe in both the cause and their leader. They believe that their cause is just and worth fighting for. And they believe that their leader shares, and moreover embodies, the values that they hold most dear, and which they aspire to exhibit in their own lives.

Organizations must adapt or, eventually, case to exist. The most effective leadership of a business, therefore, is that which initiates and fosters the most effective adaptation. But adaptation is change, and change is seen by most people as risky. There’s no way around it. So why would a mid- or lower-tier employee risk change and its consequences? Only because of a burning belief that things might be bettered if he takes the risk, because he feels a margin of safety in doing so, and because he feels supported in the endeavor by the company’s authority figure. It’s the creation and maintenance of those circumstances that I call leadership.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.