Followership in the ‘Post-Everything’ World
Traditionally, leaders have relied upon followers who trust and respect them. But in the information-led, post-truth, post-respect, post-authority, post (seemingly) everything world we now inhabit, how will this relationship work in future?
Most leaders probably believe they know a thing or two about the practice of leadership. But what do they know of the practice of followership or, indeed, ‘natural followers’, that inevitable corollary to ‘natural leaders’?
Any exploration of either should begin with the idea of a social contract. This is the often tacit or unspoken agreement of the led to follow the direction of the leader to achieve a particular task or condition. Normally it is underpinned by a sense of reciprocity – that if the followers do as expected, the leader will take them on a journey that is worth making for all. In short, it will have a positive and beneficial outcome for a particular group or community.
Conventionally, this contract has been enabled by a belief – at least initially – that those who are naturally predisposed to being leaders are also naturally predisposed to behaving in the ‘right way’ and doing the ‘right thing’. Here the term ‘natural’ has two interlinked meanings. Either that the leader is a ‘natural’ i.e. born, bred or made to the role. Or that the circumstances that surround the leader and followers make it ‘natural’ that one should lead and the others follow.
History suggests both such behaviour and circumstance were once inherent; neither required much thought by those involved, it was just accepted. Usually owing to accidents of birth (privileged) schooling (public) or occupation (the professions: law, clergy, academia and military). All or some of which generated an ‘officer class’ of leaders that the rest of society was willing to trust, defer to and follow.
This willingness began to decline in the 1930s and outside of organisations such as the armed forces, had collapsed by the 1970s. It was replaced, although not fully, by a variety of institution or role-based leadership figures. Policemen, teachers, JPs, doctors, civil servants, politicians and others – all those who could endorse a passport application. So, one form of trust-based natural selection had been replaced by another, albeit based now on a belief that the officers of certain institutions could be relied upon to do the right thing or behave in the right way.
However, moving into the 21st Century it would appear that institution-based leadership is a declining commodity. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund has recently suggested that the world ‘… is facing a crisis of trust in institutions across all sectors that shows no sign of abating. In 20 out of the 28 countries surveyed by the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2018, average trust in government, business, NGOs and media was below 50%’.
While interesting in itself, the significance here is that NGOs, the media and business have been added to the list of once trusted institutions i.e. that they – along with the more traditional providers of leadership – can no longer be relied upon to do the right thing or behave in the right way. For those who need a little more evidence, ponder on the now open mistrust of the mainstream political parties, be it Tory ‘lies’ about Brexit, Labour ‘lies’ about student loans or SNP ‘lies’ about wanting to help English voters. Ponder on the recent Oxfam sexual misconduct scandal, or on Carillion’s collapse. Ponder also on the Grenfell Tower disaster, how it came about and who is being blamed. To which can be added numerous recent cases of miscarriages of justice and misconduct in public office. Many of which involved leaders not doing the ‘right thing’ or behaving in the ‘right way’.
So, as we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, is the traditional leader/follower contract-based model broken? I sense not (yet) but it is certainly moving quickly in that direction, aided by a much overlooked characteristic of the information-led world we now inhabit. Here, as predicted by those who first imagined an ‘information age’ – where technology allows information to be used as a source of power – it is almost impossible to control a story or narrative, no matter how well-led the efforts to do so are. Informational power tends to chaos, not the benign control required by a leader.
Fuelled by such chaos, it is hardly surprising that people’s natural inclination to trust authority, respect experience, value qualifications and believe what they are told is decreasing. So, therefore, is their inclination to follow. Indeed, the demise of natural followers – that community of people more naturally predisposed to being led than to lead – may well be approaching.
If this happens – and it may be too late to stop – the practice of followership will change also. And for those who think this is too far-fetched, ponder on some emerging thinking within UK military circles. Noting first that doing the right thing (leading by example) and being a willing follower (accepting authority) is an axiomatic part of military training and doctrine. Nevertheless, at a recent Challenging Contemporary Wisdom seminar at the University of Reading, senior members of the armed forces agreed that military leadership needed to better reflect a declining level of inherent trust in officialdom among new and not-so-new recruits alike i.e. their followers.
But what does all this mean and how may this ‘not-a-natural’ follower community behave, particularly with respect to those who wish to lead them? The answer to this question begins with trust, or more accurately a distinct probability that it will be lacking, at least to begin with. Or in other words, the conventional assumption that trust is gained to some extent simply by being a leader will be reversed. No more new-in-post benefit of doubt or honeymoon period.
To this can be added a series of other characteristics, all of which challenge the currently conventional model of leadership. For instance, not-natural followers may well be:
- Far less inclined to accept received wisdom, be it company policy or tradition. Neither will thus be useful as a frame of reference;
- Disinclined to simply accept decisions or direction. Leaders will have to explain more and direct less;
- Disinterested in the ‘bigger picture’. Rather they will expect a vision of the future based on a series of acceptable (to them) smaller images, all of which will need to stand as doing the ‘right thing’ individually;
- Unwilling to accept seniority as a basis for authority. Leaders will need to evidence their competence early and often;
- Unwilling to acknowledge expertise until they have seen it demonstrably used to good effect;
- More minded to place social benefit above economic efficiency as the key factor in the contract between the leader and the led.
Bringing this all together allows a key lesson to emerge. Namely that the Grand Old Duke of York model of ‘natural’ leadership and equally ‘natural’ followership has had its day. There may well still be natural leaders but the idea of natural followers is now defunct. Leaders beware accordingly.Back to provologues