The Art and Science of the Leader/Follower Relationship

Posted by on May 21, 2012

By Paul L.Brown Ed.D, MBA

“A leader becomes a leader for me, when I want to follow him or her.”

Just the other day I overheard a conversation between my daughter Rachel who is 3 ½ years old and her Godparent Joe.  It seems as though Joe was having difficulty understanding Rachel’s words (a frequent happening with my three year old).  She was pronouncing a word that sounded like “leader.”  When Joe asked her to repeat herself, after several attempts she gave up and provided a context for the word.  She said, “You know, LEADER like when someone follows you!”  Apparently she must have picked up on this concept somewhere (I know I’m certainly not instructing her in this area yet).  What amazes me is the context she used to frame her understanding of the word.  Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the way a three-year-old girl defines leadership by putting it in the leader/follower context.

And so it seems the leader/follower relationship is a given to even the most nascent minds among us.  Where in the course of events throughout our lives does this concept become so muted that volumes need to be written about this simple concept in an attempt to reeducate us?  Perhaps this is a byproduct of lifelong learning that becomes increasingly complex as we graduate to higher levels of understanding.  Or perhaps we struggle with it because it is so basic in nature.  Like many things taken for granted, as adults we often fail in our ability to explain them well to questioning youth.  Therefore, we often struggle when questioned to explain why the sky is blue, why Mom is the prettiest woman in the world, or why leaders require followers.

While defining leadership can be a rather nebulous task, I know that a leader becomes
a leader for me, when I want to follow him or her.  Thus it becomes a rather simple equation for me: “Do I like where you are going (leading me)?”  If the answer is yes, I follow; if not, I don’t.  Surely we can muddy the waters to rationalize a host of variables that influence our decision to follow someone.  For example, mission and vision, organization politics, culture, growth opportunities, etc., but it all boils down to a rather simple relationship we learn about early in our lives: “Do I want to follow where you are leading?”
Sometimes when I choose to follow, I am unable to articulate why.  Occasionally it’s clearer; it might be that I subscribe to a vision, or that my views resonate well with the leader.  And the reasons I want to follow may be entirely different from the reasons others are following.  But know that almost always, if you try too hard to lead me, you become suspect.  Suspect of wanting something from me, having ulterior motives, rather than allowing me to offer ways of how I think I can contribute.  So where does that fine line exist, and how does one know when they’re crossing it?  The answers are quite simply, “I don’t know,” and “Often times you don’t,” respectively.

“If you try too hard to lead me, you become suspect.”

Herein lies the distinction between the art and science of the leader/follower relationship.  The science of management and leadership undoubtedly will tout various principles, characteristics, and other elements of quality leadership.  For example, we’ve all heard of leading by example, maintaining your integrity, and persevering in challenging times.  While these are certainly valid and worthwhile, they often fail in application.  To be sure, if that were that simple, leadership would be like engineering or mathematics, driven by outcomes with just one correct answer.  However, just doing these things isn’t compelling enough in and of themselves to make me or anyone else for that matter want to follow.  Thus, the key to the leader/follower success lay in the art of the practice.

Give me a set of watercolors, a blank easel, and several hours and in the end—sadly you’ll be disappointed.  Give the same to a skilled artisan and we marvel at the beauty and splendor of the creation.  The difference being the latter knows how to use the tools.  Similarly, the principles, characteristics, and other elements of quality leadership yield vastly different results in the hands of different people.  To become a skilled artisan in the art of leadership one must practice daily.  Practice what you might say.  Well, that depends on the context and your individual development as a change agent.  I can no more write a prescription of success for you, than you can for me.  However, it does require earnest and conscious attempts in order to become a master.

Towards this end, a resource I’d recommend that has served me well is The Conscious
by Kristine Quade and Renee Brown.  It’s part of The Practicing Organization Development Series by Jossey-Bass (reviewed here in November, 2001).  In it, the authors walk participants through a series of self-exploration exercises designed to help you master the art of leading as a change agent.  In it they state:

“A conscious consultant is a person who is aware of who he or she is on the inside, as well as aware of who others are.  The conscious consultant is a developed person, aware of her or his own timing, current state, and knowledge, and having a similar awareness of the client.  The conscious consultant makes conscious choices in a thoughtful and
wholehearted manner, practicing wisdom.  The conscious consultant is aware of how his or her behavior and choices are impacting the client.”

—    Kristine Quade and Renee M. Brown

This work, the development of self as an agent of change, leading yourself, others, and organizations through positive transformative change is the art of leadership and the key to success in the leader/follower relationship.  Our commission as OD professionals is to commit to the development of our selves as instruments of change.
Looking for successful formulas to apply, devising techniques, and adding various other instruments and assessments to enhance your leadership are all worthwhile endeavors.  Yet they are rendered meaningless in the hands of the unskilled.  Work therefore to develop yourself as a leader and others will begin to follow.

Thank you for your Interest in Minnesota School of Business.