November 30, 2009

Following The Leader

Sometimes, I think the importance of great leadership is overstated.

Don't get me wrong. We do need great leaders but maybe we need great followers even more.

Over the years, I've taken up leadership roles in a number of groups; often as a result of simply standing out like a sore thumb when others took a step back or being next in line when the baton was passed.

But I must admit, I enjoy playing the part of leader. In recent months, this has seen me taking centre stage more and more as I develop my speaking career and there's certainly a great buzz in leading the conversation in this way.

But I was struck at a recent showcase event, when I lined up with five of my fellow speakers to strut our stuff, at how important it is to have a great audience too, people who are prepared to follow your lead and make the experience an even more powerful one for us all.

I'm a member of a number of network groups too where it's hugely important for those on the back-benches to support those leading the group in simple, often overlooked ways, rather than vying to be the centre of attention.

So what happens when we fail as followers?

When I look at those who would lead our country, in particular those flailing about at the heads of our political parties, it seems to me that they couldn't be where they are and how they are without being egged on by a motley collection of spineless lackeys and cronies. A poverty of vision, ambition and integrity amongst those followers seems to lead to poor leadership: the bland leading the bland.

I've often used the example of geese in flight when taking or handing over charge of a group. You know the one: how geese in formation take turns to spearhead their unerring progress through the air to nesting or feeding grounds. And how they take turns too to be good followers. For if an individual goose breaks ranks without strong cause, then all is lost and they fall into disarray.

In my own business, I rely greatly on good customers, those who are willing to take my lead and head off into the unknown in search of a strong brand position. Without their active and critical support, I'd be powerless to lead them anywhere. They demand the best of me and the quality of their followership is vital to the success of our enterprise.

The more I think about it, wherever I look, it seems to me that our successes are down to inspired leaders and followers working in tandem. Equally, a crisis of leadership or followership leads to failure.

As followers, we need to both demand more of our leaders and demand more of ourselves. Sometimes even with the same breath, we need to be more critical and more supportive. Our society and our economy requires better backbenchers, voters and customers; ones who will demand only the best for us all.

There's no dodging this one: whether you're playing the role of leader or follower, you can't afford to settle for second-best.

Over To You: Where do you see examples of great leaders and followers setting the standards and demanding the best from one another?


Ted said...

What an eye opening post. I am thinking many of your readers are leaders and at times forget that as leaders, we need to support around us that allows continued leadership. I will do my part in helping continue to lead.

Gerard said...

Hi Gerard
Powerful stuff. I think you put it very well and it is clear it is heartfelt. You have created a context within which we can now go forward and shape a vision.

I for one am energised by the challenges ahead. I find it easier when they are within a framework and vision of where I and other have to go.

The challenge is now how do we take your idea forward?

Gerry o'Reilly
Newmarket Partnership

Gerard Tannam said...

Thanks for your comments, Ted and Gerard.

I do believe great leaders will emerge only when followers begin to demand nothing but the best. In the meantime, I believe we can each make our contribution right where we stand. In my own small way, I'm no longer settling for second-rate when I'm the customer (in the past, I've been inclined to shrug my shoulders and accept mediocre quality and service).

It doesn't mean I have to be scathing or nitpicking, just firmly insistent that I get what I've been promised.

Whether we find them in the corridors of power or behind the shop counter, we can't allow our leaders fob us off any more. Let's insist on an up-front promise and hold them to it.