Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rise of Followership: Product of an Empowering Leadership

I wrote this post back in October before James and I decided to name our Leadership model as Empowerment. I forgot about this post after composing it, but it did subconsciously spark many ideas for our model...

Since our class discussion on the topic of followership, I have been fascinating by the potential seen in the rise of "the masses," the increase in agency followers have garnered over the last half-century, and some leaders' respect for individuals working in their enterprises. The previous theories of leadership had not attended to the individuals whose roles were to solely execute orders that were delegated from upper levels of "management." The central focus of written texts remained on the main figurehead of the institution, who was commonly praised for his strong personal mastery, charisma, sharp functioning, and ability to reap a high profitability from lower-level workers.

The proposal of followership is freshly appealing because followers are observed and treated more as individuals along the principals of "Theory Y", by McGregor. No longer is the treatment of followers formulated from a pessimistic view that employees are lazy, passive, and disagreeable. The follower, once overshadowed by daunting CEOs became more prominent as some institutions became aware of the power of team work, and reaped powerful results when they allowed workers with practical experience to hold some authority and control over their positions. A removal of some of the leader's authority placed onto her followers vastly changes the leader's outlook of herself, the followers, and the enterprise; and the transformation from an authoritarian approach to a follwership approach requires the leader to limit her exercise on positional power and gravitate towards a respectful relationship with her team.

Followership is a twist in the traditional bureaucracy of how most institutions perceive leadership and casts previously unheard of attention to subordinates in organizational hierarchies, which now are termed "participants," or individuals who are active and engage with the leader to work towards a common cause. It departs from the traditional dominant-subordinate model which is still pervasive in global cultures, in families, gender differences, sexual orientation, and the workplace.

Kelley's "In Praise of Followers", presents the notion that what defines a group of competent followers is no longer a passive obedience, but a "self-reliant the pursuit of an organizational goal...serv[ing] as team players" (195). This type of follower relies on the skills she internally possesses, even her own leadership skills to further the organization, but even as she is confident and adept, she chooses to take up the position as a follower because it is valued and a vital role to the group. What may come as a surprise to leaders who establish authority in themselves is, that the follower who is placed in the ideal environment can accomplish what leaders cannot. He or she is not bound to conforming to the lowest rung of the hierarchical structure; that is, potential and capability does not wane in the presence of an executive or upper management. Followers who take on an active role in assisting the team towards its goal should be given credit where it is due. Those who have successfully implemented the idea of followership into their leadership models reap the benefits of a thriving, healthy organization.

This notion of followership alters the dynamics of conventional leadership, and Rost's article, "Leaders and Followers Are the People in This Relationship" states that followers and leaders work together in interchangeable roles when it is necessary. Furthermore, "this ability to change places without changing organizational positions gives followers considerable influence and mobility" (192), a quality the traditional leader may not have acquired in his genre of experience. Rost proposes a change in the meaning of "followers," that they are as versatile as being a leader in one situation, as to assuming a follower role in the next project. They are no less competent than the leader, but also demonstrate the ability to work effectively in teams, without the glory and title as leader.

Finally, the leader herself must come to reshape her position, authority, and how she perceives her group members. The relationship represents a symbiotic one, with both the leader and follower relying on each other for survival in competing organizations. She must be the one who draws out the qualities of an active mind, and should go as far as personal understanding of each person according to his or her interests, level of development, and ability contribute to the group. She seeks to encourage advisers among the team rather than yes-men, and halts the behavior fawning subordinates that are quick to obey and execute the plan laid out for them.

But there's more to followership than we first see. The concept itself does not necessarily advocate for the absence of a leadership position, but rather, is contingent upon the leader's initiative to develop this process for his institution. He is the one whom others look to for the atmosphere and tone of the group. It is his advantage to design an environment which facilitates learning and equal collaboration, and seeks to encourage individual involvement. He is a figurehead, but specifically one who can foster this type of followership characteristic on his team. Moreover, he attempts to prolong the life and strengthen members of the organization by allowing followers to gather practical experience in leading smaller groups. This is derived from a leader who acts as a mediator, facilitator, and empowerer, but someone who does not overpower. He must have something to impart initially, then must provide the geographical and intellectual space for followers to gain experience for learning. Thus the process of reciprocity is etched out, as followers gain knowledge to participate and work alongside the leader.

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