Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gleeful Followership

This is officially your opportunity to admit to the world how much you love ABC's new show "Glee." No? Just me? Well, you're missing out. And as I've watched the characters develop over the first few episodes, styles of followership have become evident. Each eccentric character of the high school glee club fits right into one of Robert Kelley's followership patterns: Tina, a yes person; Rachel, an effective follower; Finn, an effective follower; Kurt, an effective follower; Artie, a sheep; and Mercedes, a very active survivor. I could write a ton on each person's traits that make them a certain type of follower and/or leader, but instead I would like to focus on the choice of followership.

Still early in the season, Rachel has already decided the leadership (Mr. Schuester) wasn't good enough, got him to leave the group, tried to bring in someone else who failed, and then she happily resigned back into her followership role, allowing Mr. Schuester to take back over the club. She tried something, it failed, and then she made the choice to follow Mr. Schuester's lead, while still acting in many ways as a leader for the other students in the group.

Rachel is potentially a very effective follower, but as Kelley writes, "some potentially effective followers derive motivation from ambition. By proving themselves in the follower's role, they hope to win the confidence of peers and superiors and move up the corporate ladder. These people do not see followership as attractive in itself." This accurately describes Rachel's constant fluctuation between being an effective follower, and her tendency to quit when she can't be in charge. There are many times throughout the show that she chooses to follow effectively. Followership is a choice. Each student in the Glee Club has chosen to be a part of something larger than them, and to take the lead of others.

But if we assume that followership is a choice, which I believe it is, what are the circumstances that persuade us to choose what type of follower we will be? Must you try something, like Rachel did, and fail before you are willing to be a follower? Or is there a moment when you weigh the pros and cons of being a follower and you decide what type you'll be? And finally, is it possible for us to create a general definition for what these moments might look like, or is it unique for every individual in every circumstance?


  1. Meghan, your blog raised interesting questions for me not only about following and leading but also about personal ambition and values. Having not watched the show, I wonder what is really going on with Rachel. Do you think her personal ambition is driving her or do you think Mr.Schuester stepped on her values in some way? I ask because our Heifitz reading helped me think about a work issue of my own. I wonder if it has any parallels with what's going here.

    Heifitz's idea of leadership as adaptive work addresses the gap between values and realities faced. On a short-lived consulting project, I was working with a business owner (as my customer, I viewed her as the leader on some issues and follower on others) helping her set up the outside sales process (I was the follower since she owned the business but I supposedly had leadership with the sales process.) On the occasion in question, I took this owner along on an important customer call, during which time, she made a bold pricing statement of strategy to the customer!

    A few weeks later, the customer contacted me for a price quote which I mentioned to the owner. Imagine my surprise when she instructed me to increase the price--not at all what she promised! I reminded her of her promise and she parsed her words saying, "No, what I said was I would try to match the discount from the manufacturer."

    As the owner, she had the power for deciding pricing but I refused to follow. In Heifitz terms her reality (trying to survive the economic downturn) and my values (honest customer dealings) did not mesh and there was a gap. Too exhausted from other work drama to do any adaptive work, I drew my line in the sand and ended my contract. While I was being true to my values, perhaps a true leader in this situation would have done the adaptive work to try to close the gap between the reality and the values at play. Neither of us did.

    So, I just wonder--what is Rachel's problem with Mr. Schuester? Is it primarily personal ambition driving her motivations or do you think these role reversals have anything to do with her values?

  2. By the way, I forgot to mention...the Heifitz reading about leadership being about adaptive work can be found in "Values in Leadership," page 22.

  3. Sarah, I appreciate you sharing this personal example regarding leadership and adaptive work because it got me thinking about several different aspects of leadership.

    First of all, I applaud you for drawing your line in the sand and ending the contract with the owner in favor of your honest values. Adaptive work aside,I think this single action qualifies you as a true leader in this situation because you remained loyal to your vision of leadership and did not give into the owner's deceptive business practices.

    Sure, maybe the two of you could have made a few efforts to engage in the practice of adaptive work. It is possible that you may have reached some sort of agreement, but it is equally likely that even with the aid of adaptive work, the two of you would have failed to come up with an alternative outcome that resolved your two positions in a satisfactory manner. This potential conclusion leads me to wonder if attempting adaptive work and failing to find resolution would make you more of a true leader than simply standing up for your values?

    I think that attempting to use adaptive work as a strategy for resolving conflict is perhaps a sign of strong leadership, but in my personal opinion, staying true to what you believe in is one of the most important, if not the most important, qualities that a good leader can possess.

    However, with that being said, (and I have only seen one episode of the show so please correct me if I am wrong), I believe that Rachael challenges Mr. Schuester's authority because she feels that her role as the group's "star" might be threatened under the club's new leadership. Therefore, it is difficult for her to initially trade in her leadership role in exchange for that of follower because she fears loss of control and change. Therefore, to address your question of whether Rachel's resistance to the role of follower is a result of personal motivation or values, I think it is a combination of both. I think Rachel wants to lead so she can continue to be the star and bast in the glory of her role in the club, but I also think she truly values the group as a whole and worries that they will not be as strong under Mr. Schuester's new leadership.

  4. Thanks for your great comments! I agree with what you've said--I believe she values talent, and especially her own. And forwarding her talent is a personal ambition that causes her to make waves with the group. She only settles comfortably into followership when she has her way. Although I classified her as an effective follower, I wonder which type of followership someone falls into when they have the ability to lead, but are willing to follow only if it's done by their own rules?

  5. Meghan, I like the last question you just posed: "I wonder which type of followership someone falls into when they have the ability to lead, but are willing to follow only if it's done by their own rules?" I wonder what is going on with that follower to put "their" rules in conflict with the present rules set by the organization or leader?

    In this case with Rachel, it seems she does not trust Mr. Schuester's leadership. I also have only seen one episode, but it seems like this distrust has and is causing her to "make waves in the group" or try to defy his authority. It also seems to be coming from a place of personal ambition but also a passion for the glee club overall. So my question is, what should or does Mr. Schuester need to do to gain her trust? Is it her problem or is there something he could do?


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