Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What to do with an ineffective leader?

Disclaimer: Technical difficulties still need to be resolved. This post is by Allison Wilder

As an undergrad, I was a leader for the Vanderbilt Danceline and had to follow the main band director. We have discussed if someone can be both leader and follower, and in this experience I was exactly that. Kelley (1988) poses that “effective followers and effective leaders are often the same people playing different parts” (201).

This band director was an extremely ineffective leader. Geneen (1998) states “leadership is the ability to inspire other people to work together as a team following your lead…others must want to follow the leader” (4). Our team worked together, but not as a result of inspiration from the band director and not because we wanted to follow him. Pagonis (1992) explains leaders must possess two vital qualities: expertise and empathy. This leader had neither of these in regards to our team. The two forms of power he consistently used were legitimate and coercive. As explained by Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (1993), as a leader this band director should have “taken advantage of all power sources, had strong influence on followers and been open to being influenced by them, and shared power with followers” (347). He never did even one of the three. His ineffectiveness made my job as a Danceline leader much more difficult, and during many of our conversations in class I have asked myself, “What do you do if you don’t believe in your leader and truly see them as ineffective?” Can you still be an effective follower? What if the leader is holding you back? This scenario could generate some interesting discussion and maybe other people in the class can relate to my experience.

As Kelley stated, “But the reality is that most of us are more often followers than leaders”. (194). This is to say that even when we have the opportunity to lead and make a difference, we are still playing multiple roles because we will probably have a boss. So again, what does that mean for an “effective follower” under an ineffective leader? Kelley explains that effective followers differ from ineffective followers by being “self managed, committed, competent, focused, and courageous.” (196-200). The qualities for an effective follower look very similar to an effective leader. So can you be an effective follower by being an effective leader even if your boss is ineffective?

At first, it didn’t make sense to me that you could effectively follow someone if they were not effective to begin with. However, through the above information, I am arguing that you can because to an extent, your job as an “effective follower” can be to work or lead others to some degree independently of the higher leader. From my experience, that is exactly what I had to do.

I now pose this question. How can an “effective follower” work independently from the leader if they are truly in a relationship, a perspective that both McGregor (1966) and Rost (1991) support? I also agree with this perspective, but in this situation when the leader is absolutely ineffective, is it best for the “effective follower” to try to function outside the bounds of a relationship in order to inspire who they are leading? And if so, what that does mean for the perspective of leadership as a relationship?

One final question: So is ineffective leadership “bad” leadership or is leadership not even present? And if not, what then is “bad” leadership?


  1. Caitlin, I appreciated this blog very much. The content is one I have wrestled with professionally. In one situation, I had a sales manager who was caustic and potentially damaging to my business when I had to let him ride along on sales calls.

    With my relative inexperience in such a situation, I managed by trying to gauge which customers I took him to see. It was a very frustrating experience and tricky to juggle--this guy was my boss! I would like to say it all worked out and he somehow became a true sales manager or leader, but alas, it was not my experience. If I look at Zalenick's approach (1977) I would say he was perhaps a good manager on certain issues that did not revolve around customer interactions like looking at numbers to determine strategy. But relating to customers is what sales is all about and for this, he wasn't just neutral, he was negative!

    All this was resolved for me when I got recruited away from this company to work in sales for Johnson & Johnson. There I experienced 2 of the best sales managers/leaders I ever had --and they were both women who were transformational (Bass & Avolio, 1994) and helped me develop customer relationships I still have maintained now for many years.

  2. I think Allison makes a lot of good points. A few things came to mind when reading this blog.

    First, I do believe that an ineffective leader is a supposed "bad" leader. If a leader is not completing the tasks at hand and generating results or change, is not motivating those around him, and is essentially a sitting duck, then yes, I daresay, he is a "bad" leader.

    I think it is an interesting point to wonder if effective followers can continue to support ineffective leaders. But I think several factors determine the ultimate fate of this follower/leader relationship. For one, if the follower doesn't deem the leader "ineffective" he/she is most probably likely to continue to act as an effective follower, believing they are following someone who they deem "powerful" with certain respects.

    In the circumstances where an effective follower believes in fact that their leader is ineffective, I personally think a follower can still stick around and still be effective, but only to a certain lesser degree and for a far less time. For me, when I am under the management of someone I do not respect, trust, or think is in the suitable position they are in, I may follow, but I will become demotivated fairly quickly, am more likely to become an ineffective follower, and will eventually seek out other opportunities. So I think you can be an effective follower under an ineffective leader, but I think only if it is for a very short-while.

  3. I am wondering if in situtions in which you are a follower to an ineffective leader, are you still an effective follower if you are doing exactly what you are told? What if the leader gives you a task and tells you to do something a certain way? Are you an effective follower if you do just as you were asked? Or are you an effective follower if you disregard the instructions and do what you think is best? It must be difficult when to decide to accept your role as a follower to a bad leader and when to enact some kind of change or take matters into your own hands. This must be a frequent dillema in the workplace. I think one of the most challenging parts of a job would be to be an effective follower to an ineffective leader. It would be difficult to balance having to take instructions from your boss to keep your job, and also doing what you think might be best overall.

  4. I think when there is an ineffective leader, the burden of getting work done and trying to be successful, falls in the hands of the followers. You said Allison that this band director made your job more difficult as danceine leader. Did you notice yourself taking on more responsibility to make up for the lack of leadership? As Catherine wrote in the previous comment, did you ever disregard his instructions and do what you thought was best? I agree with Catherine in that it is hard to determine when an effective follower should "take the reigns" from an ineffective leader.

  5. I agree with everybody here with the concept that you can be an effective follower to an ineffective leader. As Kelley states, "Organizations stand or fall partly on the basis of how well their leaders lead, but partly also on the basis of how well their followers follow". Thus, there is indeed a mutual relationship between the hierarchal layers of leaders and followers.

    In an attempt to answer the question, "How can an “effective follower” work independently from the leader if they are truly in a relationship?", I would like to pose another question.

    Isn't the ability to pick up the slack of an ineffective leader simply a characteristic of effective followership? Kelley believes that one characteristic of effective followership is commitment to the cause. Thus, I think that any effective follower, due to this commitment, would be motivated by an ineffective leader to step up and fill the holes in the leader role so to achieve the organizational goal.In doing so, the follower's actions have become heavily correlated with the inactions of the leader which, to me, demonstrates a dependent, causal, relationship between leader and follower.

  6. That's an interesting point Cynthia. I also wonder if being an effective follower picking up the slack, if you will, for an ineffective leader is in turn becoming a leader. It is interesting how quickly the lines can be blurred between the two. Would the ineffective leader only be a leader by authority or position rather than by traits or action? Would the ineffective follower in turn truly be the leader, while the ineffective leader is nothing more than a compliant person in a role of responsibility they are not able to handle? These are all questions that come to mind.

    I believe that maybe the effective follower in that situation can also be seen as a leader, or maybe as just the leader rather than the follower. Which leads to the him/her being a leader based on situation and traits.


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