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You Can’t Lead If You Can’t Follow

Submitted by on Monday, 21 October 2019

A friend of mine delivers leadership training in police departments. On the first morning, he has the partners dance with each other, taking turns for an hour at a time as leader and follower. As most of them are men, they start off very uncomfortable as the ‘follower’, usually a woman’s role in dance. But follow they must; he tells them if they can’t follow, they can’t lead.

As leaders with specific goals we’re responsible for, we operate from the assumption we’re in charge. But what, exactly, are we in charge of? I believe our job is to set the tone, and enable our followers to create a path to a successful goal. As they say in Argentine Tango, if you notice the leader, he’s not doing his job.

WHAT IS OUR JOB

With unconscious blinkers, limited by our biases and assumptions, leaders often begin with a plan, an idea, a fantasy if you will, of how to achieve an outcome. We then work at creating and driving the path to execute it. But this strategy faces several unknowns:

  1. We really have no way of knowing beforehand if it could succeed.
  2. We don’t know the follower’s unspoken beliefs, creative capabilities, or dynamics, how their process factors in, or the range of ideas they might come up with if encouraged.

Even with an aim to be inclusive, we too often carry our plan into the initial sessions with the group and, maybe unconsciously, try to persuade them to adopt the path we imagine. This route might yield resistance at best; at worst, it restricts the full range of possible outcomes.

I recently heard Presidential Candidate and Senator Amy Klobuchar say: “I haven’t gone on TV for interviews much before now. But my team told me I needed the exposure. So here I am.” Was she the follower? Or the leader? While smart enough to be considered to be leader of the free world, she didn’t have the foresight of her team to expand her publicity. That makes her the leader AND the follower.

I contend that as leaders using our own assumptions, ideas, and expertise, it’s not possible to achieve an optimal result: until followers develop their own values, vision, and voices; until the group discovers a path through their own group dynamics; until the group works collaboratively to develop creative outcomes that they can all buy into; there’s no condition for success as the outcome will be restricted.

So here’s the question: do you want to facilitate a route through to the best result? Or drive the path to the result you’ve imagined? You can’t do both.

  • What would you need to believe differently to trust you can achieve the best outcome if it’s driven by the followers?
  • What is your role if the followers are in charge of the route to a successful outcome?

I believe that leading and following are two sides of the same coin. And I believe it must be an interdependent process.

CONTROL

I once trained a group of executive leaders at a company with a reputation of having values. They were the most manipulative group I’ve ever trained. Getting them to consider any form of leadership that didn’t involve them having total control was a herculean task. Seeing my frustration one of them said: “But our message is values-based. Of COURSE it’s our job to convince them to do it our way! It’s the RIGHT way.” Having a great outcome does not give license to push our agendas to get it done OUR way.

As leaders, we must give up our egos, our needs for control, our perceived value of being ‘right’, of being The One to exert power and influence. We obviously need to have some sort of control given we’ve got a job to do. But control over what?

There are two components to our job: reaching a goal, and getting there; we cannot control both unless we do it alone. To work with a group of followers, I suggest we manage the goal and supervision of the journey through change; the process of getting there, the details and actions along the route, must be managed by the followers. It’s an interdependent process. On a day-to-day basis that means the leader

  • controls the space that will enable all voices to be heard, giving rise to creativity, collaboration, and mutual responsibility for planning and delivery;
  • leads the group through forming, failure and resistance, discovery and confusion, trials and success;
  • guides the group through the route they designed and helps them maintain equilibrium.

Here I’m reminded of another great Argentine Tango expression: The leader opens the door; the follower dances through using her own unique steps; the leader follows.

STRUCTURE VS CONTENT; CONTEXT VS COMPONENTS

I contend that we must assure results, but hand over the control of the journey to the followers.

Let’s look at the two components, the goal and the route, from a systems perspective. Considering the result we seek to achieve from the viewpoint of the structure – the context, the boundaries that define the goal – the goal is clear and unadorned. The structure is the headline that identifies what’s within, so a headline that reads: Sandals are Worn in Summer, would have an article about shoes, not recipes for spaghetti.

I refer to the components within the structure as the content – the details, the story line, the items that fit within the parameters of that specific structure. Using the above headline, the content might include different types of sandals, shoes worn in summer vs those worn in winter.

Another simple example would be the structure defines the size and use of a room, while the content includes the size and type of furniture that will fit into it; so an 8’ by 10’ room to be used as a bedroom would not hold a 12’x12’ living room couch.

The structure strictly limits, controls, defines, and identifies the content. Any content is acceptable so long as it fits within the confines of the structure.

If leading a team through an initiative to enhance customer service, for example, the leader is responsible for ending up with happier customers and supervising the journey to get there, while the followers are responsible for

  • the route taken to get there,
  • the choice of the components of the new services,
  • what these services will do, the planning to get there, and the rules that will maintain them,
  • what each team member will do,
  • how it will be delivered.

Here’s the deal: we can only have real control over a single factor – the structure OR the content. Sadly, leaders too often try to control both. The real control and power is in controlling the structure:

  • By controlling the structure, any components that fit would be acceptable so long as they clearly meet the goal’s criteria. By controlling the structure, we’re a problem seeking a solution. If we have a 3 foot box, we can choose whatever we want to put into it – balls or bananas – so long as it fits. Improved customer service might mean more reps, better phone coverage, more focused email responses, year-end gifts, better website access. Humana offers televisits for patients who can’t get to a doctor’s offices. Whatever fits, whatever the group agrees to within the parameters of the structure, is up for discussion. The content will correspond with the structure.
  • By controlling the content, by focusing on the components, it’s necessary to find a structure that confines them. We become a solution looking for a problem – obviously limiting the field of possibilities. With 12 green 10” balls, we need a very specific-sized box. Using our example, we might train reps to answer phones by the third ring and lower prices; then must define a goal to match that. And of course the full range of options for improving customer service would be overlooked. Obviously, starting from the components, the content, is the less flexible, less creative route.

It’s by controlling the structure we can plant a stake in the ground with the rules and criteria for success that all else emanates from. Our job then becomes to maintain the tone and vision; how we get there is the job of the followers, tasked with creating the content.

When followers control the content, they create a collaboration amongst themselves, use their combined imaginations to develop a set of behaviors and outcomes that will fit within the rules and structure, and take ownership of the process and journey to success. Each follower is a leader who buys-in to the change and process, owns the solution, manages any resistance, and takes responsibility for implementation. The leader then maintains the space the followers created.

STARTING UP A COMPANY AS A LEADER/FOLLOWER

I’d like to share a story of my own journey as an entrepreneur of a tech start up in London. I began with no knowledge of business and even less of technology (Those were early days, remember?). I was smart enough to know my range of content knowledge – nil. So I wrote an outline of what I wanted to achieve (the structure):

  • a company that would take great care of the needs of customers in the area of 4th Generation Languages (Really early days!) with integrity, honesty, and win/win values;
  • be seen as a premier provider by charging high prices and great service expertise;
  • have my staff be as happy and cared for as my clients;
  • make money and have fun.

That was my structure. I had no idea what would be in the content. I did my best to research, speak with people, read a few books. Then I realized that it would be best if I hired good people who designed their own jobs. My hiring process included asking applicants to bring in a P&L that included their salary and the route, within the confines of their job and the structure I put forth, to getting their salary AND bringing in a profit for the company. We ended up providing programming, training, and consulting services to users and teams. But I didn’t know that when I started.

The applicant for the job of receptionist was quite creative. Ann Marie wanted a small salary and a percentage of the gross income. For this, she would make sure the company ran efficiently and staff and clients would be thoroughly taken care of to the point they wouldn’t want to go anywhere else and would have the time to do their best job. Wow. I hired her. And she did exactly what she said. She made us write these daily TOADs – I don’t remember what the acronym stood for…something like Take what you want And Destroy the rest… but it took us an extra hour each night to write them up (No computers in daily use in the early 80s, remember?). Each morning we found the full set of everyone’s TOADS on our desks when we arrived. They involved current initiatives, our frustrations, any good/bad issues with clients and prospects, any good/bad issues we had with each other.

As a result of us all knowing ‘everything’, on any given day, if a phone would ring and the person wasn’t there to answer, anyone could answer it and be able to help. As the receptionist, Ann Marie would take the time to make kind comments to whoever was calling, making every caller feel wanted and comfortable. Office squabbles and gossip didn’t have a way to fester as we knew who was mad at who and the argument dissipated. Team members helped each other by coming up with creative solutions, or sharing resource. We had the knowledge to introduce clients to each other for follow-on partnerships. Frankly, Ann Marie terrified me. Tall, officious, unsmiling, we all did what she told us to do (Talk about leaders!). And she walked away with pockets full of money as she helped the business double each year.

I hired John as a ‘Make Nice Guy’ to bridge the divide between technical and people skills. He wanted a $100,000 salary (in 1985!) to make sure techies, their code, and how our contractors maintained relationships with the teams they worked with, all ran smoothly. That was a no brainer. With John taking care of all outside stuff, I was left with no fires, no problems, no crashes, no personality issues, no client problems, and I could grow my business. He even found out when a client was buying new software that we could support well before it arrived on site; when the vendor came to install it, my folks were there waiting, well before the vendor tried to sell their services.

The team worked hard to get me to say “We’re doing WHAT??” I was once walking down the hall and ran into my Training Manager. When I asked where he’d been hiding since I hadn’t seen him in days, he told me he was busy scouting out extra office space for the new training programs being developed. “We’re doing WHAT??” And fill the seats he did, bringing in new clients and new programs. Including me as a trainer. “I’m doing WHAT??” Apparently, the team believed I supervised techies so well as a non techie that I should teach other non-techie managers how to supervise their techie staff. I would never have thought of that myself. So they got me to run monthly programs which were always packed.

As part of my commitment to creativity and growth, I told the management team to take risks but to let me know if a disaster was imminent at least three feet before they fell off the edge (If they waited until they were already off the cliff there wouldn’t be a thing I could do but wave). And they did. As a result they created unique programs, processes, and initiatives that I could never have dreamed of. And they mostly got it right.

By setting a tone of authenticity, I regularly discussed my failures and got input from the team as to how to make things better. This obviously opened the door for us all to discuss failures as part of our job. Also my maintaining control of the structure, by trusting the staff and enabling them to be leaders and innovators, I was able to double the company income every year. With no computers, no internet, no email, no websites, we had a $5,000,000 revenue (and 42% net profit) within four years. Everyone made money, loved coming to work, and grew individually. We controlled 11% of the market (the other 26 competitors shared the other 89%), had loads of fun, and we changed the landscape of what was possible.

TRUST

I could never, ever have been that successful if I hadn’t trusted my followers to create their jobs. I controlled the structure. They controlled the content. Win/win. Interdependent. Trust. Respect. Their joke was that they were the ones with the brains, and I was the one with the mouth. Cool beans. I opened the door, they danced through it, and I followed.

Leadership is an interdependent process with followers and leaders working together from the inside and outside simultaneously to inspire trust and reach the best possible outcome. Here are the givens:

  • The process is always transforming and dynamic, rendering pockets of success, confusion and failure, creativity;
  • There’s no way to know until the end what the trip will include so it’s necessary to build in trust, collaboration, and openness;
  • The result will be what everyone wants. The process will not be what the leader envisaged;
  • The process will proceed according to the values, creativity, and needs of the followers;
  • The leader will be respected so long as s/he uses her/his power to shepherd the process;
  • Failure is part of the process and can be used to inspire creativity;
  • Resistance will be visible and managed by group with no fallout;
  • The result will be the best amalgam of everyone involved bringing their values and hearts.

A real leader enables their followers to operate interdependently, using their own values, their own creativity, their own vision. As leaders we must stop trying to exert influence over the entire process, and begin trusting followers to lead us.

THE HOW

If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you know that I always include a ‘how’ so readers can use the ideas I espouse. In this case, my suggestions will be a bit challenging: the necessary skills to implement this style of leadership includes rethinking and enhancing two skills we all believe we’re good at and take great pride in – our listening and our questioning.

The reality is that no matter how professional, how fair, how honorable, how impartial we believe ourselves to be, when we use our conventional questioning and listening skills there’s a high probability we’ll be (unconsciously, unwittingly, automatically) biased by our words, ideas, needs, beliefs, and history. I’ve developed ways to listen and question that avert bias and indeed facilitate transformation and expanded possibility. I train these skills to leaders when I train in organization

1.    Listening. The biggest problem is that it’s just not possible to listen without bias no matter how hard we try to show up as good listeners, or how carefully we listen to every word. We just cannot separate our intent from our physiology.

Words, as sounds, come into our ears as electrical/chemical signals, devoid of meaning. Simplistically, these signals go down neural pathways in our brains to find the nearest synapses that carry similar signals – assumed, sometimes wrongly, to be a match, regardless of the accuracy of the underlying meaning. So our brains might find a match with ABL when the speaker actually said ABC. Listeners actually hear ABL with no recognition that there’s a misunderstanding; our brains don’t tell us it omitted D, E, F, G… Net net, we unwittingly listen with biased ears and ‘hear’ what our brains tell us has been said…often some degree ‘off’ of the speaker’s intended message.

There is a way to mitigate this. (My book What? Did you really say what I think I heard? teaches how.) By listening in Observer/Coach, on “the ceiling” we supersede our normal neural pathways and enable our brains to find a more accurate match. Using normal listening, it’s only possible to hear what is most comfortable and habitual. For those who don’t get a chance to read the book and learn how to listen to whole conversations without bias, I suggest you at least take this shortcut and say: “I want to make sure I understand you accurately. I’m going to tell you what I think I heard; can you please tell me if I’ve got it right and correct me where I’m wrong?” That will keep the conversation on track.

2.    Questioning. Conventional questions elicit information as per the Asker’s curiosity. Of course given our unconscious biases, our curiosity is restricted by our beliefs and life histories, resulting in questions limited to what we think we need to know (certainly not the full universe of available information). It goes without saying that there’s no way an outsider can know what’s going on within someone else’s life experience. It’s even more difficult within a group setting. Hence, normal questions can only gather information that’s some fraction of what we need, and an unknown level of accuracy.

Of course often people need information to act from, and normal questions are necessary. But for those times change is part of the process, people/followers need to understand their own motivation, values, and beliefs to act from. For this I invented a new form of question called a Facilitative Question that makes it possible to enable Others to mentally (unconsciously) aggregate their own values and needs to make their own best decisions, define their own outcomes, recognize their own success criteria, and chart their own next steps, with no bias or influence from the leader.

So: Why do you wait for six rings before answering the phone? would be replaced with What would need to be willing/able to answer an incoming call by the third ring? Instead of gathering information, facilitate people through to their own actionable answer and non-resistant choice, using their own criteria. Used in a group setting this process enhances creativity and responsibility for action.

For those wishing to learn how to formulate these questions, read this article, and take a look at this learning module I developed. Formulating Facilitative Questions employs listening for systems, understanding word usage and word placement, and the sequence of decision making in the brain. A much different process than posing normal questions.

As leaders, our job is to facilitate a collaboration with our followers to interdependently create a successful goal. It demands that leaders enter with a different outcome, a different mindset, and a different tool kit. But it’s worth it. We’ll end up with the real power of spearheading harmony, integrity, creativity, and excellence. And have a greater success than we ever could have achieved alone.

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Sharon Drew Morgen is a thought leader, original thinker, consultant, trainer, and speaker. Sharon Drew trains leadership teams and sales forces. She is the author of 9 books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? Did you really say what I think I heard? Sharon Drew’s award winning blog www.sharondrewmorgen.com carries original articles on topics such as sales, leadership, decision making, questions, collaboration, and values.

Sharon Drew is the inventor of Buying Facilitation® the first new paradigm that gives sales people, healthcare professionals, leaders, and managers, the tools to enable others to generate real change based on their own internal beliefs, rules, systems, and vision. She has spent her life decoding how brains decide and how to generate real change at the core neurology of synapses and neural pathways. She has also designed innovative training models to facilitate learners in producing permanent change. Sharon Drew lives on a houseboat in Portland OR.