Yang: Follow-up On ‘Reluctant Leaders’ And ‘Followership’

Follow-up On “Reluctant Leaders” And “Followership”
Los Alamos

First, a little humor (at someone’s small expense) on how data-driven decisions without context can be colossally stupid. Mr. Ben Bernanke’s recent application for refinancing his D.C. house was turned down.  Mr. Bernanke, you recall, was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. According to the writer of the NY Times article (click here), the cause probably stemmed from Mr. Bernanke’s employment status, which changed from an 11-year salaried position to commission-based income (which includes $250,000 for a speech and a likely 7 figure book contract).  Somewhere out there, a loan officer’s job is probably in jeopardy. 

Now on to today’s topic.

A few readers have responded to the latest post on “reluctant leadership” with observations, questions and insights. Their comments and thoughts have furthered my understanding, and here are a few more follow-up points. 

A “reluctant leader” may have a tougher time establishing her leadership role initially. This difficulty gets amplified if she encounters a few “followers” who secretly, or not so secretly, believe they should be the leaders.  She’s likely to face a few passive-aggressive people, whose engagement may sound like “Oh, yes, that sounds like a good idea, but I am currently swamped and cannot undertake any more work.” Or, “You have good credentials. [pause] I think I remember X has written about this topic, you may want to look into that.” 

And in some situations, no one wants to lead and no one wants to follow. This really begs the question: What is everyone doing?

Most situations that we are familiar with, or have encountered, are in small to medium groups, like a typical work unit in most organizations. In such an environment, tasks are generally clearly defined, as well as the supervisory and staff roles and expectations. Even if a manager is a reluctant one, he is generally clear about what he needs to do. His staff may be on the fence about his leadership at the beginning, but in the end will settle on undertaking their share of responsibilities. 

The leadership-followership dynamics is much thornier in less structured community project teams, or other ad hoc groups. In these types of gatherings, the dynamics are truly fluid; group boundaries are porous (people come and go, and few are really committed); there is little sense of “membership,” and roles and expectations are ambiguous. Further, people involved in most community project teams are there because they are “important” by some yardstick.

The initial phase in such a group is marked by an egalitarian spirit, which makes choosing a leader a difficult task. Bypassing “choosing” a leader, the group hopes that eventually a leader would emerge “naturally;” however, this requires that the members be committed in forming their group and planning and executing the work. And group process is never easy. If there is no leader present or emerging, there cannot be any followers to speak of. Once again, why are they there? 

Group life is messy. Just look at most family dynamics. Whenever I taught group dynamics, people’s initial response was, “It’s easy. You set goals clearly; you divide up the tasks, and assign everyone a role to fulfill. If we are all goal oriented, we’ll get things done.” In turn, I asked, “How does it work out in your family?” To start with, how do goals and tasks get defined? By groups? by one or two people? Why should the rest go along with one or two people’s decisions?

Sometimes, even a seemingly simple project, a noble cause, or even a clearly defined goal can be derailed because people don’t know how to proceed in a group. The forming-storming-norming-performing of group life, while a cliché, catches the need for groups to evolve to cohere (or, to dissolve in some cases). Even truly egalitarian groups do not come about because members will them so.  They argue; they negotiate; they make bad decisions; they make good choices; they try and fail; they try and succeed … etc. 

Whether in the workplace or in the community, leadership is not limited to people occupying management positions, as I argued in one of my earlier topics, “Managers Are Not Leaders” (click here). There are different types of leadership roles, and people can undertake them without being appointed. For instance, other than a manager or appointed project leader (a positional leader), a group member can become a thought leader (good at generating ideas), or a performance leader (skilled at advancing process, driving execution, and identifying efficiencies along the way, as the situation calls for).

Leadership and followership are not static; there is always give-and-take on both sides. I contend that the “reluctant leaders” understand and accept such dynamics while “command-and-control” type of leaders want things in a “just so” orderly manner. 

Perhaps it’s time for me to try and lay out some thorny group dynamics issues, especially with regard to power and control. I will devote the next several entries to this topic, each entry much longer than usual. I wish I had better skill at economizing the explanations and illustrations, but the nature of group dynamics is convoluted and defies compact description. I will first devote some space to the conceptual foundation, then focus on different levels of groups, and finally present a case for illustration. All the materials are based on Kenwyn Smith’s “Groups in Conflicts,” a fascinating and disturbing read. Autumn is a good time for reading and contemplation, wouldn’t you say?! 

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.