Friday, 19 February 2010

Leadership: it's about the followers

I remember being told, on a course on Situational Leadership, that the leader is simply the person with the best idea of what needs to be done next.   I've always liked that definition as I think it so clearly distinguishes between leadership and authority or positional power.   However, I've also always thought it lacked something - something to do with the role of the followers.   After all, what is a leader without followers?

And so I was really very taken with the video that Derek Sivers linked in his post Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy.   It provides a microcosm of leadership, all within only 3 minutes.   I've linked it below from YouTube:


Leaders have the best idea of what needs to be done next

In this video, the first dancer was clearly the person with the best idea of what should be done next.   But how do you define "best" in this context.   I am not sure that there is or can be an objective and verifiable best.   But there can be no doubt that, at least at the end, all of the other dancers had decide for themselves what they thought was best, and that's probably all that matters.   When it comes to leadership, "best" truly is in the eye of the follower.

In his post, Why Steve Jobs doesn't listen to customers, Shaun Smith suggests that Apple's success owes a lot to Steve Jobs' ability to understand not what customers say they want, but what they are on the edge of wanting.   A leader needs the ability to know what followers were just about to think; to be able to discern the wants which are forming in the backs of followers' minds but that even they have not quite recognised yet; to be able to articulate people's not yet recognised or expressed thoughts.

Leaders have the courage to act

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the first dancer had the courage of his convictions to stand up and dance - and potentially to make a fool of himself.   There could have been many people who previously thought to themselves "I really feel like dancing", but it was the first dancer who had the courage to act.   Derek Sivers usefully points out that the courage of the first few followers should also not be underestimated.

In organisations today, too many people are afraid of putting their heads above the parapet.   So, even if they know what needs to be done next, or even just think they know what needs to be done next, they keep it to themselves, keep their heads down and defend their little patch of empire.   Being a leader involves taking risks; being willing to take a contrarian view; holding to that view when the pack pronounces you wrong.

Leaders embrace their followers as equals

Notice how the first dancer reacted to the arrival of the first follower.   He embraced as an equal, even mirrored him, adopting some of his dance moves.   This generates buy-in as the followers feel that they are active contributors to the process, rather than simply passive followers.   It also requires humility and open-mindedness on the part of the leader.   The leader must recognise that each follower has a contribution to make: possibly a unique, but certainly a value contribution. The leader must recognise that their (the leader's) was is not the only way or even the best way.

Leaders lead by example

The first dancer did not stand up, and make an impassioned speech to try and motivate everyone else to dance.   He just stood up and started dancing himself.   As followers joined in, he made no attempt to organise them or to tell them how they should or should not dance.   Quite the opposite in fact.   The leader simply led by example, adapting his example to the needs of his followers as he went along.   Importantly, a leader would never expect someone to do something that you would not be prepared to do them self.

It's not about the leader

You'll notice that as more and more followers join in, the original leader disappears from sight.   Presumably, he's still in there somewhere, but he's not out front or raised on a podium or doing something different to the followers.   Ultimately, he was lost in the movement he created, with no sense of self-promotion.   The leader recognises that the movement, the result,  is more important than the person who started it.   Of course, there are examples of leaders who are desperate for the limelight, to remind us that it was them who started all of this, but that is something different to leadership.

Derek Sivers points out that it is the leader who gets the credit whilst the first followers are overlooked.   However, I believe that this often not the case.   Often the original leader is overlooked and someone more politically astute and self-serving steps in and claims the lion's share of the recognition.   As Harry Truman said, "You can accomplish anything you want in life provided you don’t mind who gets the credit".

The leader's methods are subtle

At the end of the soundtrack to the video, we hear a voice from the crowd asking: "How did he do that? How did he do that?"  This reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu: "All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved."   Just as the leader knows it is not about the individual, he also know it is not about the methods.   As a result some leaders make it look easy, belying the effort they put in and the risks they took.   Worse still, sometimes leaders are perceived as being simply lucky.   But as Arnold Palmer once said "It's a funny thing, the more I practice, the luckier I get".

What most distinguishes leadership from management is that leadership attracts followers, who volunteer something, or something extra, whilst management requires sub-ordinates, who do what they are told to do only because they're paid to do it.