Leading today has become a dirty word.
Almost every week there’s a story of a president, a politico, a business guru who falls and fails. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs leader Eric Shinseki is the latest; we’ll guarantee there will be others … and soon.
No question: Consequences of leader actions and decisions are often front-page news before there’s time to sneeze. The microscope of public opinion is much more harsh, more intense, and less forgiving than even a year or so ago. Even as individuals, we have far less patience, and a far quickened anger, with those who do us (or others) wrong.
Is part of the issue a lack of followership? Ever since Robert Greenleaf coined the word “servant-leader” in 1970, there seems to be a tacit understanding that the best leader is also a follower, a servant. Yet the gaps between understanding and practice today are quite large.
The difficulty, we say, lies in the word ‘follower.’ It sounds half-hearted, wimpy, tantamount to a losing proposition. It’s the mark of an also-ran, a high-potential who never reached the business summit.
Yet all capabilities of any leader, from awareness and diplomacy to courage, collaboration, and critical thinking, must be embedded in the astute follower too. Getting ahead these days demands that we seize the initiative, anticipate, become goal driven, and offer solutions – as well as being compassionate and loyal. Leaders, in sum, aren’t the only ones who have these attributes; we too need to learn, to assume, and to be satisfied with following.
Perhaps the word “follower-leader” needs a PR campaign. Or, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, an acceptance of the re-phrasing of Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “neither a leader nor a follower be.”