Fostering Followership in Leaders

On January 2, 2024, a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane collided with a Coast Guard aircraft at Tokyo's Haneda airport. All 379 individuals on board the Japan Airlines (JAL) plane managed to escape the burning airliner. Live footage on public broadcaster NHK depicted the JAL Airbus A350 bursting into flames as it skidded down the tarmac. Videos and images shared on social media showcased passengers shouting inside the smoke-filled cabin and running across the tarmac after safely utilizing an evacuation slide.

In a CNN report (How safety rules ‘written in blood’ saved lives in Tokyo plane crash, Julia Buckley), according to Graham Braithwaite, a professor of safety and accident investigation at the UK’s Cranfield University, the successful evacuation of all passengers from the burning plane was a testament to JAL’s stringent safety protocols and the excellence of its crew. I wholeheartedly concur with Professor Graham Braithwaite’s remarks. In this instance, the JAL airline crew demonstrated a highly commendable ability to seamlessly transition between their roles as followers and leaders. They rigorously adhered to safety protocols and procedures while reassuringly guiding every passenger out of the danger zone in an orderly and swift manner. In essence, effective followership not only preserves lives but also yields positive outcomes in the absence of designated leaders.

Empowering Teams: A Lesson from Robert Kelly's 'In Praise of Followers'

In 1987, a significant commercial bank on the East Coast faced declining profitability and heightened competition for corporate clients, compelling it to reorganize operations and reduce its workforce. The bank's most seasoned managers found themselves dedicating a substantial portion of their time to working directly with corporate customers. The strain on time and energy was so pronounced that one department head ultimately decided to delegate the responsibility for reorganization to his staff, who had recently undergone self-management training.

Despite harboring serious reservations, the department head established them as a self-governing unit without a designated leader. This unit became responsible for crafting their job descriptions, developing a training program, establishing criteria for performance evaluations, planning for operational needs, and contributing to the achievement of overall organizational objectives. Remarkably, they succeeded. The bank's officers were not only pleased but also genuinely astonished that rank-and-file employees could assume such significant responsibilities with such success.

The above second example, as cited by Robert Kelly in his article 'In Praise of Followers' for the Harvard Business Review, underscores an intriguing workplace phenomenon. I would characterize it as team members embracing creative ownership, wherein these employees, in Robert Kelly's words, 'thought for themselves, honed their skills, concentrated their efforts, and displayed a remarkable blend of grit, spunk, and self-control.

Retail Resilience: Nurturing Character Traits in the Workplace

I, too, encountered a comparable situation with my team at 72 Smalldive concession stores. In 2018, faced with the challenge of high turnover among retail staff in our corner stores within department stores in Singapore, I decided to reassess our hiring and training strategies. Instead of prioritizing the search for the most proficient salesperson, we tailored our interviews to identify candidates with a higher emotional quotient and a consideration for the ethical and social aspects of business operations. Crucially, during these interview discussions, candidates shared insightful perspectives on navigating the dissonance between empathizing with individual needs and addressing the priorities of sustaining a business in a cognitively healthy manner.

Indeed, those selected candidates, after undergoing training focused on fostering a growth mindset, proved to be highly effective retail salespersons. One notable incident involved a sales employee Nadia, who, before embarking on her vacation, took the initiative to participate in the hiring and training of part-timers to manage the store during her absence—an extra task not within her required duties.

Many, including myself, might perceive Nadia as possessing "leadership" qualities. However, this is a common misconception about leadership. Individuals like Nadia are not necessarily aspiring to take on the role of a store manager. The "leadership" traits she exhibited were aligned with her goals of not only achieving the company's established Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) but also establishing herself as a trusted team member. In her own words, she felt visible, a contrast to past work environments where instructions were handed down with limited opportunities for decision-making.

The Critical Few: A McKinsey Perspective

Nadia's sentiments were not an anomaly. During my tenure as a consultant, engaging with stakeholders in client organizations during change implementations required the ability to pinpoint the "critical few" within those organizations. According to McKinsey & Company, the critical few are individuals performing roles contributing to at least 50% of the value of the plans to be executed. It's noteworthy that McKinsey & Company emphasized roles in their definition. In my experience, these critical few, irrespective of their job descriptions, actively participated in decision-making for proposed projects, often providing self-initiated feedback and suggestions. Many assumed a form of leadership as followers, demonstrating a strong sense of ownership and pride in their work. This connection was often attributed to the management style they experienced—being encouraged to take charge, solicited for their "ground expertise" or opinions, and kept informed about the company's roadmap. In essence, they felt "visible."

Effective followership, like good leadership, doesn't come from rigid rules, concise instructions, or instilling loyalty and discipline. Just as good leadership is nurtured, good followership needs cultivation; individuals must develop healthy mindsets to align their motivations cognitively within the organizations they serve. The fundamental qualities of a successful leader and an impactful follower share a common foundation.

Avoiding the Leadership Trap

When coaching a new client or mentoring a budding business founder, I frequently reference William Wordsworth's poem 'Character of the Happy Warrior' as a starting point for discussing the development of essential character traits that foster resilient and trustworthy leadership. Often, my coaching clients express surprise when I elucidate how cultivating these traits also heightens our awareness, thereby refining our ability to be effective followers. Their astonishment is justified—after all, who willingly invests time and resources to become a follower?

Conventional wisdom in business schools, coaching, or corporate training typically revolves around enticing talent with promises of "receiving the best training to become the leaders of the near future." The widely accepted notion that leaders are nurtured, not born, unfortunately, perpetuates a fallacy in corporate training: the assumption that there's no need to cultivate positive character traits in individuals to enhance effective followership. My experience has shown the contrary: by awakening a sense of awareness within each individual, we foster a cohort of cognitively aware individuals capable of balancing their personal and professional goals without detriment to either.

The Weak-Link Organization: Malcolm Gladwell's Insights

This brings to mind a concept championed by Malcolm Gladwell in several keynote speeches available on YouTube: the idea of a weak-link organization. As explained by the authors of 'The Numbers Game,' Chris Anderson and David Sully, this concept draws parallels with a soccer team where the outcome of a match depends on the skills and performance of various players on the field. Malcolm Gladwell underscores that contemporary businesses increasingly resemble weak-link organizations.

In this context, it is crucial for the company's training focus not only to center around building leadership and prioritizing HR policies for grooming managers and C-suite executives but also to cultivate the character traits of individuals. This enables them to assume leadership roles when leaders or quality leaders are absent and adeptly take on followership roles when resilience and collaboration are needed.

The Misconception of the "Leadership Path"

I also caution against exclusively endorsing the "leadership path" as the sole career growth trajectory for everyone in the workplace. Doing so perpetuates the idea that nurturing positive character traits primarily aims to secure a prestigious job title. This approach risks diminishing the genuine and higher purpose of character building in the workplace. Cultivating good followership can lead to the development of leaders within the organization—it should be the approach if we strive for more humane leaders in the workplace. However, it should not be the sole ultimate goal. Instead, organizations should view the purpose of nurturing good followership as the cultivation of an energized, engaged, and well-balanced cohort of supporters aligned with the organization’s goals and missions

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