Flawed followership fosters failed leadership

Jan 13, 2021

The visual gallery of the front-liners who broke into the Capitol building is revealing. Long have Americans had a fascination for the cult of individual leadership. Uncritical and sycophantic admiration of a political leader only leads to endorsing their entitled autocracy.

For example, Americans believed that Lee Iacocca of Chrysler ‘saved the company’. In a similar vein, the American writer, Noel Tichy, co-authored an appalling book (The Cycle of Leadership, HarperCollins, 2002) claiming that the CEO was the organisation’s ‘chief teacher’. While it doesn’t necessarily mean subservience, in this leadership theory, staff members are regarded as ‘followers’ in a dyadic relationship with their leader. So, American scholars of leadership typically explore ‘leader-member exchange’ (LMX).

A related problem for USA political leadership is their system: too much power resides in the Presidency. That is why all ten living former USA secretaries of defence recently signed a letter warning Trump not to involve the military in his grievances over the 2020 election results – they were so concerned about Trump’s unilateral propensity for taking drastic executive action. (They must be terrified about what Trump could still do with Iran before he leaves office).

Research bears testimony that transformational leadership (“come with me”) raises the level of follower engagement and motivation beyond a merely transactional approach (“do what I tell you”). It is also true that leaders make only a moderate positive difference to outcomes, and that they can actually make things a lot worse. As President-elect Joe Biden recently said, Presidents can either ‘inspire’ or ‘incite’.

What is effective followership?

While it is the leader who often initiates the relationship with followers and carries the burden of that relationship, it is the actions of followers which determine the success of a leader. The success of organisations is more the result of good followership rather than great leadership.

Robert Kelley in the Harvard Business Review (1988) regarded an effective follower as enthusiastic, intelligent, with self-reliant participation—without star billing—in the pursuit of an organisational goal. Kelley later (1992) highlighted five styles of followers:

exemplary, conformist, passive, alienated, and pragmatist.

Effective followers choose followership as their primary role at work and serve as team players who find satisfaction in helping to further a cause, an idea, a product, a service, or, more rarely, a person. Kelley (1988) also identified a number of qualities of effective followers:

· They manage themselves well

· They are committed to the organisation and to a purpose, principle, or person outside themselves

· They build their competence and focus their efforts for maximum impact

· They are courageous, honest, and credible.

Other scholars such as Peter Northouse (Leadership, Sage, 8e, 2018) assert that one of the characteristics of servant leaders is they work towards follower growth and follower high-performance. One doubts that Trump is concerned with helping his followers to ‘grow’ or to ‘develop’ – followers are merely there to serve him and his self-interest.

The Mob at the Capitol

The visual gallery of the front-liners who broke into the Capitol building is revealing. American commentators have often talked about Trump’s ‘base’ – typically angry, white, male, and rural. Trump’s most loyal followers are a disillusioned demographic whose worst desires were pandered to by Trump and his coterie, and who were offered false hope for a ‘great’ [MAGA] future with him.

These attackers and invaders at the Capitol were not coordinated followers but a fragmented mob with uncritical loyalty. They were man-boys engaging in ‘parallel play’ in the Capitol sandbox. They were filmed climbing the external wall and not being assisted to reach the top. They rampaged from room to room with little organised movement – except through the force of numbers. They each had Trump on their minds but were disengaged from their fellow protesters. They were acting independently as dyadic followers and behaving as individuals, not as a coordinated insurrection.

Using Kelley’s (1988) assessment of follower qualities, while the Capitol invaders were committed to Trump (a person outside themselves), they did not manage themselves well, did not behave as team players, were incompetent, unfocussed, and arguably, cowardly, dishonest, and incredible. Trump initially encouraged them as being exemplary (“you’re very special”). It is becoming increasingly clear that many Americans and the rest of the civilised world do not regard them as being such.

These invaders were not protesters or supporters but cult members – uncritical adherents of a cult leader who claimed to offer them special solutions. We’ve heard a lot about ‘Trumpism’ since 2016 but we never heard about ‘Obamaism’. Sadly, some 45% of republicans apparently now believe that this Capitol incursion by Trump loyalists was justified. Where is advanced citizenship here? This is merely blind partisan loyalty. This is not effective followership.

Effective Followers as Citizens

Unless citizens engage with the political process and intelligently challenge, their leaders will be emboldened and merely spend their energy enabling their own longevity. Good citizen-followership ensures that there are checks and balances in the political process and that these are used. Uncritical and sycophantic admiration of a political leader only leads to endorsing their entitled autocracy.

Trump and his dysfunctional family have frequently appeared to act as if they were a dynasty, born to rule. With an arrogant demeanour, Trump strode the stage with world leaders as a Colossus and insinuated his unelected ‘Princess’ daughter whenever he could. The sad irony is that America’s first war was over independence from the British monarchy, yet Trump has always behaved as a quasi-Emperor – his frequent use of the royal plural ‘we’ in his public discourse as in “we love you”, is significant.

Effective followers become enlightened citizens: subservient followers become cult members.

So what should effective followers do as enlightened citizens?

  • Be rigorous and thoughtful in the reasons for following any leader
  • join political parties by all means but –
  • engage with the body politic as an active citizen
  • vote
  • sign petitions
  • write to members of Congress (and members of Parliament)
  • stand for public office
  • respect the political process and political leaders, and
  • question and challenge our leaders
  • engage in peaceful protest and not destroy our democratic infrastructure.

And don’t become a cult member.

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