Keith Stanton: „People do not follow leaders per say, they follow effective followers”


Followership can be defined as the capacity of an individual to actively follow a leader. An efficient follower can be as important as the leader that is the face of the company. Effective followers are brave and courageous, willing to take on their own learning, able to get out of their comfort zone easily, but they are not the only ones that exist in a company. Sadly, if we look in the state-owned companies, the only types that exist are mostly the „bad” ones. Keith Stanton, Owner of Votive Leadership LLP is going to talks to us about the behavior of the employees and the leaders that exist in multi-nationals.

In Romania the concept of followership is relatively new, so what are the types of employees that stand out?

The most interesting thing about followership is that it is relevant to every employee within an organisation. Leaders want employees to be effective followers, however for a leader to be authentic, to gain respect and create effective followership in others, then they need to be effective followers themselves. You see everyone within an organisation has a follower role to play, whether you are the CEO or the newest of employees.

It is important to understand that the labels we use to describe effective followership relate to a role not a person; no one individual spends all their time behaving in the same way. We display differing characteristics dependent on the context. We see “sheep” behaviours, not questioning, not engaged but just do the job, “yes” behaviours where we cant say no, refuse to stand up for ourselves, take on too much workload without asking for help, “alien” behaviours are where we moan about the job, the management, the product, the politics etc, using blame language and then we have “effective” behaviours.

Effective followers are brave and courageous, willing to take on their own learning, able to get out of their comfort zone easily, constantly looking to grow through the giving and receiving of feedback, willing to question in order to understand and obviously take huge levels of personal responsibility. They set their own goals; do not see a hierarchy in the company, just different people doing different jobs. They support others unconditionally, are loyal and dynamic.

The truth is it is an aspirational state; no-one is effective all of the time. Indeed we came up with a fifth label which is “survivor” behaviour, which is where most of us spend most of our time, checking if it is safe before making the leap.

If we make a comparison between the private sector and state, which are the differences between types? What kind of people are found, mainly in the “field” state?

Within state run organisations there has been a tendency for the culture to be very hierarchical and as such a very dependent culture tends to exist. Historically people were very much kept in their roles, were given tasks to complete and not expected to contribute much beyond the task. Nor was there much incentive for anyone to question whether what they are doing is the right thing or the best way of going about it. Hence these organisations tend to have a very high proportion of “yes” and “sheep” behaviour; very compliant but not fully engaged and certainly not dynamic, hence the organisations are hardly tapping the potential of their most valuable resource, their people.

In the private sector there is far more opportunities for individuals to be effective, to be creative and to be dynamic. The importance of hitting the number and getting the job done as efficiently as possible certainly helps, but it also acts as a hindrance.  The over reliance on performance metrics mean we have built organisations on an efficient management base, but the skills and environment to develop the corporate team from the most basic of structures to a peak performing organisation are lacking. Leadership in this context is the foundation. Great teams develop beyond simple „hero” leader positions through „teamship” to „followership” where the team no longer relies on the manager / leader for them to be the best they can be. Think of great sports teams; they are never reliant on one hero leader but appear to have a whole team of hero leaders in the side.

Who is playing the most important role, leader for follower or vice versa?

This is quite easy for me; the most important role is the follower without question! The reason for this is that in our research we discovered one simple but dramatic fact. People do not follow leaders per say, they follow effective followers. So even if the leader has a great idea, most people will look to each other before they decide to follow. It takes the courage of the effective follower to create the movement. Of course we are not saying a leader is not required, it is very important that someone is doing the leadership task, thinking strategically about tomorrow and setting the vision, but in the context that effective followership applies to all employees, without question followership is the key determinant of success. Take RBS or some of the other big banks that took the world economies to brink of collapse. They were all led by hero leaders and supported by “sheep” or “yes” follower behaviours and as a consequence the companies were ruined.

The man ahead is certainly made through the effective support of those behind. This concept is about bottom up leadership, not top down. Effective followers hold their leaders to account, which means that leaders have to work really hard to keep ahead of the game and remain effective themselves. In truth there is little difference between effective leaders and effective followers, they are one and the same individual, but remember the core basis of leadership is the ability to lead self, something we all too often ignore. If we had teams of self-leaders, willing to take responsibility for their actions and results then how much more powerful would our organisations be. We just spend no time developing these skillsets within individuals, very much to our corporate cost.

Why is so important the role of “star” followers?

I am not sure if this is a label that is out there by another author, but our label is effective followers. I refer to my answer above; people do not follow leaders they follow effective followers, hence it is important that an organisation has a stock of people who are able to be more effective more of the time at all levels within the company. It is they that will determine how much potential is released within the company.

“Lead me, follow me or get out of my way” (Gen. George Patton) – In what position in company you see Patton after such an expression?

The comment is a very strong and powerful encapsulation of effective followership. He will be led and will take the responsibility to lead, and will give little time to those who want to resist change, stay as they are and complain. Lets keep moving!

It is interesting as part of our research we looked at a number of organisations and their ability to develop effective followership and one organisation stood out among most others and that was the British Army! We have a historic view that the military require “sheep” followers, do the task and obey the orders, but in reality in today’s military it is quite the opposite. Soldiers are trained, in non conscript, volunteer armies, to think for themselves for in the heat of battle they have to make life changing decisions in the moment and need to feel empowered to do so. This comes from confidence in them and in those around them and a full understanding of what they need to do to achieve the aim (result).

A leader can not exist when people know about it, when his work was accomplished, his goals achieved, people will say: we did it ourselves” – there are such situations in multinational companies in the world? Can you give some examples? How effective is such a model for a multi national?

This question gets to the heart of one of the interferences that prevent leaders from becoming effective followers themselves. It is the willingness to drop ego. A leader who craves the adulation of others is inherently weak and vulnerable; the quiet man (or woman) behind is the one who holds true power and influence. It should be a leaders mission that those who work with them are able to stand up and say “we” did this. Why does the leader need the recognition? Is their self-regard so low? Most leaders of multi nationals understand this.

How many can you list? They tend to be quiet and unassuming, yet perceptive, strong and effective. The ones who are noisy will have other traits that compensate, though no one is perfect! Additionally think of our families? What would we think of the parent who constantly felt the need to say, “I did that” when talking about their child’s achievements? Ridiculous? May be not when you see the behaviour of many of those who are put into positions of leadership within the corporate world, especially middle managers within multi nationals!

Equally interestingly the one profession where we struggled to find a lot of strong effective follower behaviours being displayed was politics! Now if we look at this profession it is full of ego, dogma and people who crave the spotlight and perceived power and is riddled with individuals who appear non authentic.

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