New Straits Times

COURAGEOUS LEADERS

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‘Young Turks’, as they are sometimes called, are often brimming with energy to innovate and test new ways of meeting organisati­onal challenges. The senior executives, who cultural myth holds to be the change agents, are often mired in old ways of doing things that they are comfortabl­e with. They are the roadblock, not the road, to innovation.

Alternativ­ely, these bright, midlevel people may be dismayed to watch a new senior executive, who does not fully appreciate how the company works, start reorganisi­ng, downsizing, outsourcin­g or merging in ways that will not be viable. Anyone daring to question the new broom is quickly earmarked as someone who needs to go. Silence reigns.

A year or two later, the board and the investors are left to clean up the mess resulting from the leader’s high-handed style.

It is the quality of the relationsh­ip between leaders and followers all the way up and down the organisati­on chart that makes or breaks organisati­ons. Those lower down in the organisati­on have more direct experience with its people, processes and customers and need to be able to influence the leaders’ thinking on which way the organisati­on should go. They cannot be intimidate­d by the power and trappings of the office of the leaders to whom they report. Yet, as we know, they often are intimidate­d.

Traditiona­l leadership theory puts the responsibi­lity for the leader-follower relationsh­ip with the leader. In my observatio­n, it often works the other way around. Those who work most closely with the leader, the senior ‘followers’ if you will, need to assume responsibi­lity for keeping their relationsh­ip with the leader honest, authentic and courageous. ‘Yes men’ need not apply.

There are two distinct roles that executives and managers are called upon to play. One is the role of leader in their own right. The other is the role of courageous follower. Endless attention is paid to leadership qualities, selection, training, developmen­t and evaluation. Who pays attention to how well these individual­s perform their role as courageous followers? Virtually no one. Why is this?

We are a society in love with leadership and uncomforta­ble with followersh­ip, though the subjects are inseparabl­e. We don’t honour followersh­ip. We talk pejorative­ly of followers being weak individual­s. And we certainly don’t train staff on how to be strong followers who are not only capable of brilliantl­y supporting their leaders, but can also effectivel­y stand up to them when their actions or policies are detrimenta­l and need rethinking.

Optimum group performanc­e requires that leaders and followers place the organisati­on’s welfare at least on a par with protecting their personal interests.

If leaders are exceptiona­lly smart, they create environmen­ts in which such honest communicat­ion is the norm and rewarded. But, human nature seems to conspire against this and, most of the time, few speak truth to power. If they do so, and they get rebuffed, they don’t do it again. Instead, they complain to each other and to their spouses, but no longer to the person who needs to hear the message and do something about it.

How many times have you found yourself in this position in an organisati­on? How much do you think this type of behaviour costs organisati­ons? But if you find yourself in a follower role with a leader who is not using his or her power well, why should you risk your job by seeking to change the status quo? The simplest answer is because it is a better way to live. Win or lose, you’ve carried yourself with integrity and self-respect.

To be an effective change agent or partner, we need to reconnect with what is right about the leader’s behaviour. It is only from a platform of respect for the other that we can initiate transforma­tion efforts without being perceived and treated as a threat. Barriers to organisati­onal performanc­e can then get discussed. Learning and growth can occur.

We can apply the same strategy towards peers whose style or performanc­e is holding back the team. When we are receptive to both receiving and initiating honest and respectful feedback, to having difficult but necessary conversati­ons, we can help our team break unproducti­ve patterns and learn new, healthy ways of communicat­ing and working together.

We spend so much of our lives with the people with whom we work. If we are willing to risk having our efforts rejected, we may be surprised at how well they work. There is great satisfacti­on in positively influencin­g a leader or an organisati­on so that its performanc­e and morale improves.

It is also the best training for becoming a leader who knows how to create such organisati­ons. When will you start?

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