Guest Opinon: The growing power of followers
Friday, March 01, 2013 7:00 AM
The balance of power between leaders and followers has shifted - away from the leaders.
That’s the belief of Barbara Kellerman, founding executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who talks about the issue in her book “The End of Leadership.”
Kellerman, whom you can hear speak on March 6 as part of the Chrysalis Conversations speaker series, maintains that as a result of cultural evolution and technological revolution, leaders have become weaker and followers have become stronger, which has created a more level playing field.
Culturally, Kellerman describes how families have changed, roles have become more equally divided, and many parents act as friends rather than authority figures. In many organizations, hierarchies have almost disappeared, leading to a lack of respect for authority. With flatter and networked organizations composed of knowledge workers, it is not always clear who is leading and who is following. Kellerman points out how Peter Drucker in his 1967 book “The Effective Executive” sagely predicted that “in a time of knowledge workers, rather than manual workers, expertise can — and often does — trump position as an indicator of who is really leading and who is really following.”
Evidence of the decline in respect for authority is everywhere. Political, educational and business leaders are all struggling to lead.
Kellerman points out how followers demand more and leaders give in more often. It used to be that people with authority, knowledge and experience had the credibility. In our current culture, the followers are gaining the power.
We see this growing trend of people being allowed to cast votes to decide the winners in competitions such as “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” and “The Voice.” People are becoming accustomed to voicing their opinions on blogs and websites. We look at what people say on Trip Advisor when we make reservations and we pay attention to their advice, even though they are anonymous to us.
Our freedom of expression has exploded with invention of social networking platforms.People at all levels feel a sense of entitlement and empowerment. But technology is a double-edged sword. It can separate us or it can bring us together, and leaders need to understand the context in which they are operating.
Kellerman concludes that leading in the current context must involve learning about followership and learning how to follow. She calls this developing contextual intelligence, which is another paradigm shift.
Research indicates that many employees are currently staying in their positions and playing it safe because of the economy. But as the economy improves, retaining key employees will be more difficult.
Leading has never been easy, but it has become even more difficult because of these cultural and technological changes. Kellerman is adamant that learning about followers should be an important part of leadership development.
Followers have power and influence, and leaders need to understand how leading has changed. ?
Jann Freed, Ph.D., is a leadership development and change management consultant at The Genysys Group.
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