The Normalization of Followership

When my book Followership was originally published, in 2008, the word, “followership,” was almost unheard of. So rarely was it used that when I typed it into my computer a red underline promptly appeared, signaling a misspelling. Though “followership” remains rather an uncommon conception, those days are over. My computer is fine with “followership,” recognizing that at least it’s entered the lexicon.    

What’s remarkable these days is that despite followers increasingly frequently driving the action, our fixation on leadership remains. Look around you and you’ll see what I mean. In every liberal democracy – that is, everywhere followers are not oppressed and suppressed – often as not it is followers who are leading and leaders who are following.

I define followers as people without obvious sources of power, authority, or influence. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – “yellow vests” – have changed the politics of France. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – British voters – have driven Great Britain to the precipice of Brexit. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – Catholic laity – have forced the Vatican to cope with the crisis of priestly abuse. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – residents of New York City – have forced Amazon to retreat from its plan to build in Queens. In recent weeks people without obvious sources of power, authority, and influence – Venezuelans – have marched by the tens of thousands to push from his perch President Nicolas Maduro.

I could go on. But the point’s been made. How is it possible at this moment in time to fixate on leadership to the exclusion of followership? It’s not – the importance of followers is screamingly obvious. Followership has been normalized.   

What’s the Difference Between “Leadership” and “Management”?

The question dates back decades.  In a 1977 article in the Harvard Business Review, leadership expert Abraham Zaleznik argued that whereas managers were supposed to focus on competence and control, leaders were expected to enlighten and inspire. * Not many years later, another leadership expert, Warren Bennis, sounded a similar theme – one that similarly depicted the manager as a bit of a hack and the leader a creature of a higher order. For example, in Bennis’s lexicon the manager was an administrator, the leader an innovator; the manager was a copy, the leader an original. You get the idea.   

Since then, the distinctions between the words “leader” and “manager” have remained frustratingly opaque. Well into the 21st century we are still failing in the main to define “leadership” and “management.” We are still neglecting in the main to distinguish between them. And we are still continuing in the main to use them interchangeably. It’s embarrassing, really, that in corporate America and even in business and professional schools, we still use the words as if they were synonymous, as if leaders and managers were one and the same.

In my most recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I railed against this, concluding that “most institutions and organizations have simply thrown in the towel on this one.” They don’t “take the time or the trouble to define the two words, or to distinguish between them, or to use them in ways that are clear and consistent.” Among my several concerns was the leadership industry confusing precisely those clients and students to whom, ostensibly, we provide a service. Hence, I argued, “this has to stop.”   

This is not a problem requiring a rocket scientist. The way to distinguish between leadership and management is to declare once and for all that, by definition, the former implies a service component while the latter does not. In other words, ethics plays a part. There should be no leadership education, training, or development that does not require a demonstrable commitment to serving others.  

Even in the year since Professionalizing Leadership was published my argument has acquired a newfound resonance.  The reason is the question “what is the purpose of business?” has recently been revisited.  For many years, corporate America has been perfectly satisfied to buy into the proposition (propagated by Milton Friedman) that for a company to pursue anything other than (legal) profit was “pure and unadulterated socialism.” More recently, though, the idea that business has but a single objective has come into question. Why? Precisely because it omits from its calculus the welfare of everyone else – of everyone other than the shareholder. As Andrew Edgecliffe Johnson recently wrote in the Financial Times, “Challenges to Friedman’s model have been gathering momentum. Now…they are starting to converge into something that looks like a new world view, shared by leading executives and investors and shaped by an unlikely alliance of consumers, employees, campaigners, academics and regulators. Together they would …offer a new model for capitalism based on the watchwords of purpose, inclusion and sustainability.” **

The point is that inclusion and redistribution are ideas whose time has come. Which explains why big business is starting, slowly, to pay attention. High time then for the leadership industry to do the same. To recapture the idealism originally associated with “leadership” – and to distinguish it from “management” by tying the former forevermore to service.


*“Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” in Harvard Business Review, January 1977.  HBR reprinted the article in 2004.

** “Beyond the Bottom Line,” FT, January 5, 6, 2019.  

The Leadership Show

You a theatergoer? You like your histrionics dramatic? Comedic? You into carefully crafted staging, precisely designed costuming, maybe a large cast proudly preening before an audience of millions? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, do I have a show for you!

To call last night’s State of the Union occasion kabuki is pushing it. But it’s not too much to say that it was much more about style than substance, much more about medium than message. Every single actor had a part to perform and was hellbent on playing it to the hilt. Every single actor knew that while the moment felt important the evening would soon be forgotten. And every single actor knew that while the spotlight was on the star of the show – whose speech was of course scripted by wordsmiths other than he – behind the scenes were drumbeats. Drumbeats signaling from, for example, the House and Senate, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New York’s Southern District, courtrooms in Washington, New York, and Virginia. Drumbeats signaling that this State of the Union was dramatically different from nearly all which preceded it, and that to normalize it was to betray American fealty to divided government and the rule of law.    

How Change is Created

A few days after posting my most recent blog, on Colin Kaepernick (“The Last Shall be First”), was, coincidentally, an interview in the Harvard Gazette on why civil resistance works. (Link below.) The interview was with Professor Erica Chenoweth, who has long studied the question of why nonviolence is more effective a strategy of change than violence.

Chenoweth named four elements key to a successful nonviolent campaign:

  1. Participation that is large and diverse. Kaepernick? Check.
  2. Some elites who are supportive at least some of the time. Kaepernick? Check.
  3. Variation in the methods of protest. Kaepernick? Check.
  4. Resistance that stays sturdy and sustained. Kaepernick? Check.

The success of Kaepernick’s protest is not a slam dunk. But the silence of his gesture continues to ring in our ears. His protest continues to hover over football. And his supporters continue to remain as steadfast as furious. For all the Super Bowl hoopla, many Americans refused to watch, such as film director Ava DuVernay, who accused the National Football League of “racist treatment” of Kaepernick.  

Stay tuned. Football season is over. But this story is not.      

Last Shall be First – Colin Kaepernick

I have no idea where he is today… watching the Big Game from home, from a friend’s house, at a bar?  I don’t, in fact, know much of anything about him. But I do know this: that while Tom Brady will live forever in American sports history, it is Colin Kaepernick will live forever in American political history.

Kaepernick’s now fabled gesture – a silent act protesting the police shootings of unarmed black Americans – has had a resonance that probably he never originally imagined. Two years later today’s Super Bowl happening is still reflecting the depth of Kaepernick’s impact on the American psyche. Not on the field – he’s not even playing pro ball these days. But during the Super Bowl’s fabled half time show, which will be greatly diminished by acts of solidarity by, among others, Rihanna, who refused to perform, reportedly citing Kaepernick as the reason why.

Instead of standing for the national anthem, as he was of course expected to do, Kaepernick kneeled, publicly, visibly, even ostentatiously. It was brilliant stroke that would’ve done the giants of nonviolent resistance proud – and that likely will forever linger.

T-Rex vs. T-Rex – Tech Titans Duke it Out

It’s rare in corporate America for two at the top to take each other on – in public. In a brawl that’s becoming increasingly up close and personal; increasingly nasty and even ugly; increasingly consistent and persistent. In short, now there’s no mistaking it: Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, and Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, hate each other!

They’ve been fighting for years, ostensibly about how their respective companies use consumer data. Facebook famously vacuums user data to power its advertising business, which, despite a recent slew of negative publicity, continues to print money. Apple, equally famously, claims to take the high ground – it objects to the commoditization of user data while loudly protecting the privacy of its customers.

But, it’s one thing for these two behemoths to take each other on because of their ideological differences – one man, one company, believes one thing to be right and good and true; while the other man, the other company, believes another thing to be right and good and true. What’s unusual about this situation is how personal this fight has become. What began as a difference of opinion has escalated into something considerably more. Man-to-man fighting; tit for tat combat; trading barbs that increasingly careen from professional quarrel into personal insult. For those among you who best like their wrestling in the mud, stay tuned.            >

Leader Wanted. No Experience Required.

Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz has announced he’s considering running for president as an independent. The mere thought horrifies the chattering classes, the majority of whom want nothing so much as to dump Trump. They worry that absent major changes to the electoral system, a Schultz candidacy could siphon enough votes away from the Democratic nominee to bestow on the incumbent a second term.     

True. But the signal problem with a man like Schultz running for the nation’s highest office is that he’s a rank amateur. He’s a total novice at government service which should be – but apparently is not – an immediate disqualifier.   

It’s less outrageous than it is nuts. We wouldn’t dream of hiring someone with no experience whatsoever as a plumber to repair our toilet. We wouldn’t dream of paying someone to cut our hair who had no experience whatsoever with a scissor. We wouldn’t dream of having someone drive our car who had no experience whatsoever behind a wheel.

What’s the matter with Schultz that he thinks he can be leader of the free world just because he was leader of a coffee company? What the matter with us that we think an unmitigated neophyte like Schultz should be given the time of day?

Followers Lead… Poof! The Shutdown is Over!

Hate to say, “I told you so.” But I can’t resist. I can’t resist reminding that in my previous blog I pointed out that, inexplicably, even those most affected by the government shutdown had been content to be quiet for over a month. Content to “accept the hand they were dealt without disrupting the lives of others.” Content instead to “shut up while being shut down.”

Predictably, once this changed so did the dynamic. Once the apparently powerless seized power by refusing reliably to show up for work, the leadership class, including the previously impervious president, caved.

It was aviation industry workers, especially air traffic controllers, who turned the tide. As soon as it became apparent that thousands of travelers had been obliged to endure significant delays, and that airports were threatening to turn chaotic if normal operations were not immediately restored, it was over. Within hours President Trump announced a deal to reopen the government.

An vivid reminder that power and influence are fluid – that they reside entirely in the hands of leaders only if followers are enablers.

Shutting Down and Shutting Up

It’s a reflex. When things go wrong, we mindlessly blame those at the top. We blame leaders for whatever our misfortunes – and for their wrongheadedness, their misguidedness, their cluelessness. So, in the case of the government shutdown, depending on our point of view, we fault President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and, it goes without saying, Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.

But what if we took just a bit more time and trouble to see leadership for what it really is. Leadership is a relationship. Leadership is a relationship that requires at least two people: one leader and one follower. Which is why it’s as impossible as illogical to isolate the one from the other, to blame leaders entirely for what goes wrong while exonerating entirely followers.

In the case of the government shutdown, who are the followers? To keep it simple I’ll put them into just two groups: first, the public at large; second, the approximately 800,000 government workers who have been directly and dramatically affected, who have showed up at work but not been paid.

Which raises the question of how these two groups have responded to the longest government shutdown in American history. The answer? By and large they, we, have done nothing. We the people have, mostly, played the part of bystanders. Federal employees have, mostly, played the part of victims. Only in the last few days are we starting to hear steadier drumbeats of protest – from, for example, the FBI Agents Association, the Coast Guard Commandant, and Kentucky union leaders representing prison workers – but the impact of these isolated instances so far has been low. Put simply, followers, even those who’ve been shafted, have, generally, been willing to accept the hand they’ve been dealt without disrupting the lives of others.

Contrast this to what happened last week in Los Angeles, when over 30,000 public school teachers went on strike, effectively shutting down one of the nation’s largest school systems. What they did was so intrusive and even injurious to the city and its citizens that within 6 days the strike was settled, with teachers getting significant concessions.

It’s a conventional wisdom that the heyday of the American labor movement is long since over. Which is just one of the reasons why those of us in the Leadership Industry have a responsibility to teach the theory of followership along with the theory of leadership, and the practice of good followership along with the practice of good leadership.


A Great Leader

Who is a great leader?  The answer is, of course, “it depends.” It depends on what we mean when we say, “great.” It depends on what we mean when we say, “leader.” And it depends on whether who is asking the question and who is giving the answer share values somewhat similar.

But, every now and then someone comes along who breaks this general rule. Who by virtually every definition of the word “leader,” and by virtually every definition of the word “great,” and by virtually every conception of what is meant when the words “great” and “leader” are paired, fits the bill. Such a man died this week. His name was John Bogle.

Though he lived a long time, and though his impact on the American consumer was immeasurable, Bogle’s was not a household name. Mostly this was because his interest was not in fame or in wealth, and because he eschewed any kind of personal aggrandizement or professional ostentation. Nevertheless, among those who pay attention to how ordinary people protect their assets in the generally rapacious financial services industry, Bogle’s name was legend. He is the man credited with devising and then popularizing the low-cost index mutual funds that put billions more dollars into the pockets of millions more people. People who would otherwise have been charged high fees for services that were somewhat similar – though riskier as well as more expensive.

By the time he died, index funds, once tagged “Bogle’s folly,” constituted almost 50% of all mutual-fund assets. But the ultimate measure of the man is not quantitative, but qualitative. Personally, he was of the highest integrity, an exemplar of a man with a strong moral compass. Professionally, his contribution was transformative, enabling generations to save efficiently and to achieve financial security.

John Bogle was by any conceivable measure great. And he was by any conceivable definition a leader.