Feckless Followers – at Toshiba

Compared to the subject of leadership, the subject of followership languishes. While the contributions of good followers and the consequences of bad followers are more widely appreciated than they used to be, the impact of those who are other than leaders is undervalued and ununderstood. If leadership is the belle of the ball, followership remains the stepchild, languishing out of the limelight.

The foolishness, the obtuseness, of this view was driven home again this week by what happened at Toshiba, the Japanese industrial and electronics giant that was discovered to have overstated its profits by more than $1.2 billion over a period of seven years.

When the news about one of Japan’s biggest ever accounting scandals broke, several of Toshiba’s most highly placed executives, including CEO Hisao Tanaka, resigned, apologized, and bowed publicly in contrition. In further keeping with Japanese culture and custom, Tanaka admitted at a packed press conference that Toshiba had suffered under his leadership, “what could be the biggest erosion of our brand image in our 140-year history.”

There is no question that in their attempt to inflate profits, Tanaka and other top Toshiba leaders engaged in a multi-year cover-up. But there is equally no question that they were not the only ones guilty of wrongdoing. Other employees, numberless subordinates, were cowed by their superiors and the corporate culture into keeping quiet, into concealing information that ideally they should have made public. In their recently released report, independent investigators concluded that mid-level managers had, however reluctantly, colluded in the wrongdoing by helping to cook the books.

I do not for a moment minimize the situation in which these mid-level managers, these subordinates, found themselves. The context was such that resistance to their superiors must have seemed impossible, maybe even unthinkable. But there is a literature on followership that makes clear that ordinary people are not immune from responsibility for bad outcomes. As Ira Chaleff puts it in his recent book, Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told to do is Wrong, “we must develop the capacity to not only speak our truth… but to act on our truth … when authority is misusing power.” To do anything less is to join bad leaders by becoming bad followers – a truth about people without power no less important than similar truths about people with.



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