Leadership Without Followership

When I try to persuade people of the importance of followership my effort is often in vain.  It’s hard to make the case that leaders without followers likely will go nowhere. Notwithstanding the logic of the argument, notwithstanding the objective evidence, in general people are still persuaded that the leader is all. We remain, in other words, leader-centric, reluctant to accept the proposition that without sufficient numbers of followers the leader is nothing.

This fundamental principle came again to mind when reading Dale Russakoff’s suburb article in the New Yorker title, “Schooled.” (See link below.) It is a carefully researched, thoroughly persuasive piece about how and why schools in Newark have remained so resistant to change, so miserably poor in their overall performance. This in spite of the fact that behind recent reform efforts has stood a sparkling cast of characters including former Newark Mayor Cory Booker, incumbent New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Facebook Mogul Mark Zuckerberg – the last of whom has put a lot of money where his mouth is.

At least one of the major problems – arguably the major problem – is that all those lustrous leaders from on high have failed to bring in, bring along, bring on board followers from below. The people were left out of the process or, at least, they themselves did not feel part of the process – so they fought and they balked. In other words, notwithstanding all that talent and all that money, the process itself was experienced as exclusionary.

Russakoff makes clear that all is not lost – some solutions may be closer than any of the warring sides is willing to acknowledge. But until the various leaders, many of whom are outsiders, engage the various followers, all of whom are insiders, in tough and open conversations even the best-intentioned efforts are likely to stay stalled. As one close observer put it, all too often education reform “comes across as colonial to people who’ve been here for decades. It’s very missionary, imposed, done to people rather than in cooperation with people.”

Bottom line is that those days are now over. However frustrating and cumbersome sometimes the process, leaders engaging followers is part of the deal – unless, of course, the system is autocratic, not democratic.




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