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.


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