Book review: Follow the leader (or not)

Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders

By Barbara Kellerman

Harvard Business Press, $32.95

I'm not laughing. And I'm not having fun.

Five minutes ago, I was having a great time. I'm at a volunteer appreciation dinner and learning the hard way there's no such thing as a free meal.

Printed at the bottom of the menu is a teaser about tonight's keynote speaker. She's a laughter consultant. I vaguely remember watching something on TV or YouTube where hundreds of otherwise normal people meet in a park and laugh. No stand-up comedy. No jokes. Just spontaneous laughter. Kind of creepy.

While scarfing back butter tarts and brownies, I ask the executive director if we'll be doing a group laugh before the night is done.

"Why, you'll just have to wait and see," says the executive director, which is code for "of course we are and you're not allowed to leave".

Plates are cleared and the keynote speaker swings into action. We're taken back in time to the mid-1980s for a quick recycling of Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Relieved and giddy at not having to get out of my seat, I enthusiastically tell the folks at my table that one of the habits is about sharpening the saw. "Good for you," my tablemates say. "That's very interesting."

The speaker then sets out a seven-day regime of loving ourselves and starring in our life's movie. "I'm thinking of casting George Clooney," I tell my tablemates. "That would make your wife very happy," they say.

And then it happens. Two words are spoken that no introvert ever wants to hear at a public event. Audience participation.

Stand up, says the keynote speaker. Stand up and prepare to laugh like you've never laughed before. Sadly, this is a dry event. Happily, there's a cash bar at a different event in the next room over. Sadly, I have $2.23 in my pocket and my wallet is under the driver's seat in my minivan parked across the street.

So we laugh. And laugh. And laugh. We walk up to fellow volunteers and laugh in each other's faces. And if that wasn't bad enough, we have to laugh and dance. We're told to dance like penguins, hysterical penguins who've found gallows humour in climate change and melting ice caps. The only funny thing is that my manic penguin moves mimic the three times in my life when I've actually tried dancing in public.

The minutes crawl by and then go off somewhere to die. Slowly, I work my way to the back of the room and try without success to live in the movement and shift paradigms.

I've never been good at playing reindeer games, ice breakers and team-building exercises.

But that's not to say I'm a lousy follower. Give me a good leader and a great cause and I'm there, ready and willing to help however I can. As much as I don't like playing games, I absolutely hate sitting on fences. What can I do to help is the right question. Something should be done is always the wrong answer.

According to author Barbara Kellerman, that makes me an activist-type follower. The Harvard School of Government lecturer has defined five types of followers based on their levels of engagement.

Isolates are completely detached. They don't know or care about leaders or causes. "By knowing nothing and doing nothing, isolates strengthen still leaders who already have the upper hand," says Kellerman.

Bystanders know what's going on but choose not to get involved. They're withdrawn and disengaged from leaders and group dynamics.

Participants are in some way engaged. They clearly support their leaders, groups and organizations of which they're members. They care enough to try to have an impact.

Activists are heavily invested, feel strongly about their leaders and act accordingly. They're eager, energetic and engaged.

Diehards are deeply devoted and have an all-consuming dedication to their leaders or a cause.

The engagement of participants, activists and diehards cuts both ways. Disappoint these followers or get out of alignment with their values and they'll pull their support or refocus their energies on removing you from office.

Good followers get personally involved and support good leaders. Bad followers do nothing, support bad leaders or go out of their way to trip up ethical leaders who are serving the greater good.

According to Kellerman, we overestimate the significance of leaders and underestimate, dismiss and devalue followers. "Undeterred by the fact that leaders and followers are inextricably enmeshed, each defined by and dependent on the other, we continue to dwell on the first and dismiss the second."

Leadership development is a multi-billion dollar industry. Chances are, your workplace offers leadership training but nothing on how to be a more effective and engaged follower. And when was the last time you went to a summit or community group think for followers instead of the usual suspects from leadership ranks?

But the balance is shifting from superiors to subordinates thanks to the authority-challenging cultural revolution of the 1960s and the information technology revolution that's still in full swing. Today, anyone anywhere with a laptop and wireless Internet access can connect with like-minded followers and champion or challenge leaders.

"Those who lack obvious sources of power, authority and influence are not usually helpless. Many can and do find ways of being heard. In the real world, followers have an impact. They have an impact if the role they play is a supporting one, or if they break rank, or even if they do nothing. Thinking leadership without thinking followership is not merely misleading, it is mistaken."

This is one of the best books so far of 2008 and well worth the read on two counts. One, Kellerman shows you why and how to be a better follower at work. And two, you'll rediscover why you have a moral responsibility to be a better follower in your community. Imagine what could happen if the 63 per cent of registered voters who couldn't bother to cast ballots in the last municipal election decided to get involved? If we're serious about making Hamilton an even greater place to live and work, can we really afford to have 213,955 disengaged isolates and bystanders?


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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