The Followership Vacuum

by Rushworth M. Kidder of the Institute for Global Ethics
Over a leisurely iced tea at a sidewalk café in Aspen, Colorado, the U.S. sociologist and author Amitai Etzioni made an eight-word assertion that still rings in my ears.

“The concept of leadership,” he told me, “is 50 percent followership.”

We’d been talking about a society so mired in individualism that it had neglected its sense of community. In Etzioni’s terms, a “me-istic” culture had edged out the “we-ness” that unites people into groups and builds followership. “The reason we don’t have great leaders at the moment,” he noted, “is that the followership is not ready.”

His words have never been truer, but here’s the kicker: Our conversation took place 25 years ago. In the intervening years, leadership has become a buzzword — and a profit center. Since he and I talked in the mid-1980s, the institutions that teach and develop leadership have created an industry worth an estimated $50 billion.

At the same time, followership has slowly been coming to the fore. Leadership guru Warren Bennis noted in 1993 that “the longer I study effective leaders, the more I am convinced of the underappreciated importance of effective followers.” And Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman, in her 2008 book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, writes that “so long as we fixate on leaders at the expense of followers, we will perpetuate the myth that [followers] don’t matter much…. In fact, as a result of forces now converging, followers are more important than ever before.”

Yet for all that effort, something’s still amiss. Ask people today how they feel about their leaders and you’ll hear a lot of raspberries. Last December, Gallup found that Congress was viewed unfavorably by 83 percent of the public — the highest negative rating in more than 30 years of polling. Rasmussen Reports finds that House speaker John Boehner is viewed favorably by only 45 percent of the electorate. Even President Obama commands only a 53 percent favorability rating, according to Gallup. Things are even worse beyond the political arena. Ask about the honesty and ethics of corporate executives, lawyers, bankers — the typical leader-generating professions — and the responses border on outright scorn.

These ratings speak to Prof. Etzioni’s point. Favorability doesn’t measure a leader’s skill, effectiveness, or influence. It measures the willingness of a leader’s constituency to follow his or her lead. Seen that way, even the president’s 53 percent favorability is hardly a bugle call for followership.

And that raises a key question. Has this $50 billion leadership investment been misspent? Have we overdosed on leadership programs teaching that success means standing out from others and having power over the pack — programs that create the illusion that everyone who isn’t a leader is a failure? Along the way, have we so undernourished our sense of followership that students equate “we-ness” with weakness and aspire to the competitive “me-istic” model of looking out for #1?

Part of the problem comes from the notion that leaders and followers are polar opposites — that you’re either one or the other. In truth, all of us fill both roles. The school principal pulled over for running a traffic light is, at that moment, no longer leading: He’s under the authority of an officer with a badge. When the county commissioner drives her son to soccer practice, she’s not in charge of where she must park or whether he’s committed a foul. When the corporate CEO sits on a library board chaired by someone else, he’s not the leader. And if the hospital’s chief surgeon forgets to book her vacation flights before the seats sell out — tough.

But where, in their training, are leaders reminded of these multiple hats? Where have they learned that, in this multidimensional thing called life, they’re leaders in one thing but followers in many? If that fact hasn’t been made clear, should we be surprised when those trained as leaders muscle in and try to lead when they ought to follow — belittling the cop, booing the ref, browbeating the board chair, or berating the travel agent? If they were taught only how to become #1, what made us think they’d know how to act when they’re #2?

Don’t mistake my point: I’m all for success and I think leadership programs are hugely important. But when they cultivate excessive individualism, they tilt the table dangerously away from community — and therefore from ethics. Ethics, after all, is not egocentric but sociocentric. It arises more easily in those who think about others than in those who brood about their own personal goals. Identify yourself as a leader, and it’s tempting to claim exceptions that don’t apply to others — to put yourself above the law. Identify yourself as a follower, and it’s hard to avoid the values of respect and responsibility and the habits of obedience and humility that bind us to one another and to community.

That may be why so many leadership training programs only now are beginning to include an ethics component — and why they find it difficult to do so. After all, ethics goes against the “me-istic” grain. If we teach leaders to respect followership only so that they can become even better at controlling others, we’ve missed the point. Followership isn’t a means to somebody else’s end. It’s the essence of community-building — which, in the end, is what good leadership is all about.

©2011 Institute for Global Ethics