Let’s Talk Leaders, Followers, Team Players…

In her opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times on leaders and followers, Susan Cain examines the over-emphasis of “leadership skills” in college admissions, which we can easily see is a troubling trend in society at large and of course, politics.

Leadership is more than a talent for speaking, much less for attracting followers. Leadership effectivenessdepends on good teams, and while Ms. Cain does not make this distinction, team players are not the same as followers in today’s parlance.

It’s impossible to read Ms. Cain’s column without considering the events of this past election cycle, not to mention the first few months of the new administration.

It’s impossible not to consider how social media consumes our time, shapes our values, and reinforces a set of beliefs we “follow.”

It’s impossible not to think about how we, personally, define leadership — the words that come to mind like vision, integrity, intelligence, judgment, discipline, charisma.

As Ms. Cain reflects on the rigid model of leadership we tend to perpetuate (as represented by soccer team captain or senior class president), she reminds us of the danger in everyone shooting for the mantle of Top Dog. She writes:

The outsize glorification of “leadership skills”… empties it of meaning. It attracts those who are motivated by the spotlight rather than by the ideas and people they serve.

Service. Remember that? Aren’t leaders supposed to serve, especially elected leaders?

Have We Forgotten What Leadership Is?

The qualities and behaviors that define leadership vary widely. Typically, we think of great speakers who can inspire, though they may not worry too much about the details.

Power. It’s an important element of leadership, and a whole other discussion…

Then there’s moral leadership — something too easily forgotten — most of us think of MLK and Ghandi.

According to Harvard Business Review, we see eight archetypes of leadership in organizations:

the strategist (leadership as a game of chess)… the change catalyst (leadership as a turnaround activity)… the transactor (leadership as deal making)… the builder (leadership as an entrepreneurial activity)… the innovator (leadership as creative idea generation)… the processor (leadership as an exercise in efficiency)… the coach (leadership as a form of people development)… the communicator (leadership as stage management).

HBR also notes “the various roles executives play” and offers this little nugget:

… it is a lack of fit between a leader’s archetype and the context in which he or she operates that is a main cause of team and organizational dysfunctionality and executive failure.

Hmmm. Perhaps running a company isn’t quite the same as “running” the government after all… But I digress…

Loudest Voice? Smartest Voice? Flashiest Follower List?

When discussing leadership, we often refer to charisma — that inexpressible “something” that catches our fancy and holds it. I might prefer the term inspiration, knowing that an inspiring leader is not necessarily a charismatic one and vice versa. Still, Americans like their leaders ballsy, brassy, and preferably good-looking, though these same attributes (except the last) are not taken as positives when it comes to female leaders.

Even when we consider what HBR has to say (above), is the “coach” leadership archetype necessarily the loudest voice or the sexiest one? Is the transactor the smartest in the room, or just the most talented at getting a deal done? Does it really matter who has the flashiest follower list? Better stated, when does it matter?

Every leader doesn’t need to shout, nor surround himself with “followers” to echo his words or populate his virtual armies. (We know that armies — and followers — can be bought. We also understand that some follow out of desperation and others out of conviction. Which would yourather rely on? Again, another discussion.)

As for scoring our leadership capabilities by the number of followers we can lay claim to, whether a crowd at a rally or the latest figures in social media, a “following” is no measure of our good judgment, our true “worth,” or our ability to execute.

Unrealistic and Counterproductive Expectations

Ms. Cain specifically addresses decision-makers in the college admissions process who fail to see the value in different types of leadership — for example, those who will solve critical mathematical problems or create literary gems. Reading between the lines, one can only ask: Where are the great thinkers, the philosophers, the creatives, the dreamers, and simply the talented hard-workers so vital to real achievement? Don’t they have a place in our best schools? Don’t they have a place in our society? A respected and valued place?

If everyone is a leader, who gets the work done? If there are insufficient skills and knowledge to do the heavy lifting of innovation, research, analysis, execution, follow-up, and necessary adjustments — where does that leave us?

Where is the quiet spark of genius allowed to thrive? The genius of the technologist, the musician, or the humorist? Where is the substance behind the rhetoric or the rallying cry?

Seven years ago as one of my sons was struggling with college applications, we were having precisely this conversation. He was dismayed that his accomplishments had little to do with traditional leadership. He felt less valuable than the other candidates he imagined would have been captain of the debate team or senior class president.

At the time, I posed this question: Must everyone be a leader to succeed? And as I wrote then:

If everyone was a leader, who would follow? And if there weren’t independent spirits (driven to pursue their passions and thus fill our world with their scholarly, scientific, and creative output), where would we be then?

Hello, Pied Piper?

Although the title of Ms. Cain’s column is Not Leadership Material? Good, the World Needs Followers, I suggest we clarify the ways in which we use the term “follower” — those who dance in the dust of their chosen Pied Pipers — and those who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work.

These days, we use a “following” to validate far too much; to encounter a person without a following now seems like an oddity. Can we acknowledge that our “followers” have become an exaggerated measure of self-worth, likability, belonging, self-esteem, relevance? That our social media moves are a public declaration of our affinities and values?

Can we admit that followers may, in fact, be a fickle barometer of popularity?

There is no question that followers are useful. But they are also no measure of quality, of “truth” much less fact, of loyalty, of intensity of belief, or any indication of willingness to get up out of a chair and act. As followers, we typically observe from a distance, in a state of relative anonymity, and with little or no skin in the game — certainly from an optics viewpoint. Followers may be fans — for however long that lasts. But more?

Followers as a predictor of what you can accomplish?

Don’t count on it. They — we — are people with interest, with curiosity, with a bone to pick; this is not devotion, not competence, not the same as a team.

Leadership Is Not the Be-All End-All

The value of a great team?

I say — priceless.

A highly functioning team shares accountability, collaborates, works effectively toward common goals; without successful teams, we don’t raise children, design homes, design software, build businesses, build bridges, send dreamers to the moon; we don’t train doctors, treat disease, improve healthcare.

We don’t run governments (effectively); we don’t educate our next generations (well).

And incidentally, let’s remember that women bring different qualities to leadership as well as team participation, topics increasingly addressed in the media — though certainly not frequently enough.

Ms. Cain, expressing the outcry of any thoughtful adult who wants more than adherence to a one-note set of leadership skills, writes:

What if we said to college applicants that the qualities we are looking for are… excellence, passion and the desire to contribute beyond the self? This framework would encompass exceptional team captains and class presidents. But wouldn’t make leadership the be-all and end-all.

To that, as a parent, I say hallelujah on behalf of my child, the creative, who will eventually learn that without his vision and heart, we would all be poorer indeed. I say hallelujah on behalf of myself as a team player, as one who can take the lead when required but more frequently and more happily produces in a consultative context. I say hallelujah as a citizen of a nation that is in desperate need of anything but blind followers. We need true leadership, valued team players, and always, always… independent thinkers who “lead” in their own way.

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