If anything goes semi-good, we did it.
If anything goes really good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you!
—Paul “Bear” Bryant (1913 – 1983) was an American college football player and coach. He was best known as the longtime head coach of the University of Alabama football team. During his 25-year tenure as Alabama's head coach, he amassed six national championships and thirteen conference championships. Upon his retirement in 1982, he held the record for most wins as head coach in collegiate football history with 32 wins.
Everyone promotes, praises, and rewards great leadership, but it’s the workers who actually do the work and deliver the product or service, and they’re followers. Over the last twenty years, the types of workers have changed as the nature of work has changed from manufacturing to knowledge based. These changes demand a change in how project teams interact. Leadership training attempts to teach managers actions they should take to motivate teams of workers to accomplish a desired result. It also teaches mangers how to use group dynamics to achieve that result. But in order to be a leader you must have willing followers. The followers are people who (consciously or unconsciously) agree to let the leader make the critical decisions and then follow those decisions to achieve the stated goal.
Most of us have seen projects that failed or fell short of total success because team members didn't fully support the leader. The tendency is to blame the team leader because he didn't motivate the team, but maybe the team members are to blame because they wouldn’t follow the leader.
As a consulting project manager, Allen once managed a cross-functional team for a client company. Two of the team members worked for the same consulting firm I did; the other five members of the team worked for other consulting firms. These five team members approached the project meetings as if they were the general project manager rather than subcontractors. Some of them believed their company should have been hired to manage the total project, but most of them just never learned to follow, and the entire project was hindered because of this. Eventually, the project was completed, but it was a lot harder than it needed to be. Henry Ford said, "Asking ‘who ought to be the boss’ is like asking ‘who ought to be the tenor in the quartet?’ Obviously, the man who can sing tenor." In the same way, at some point the people doing the work must agree on “who can sing tenor” and lead them!
Teams are really about the division of labor. Most managers give lip service to this concept, but they never really understand it. For the typical worker, the division of labor means that he does this part of the work; others do another part of the work; a product or service is created and then I get paid! For the typical manager, the division of labor means that this worker does that part of the work; others do another part of the work; a product or service is created and then I look good! But for the great leader, the division of labor means that he removes most of the obstacles while this worker does that part of the work; others do another part of the work; the product or service is created and everyone succeeds! Scott Adams, the creator of the satirical business cartoon Dilbert™, said, “I’m slowly becoming a convert to the principle that you can’t motivate people to do things; you can only de-motivate them. The primary job of the manager is not to empower but to remove obstacles.”
Most businesses are organized as hierarchies. The people at the top supervise those at the bottom, and the people at the bottom try to please those at the top. In the hierarchy organization, workers are categorized as non-skilled, skilled, professionals, or managers. Workers follow because that's their place in the chain of command. But as the nature of work changes and requires higher education, workers are much more likely to be categorized as professionals or managers.
Work today demands educated workers and those workers are more likely to understand the entire scope of the work as well as many of the other job skills used to complete the work. Many workers today are more ambitious and aspire to be managers, so the old style of management that says, do what I say because I told you, no longer works.
Because of the complex nature of knowledge-based work, workers may have a deeper understanding of the details of the work than their managers do. The higher a manager is within an organization, the less likely he or she fully understands all the intricate details of the work. So the manager must rely on a team of experts for that level of understanding. Sometimes this causes political turf wars as some knowledge-workers hoard their information or won’t cooperate with others when they feel management decisions are wrong. Other times technical power is abused for personal advancement. In either case, the knowledge-worker has never really learned to follow.
Good followership consists of giving our leaders the best of our thinking on every subject and then executing his decisions with our full support. Part of leadership is accepting the team expert's advice and not giving directions that conflict with that advice. Of course, sometimes the advice is to spend $10,000 but the budget is only $5,000; good leadership will clearly explain these constraints to the team. When these types of roadblocks occur, the team may not be able to deliver and the project may not succeed; however, if the team understands the constraints, they may be able to find creative ways to work around the roadblocks in order to arrive at the destination.
Encouraging knowledge-workers to be willing participants means giving ownership of ideas and goals to every team member. It’s hard for followers to support a leader who doesn’t support them. An example of good followership is being a passenger in a car. The passenger accepts that someone else is driving and agrees not to grab the steering wheel. The passenger can advise the driver about faster routes or dangers on the road, but they trust the driver to make the right decisions and get them to their destination safely. But the passenger won’t get into a car in the first place unless the driver agrees to take them where they want to go.
A good leader shows they believe in their team members by trusting and supporting them as well as listening to and following their advice. But when a leader decides not to follow the team’s advice, he owes the team an explanation. On the other hand, good followers should give the same support to their leaders that they would want from the other team members. It’s hard for a leader to support followers who won’t support them. This means that there are times when a leader must eliminate a problem team member for the good of the whole team. Leaders must accept responsibility for a team’s failure, but the team gets the credit for its success. Followers usually don't work very hard for a leader who blames the team members for failures but gets all the credit for its success.
Being a good follower is a prerequisite to being a good leader. Most of us will spend the majority of our working careers in followership positions. Constantly second-guessing the leader makes his or her job one-hundred-times harder. By working for an organization, you’re willing to get into the car and allow someone else to drive. So constantly asking, “are we there yet?” only makes the ride miserable.
Think back on the team experiences you had in school or work that were not very good. More than likely, there were team members who didn’t want to cooperate with others making the project harder than it had to be. You may have been one of the unlucky few that had to pick up the slack for those uncooperative team members.
Now think back on the team experiences you had in school or work that achieved outstanding results. Did the team seem to function as efficiently and effectively as a Swiss watch? Remember how great it felt when your team was able to effectively produce something? The cooperation in the team more than likely was due to good followership. By being a good follower, you too could help your team achieve phenomenal results.