Traditionally, archetypal samples would emerge from either the political or the business arena, but in recent years both have been found wanting. Yet, as we face ever more complex and uncertain dilemmas and increasingly vexing wicked problems, there appears to be a greater need to identify and follow strong and powerful leaders.
What worked before?
Isolates: utterly detached and disinterested individuals who keep a low profile, rarely respond to leaders, resent interferences from above, and reinforce the status quo by default
Bystanders: observers who follow passively and let events unfold with little participation, while accepting control from above
Participants: engaged individuals who typically care about their organisation and support their leader with their effort or time when they agree with their vision and views
Activists: eager, energetic and deeply engaged individuals working for the cause and the leader
Die-hards: individuals displaying the highest levels of engagement with the organisation or their cause; all-consuming supporters exhibiting total and absolute engagement
Good followers therefore actively support effective and ethical leaders. It is thus expected that ‘good followers’ would also respond appropriately to bad leaders in the interest of the greater cause and the wider organisation. Kellerman’s chief concern is about mindless, or unquestioning followers, and their impact. Based on historical events, die-hards may agitate and activists may follow blindly and encourage participants to take part, while bystanders may simply allow events, however painful or harrowing, to take place, whilst others choose to ignore the entire scene. Historical precedents offer some credibility to the notion of mapping the level of engagement and
Beyond toxic leadership
Nonetheless, hierarchical structures continue to imply that wisdom, and insights, always descend from above, reflecting Plato’s preference for larger than life philosopher-kings endowed with charm, vision and forcefulness as rulers. Modern society affords a greater belief in the power of groups and in the ability of collections of individuals to get together, participate, engage, identify new concerns and propose alternative courses of action (Dalcher, 2015). But what is their remit? And what is their scope for doing right?
Keith Grint (2000) offers a panoramic view of multiple successful leaders, encompassing profiles of political and military figures such as Horatio Nelson, business tycoons such as Richard Branson and Henry Ford and other well-recognised historical figures including Florence Nightingale and Martin Luther King. While the book may well celebrate their successes, Grint opts instead to feature their propensity to fail and make mistakes. What appears to distinguish those we regard as successful leaders is their cadre of followers who support and cover up for them. Grint therefore concludes, that ‘the trick of the leader is to develop followers who privately resolve the problems leaders have caused or cannot resolve, but publicly deny their intervention.’ (Grint, 2000; p. 420)
In subsequent work, Keith Grint (2010) invokes Karl Popper as a proponent of an alternative and counter-intuitive approach that focuses on the inherent weakness of leaders and the need to inhibit, restrain and accommodate such deficit:
‘Karl Popper provides a firmer foundation for this in his assumption that, just as we can only disprove rather than prove scientific theories, so we should adopt mechanisms that inhibit leaders rather than surrender ourselves to them.’ (Grint, 2010; p. 101)
Interpreting the writing with a contemporary lens implies an intellectual revolution in the way we view and react to leaders and leadership. It calls for moral and responsible judgement thereby transforming the more transactional nature of the association between superior and subjects into an ethically and morally meaningful relationship.
Popper is thus cognisant of the potential risk of not deploying fully engaged, forever questioning and scrupulously uncompromising followers:
‘Otherwise, although omniscient leaders are a figment of irresponsible followers’ minds and utopian recruiters’ fervid imaginations, when subordinates question their leader’s direction or skill，these (in)subordinates are usually replaced by those ‘more aligned with the current strategic thinking’ – otherwise known as yes people. In turn, such subordinates become transformed into irresponsible followers whose advice to their leader is often limited to destructive consent: they may know that their leader is wrong, but there are all kinds of reasons not to say as much, hence they consent to the destruction of their own leader and possibly their own organization too.’ (Grint, 2010; p. 101-2)
The simple reframing places followers in a much more critical position, emphasising their role in securing and maintaining the enduring success of their mission, team, kingdom or empire. Drawing on Popper’s proposition, good followership can thus be redefined around the ability to correct, steer and guide the leader towards securing improved outcomes, better alignment and more informed consent through the creative power of the wider group or community. This could perhaps be done by invoking the principles of teaming (for further information, see, Dalcher, 2018), by resorting to building greater trust (Dalcher, 2017), or through the use of social media, which seems to be creating a shift in the balance of power between leaders and followers (Kellerman, 2012).