Is Leadership Overrated? How About Follwership?

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2017 McKnight-Kaney.

© 2017 Richard McKnight

© 2017 Richard McKnight

TODAY'S NEW YORK TIMES HAD AN ARTICLE by Susan Cain, noted author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. She raises an interesting question in the title of the piece: “Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.” Her perspective is on college admissions and urges us in the view that we are overdoing it when it comes to insisting on leadership as an admissions criterion. She is on to something but I think the argument needs some nuance.

Cain writes, “It’s no longer enough to be a member of the student council; now you have to run the school.” She says that many students interpret “‘leadership skills’ as a code for authority and dominance and define leaders as those ‘can order other people around.’”

I have no doubt that authority and dominance is what the term “leadership” means to many college admissions officers because this is the prevailing definition of leadership for nearly everyone. But, P-L-E-A-S-E! After all that has been written about leadership the past thirty years (including by me), can’t we update our thinking?

I don't think the antidote to over-emphasizing domineering leadership qualities among college applicants is to extoll the virtues of “follwership” as Ms. Cain would have us do. Personally, even though my definition of leadership goes well beyond what Cain calls “Type A leaders” (and she misuses even this term), the word “follower” rankles me. 

The alternative to selecting for pushy, domineering leaders is not to look for nor to cultivate followers. I have always maintained that there are many approaches to leadership, arguably as many as there are people. And if you buy the idea that leadership is, in the final analysis, selectively exerting your influence in order to get things done, responsible people never avoid leadership.

I've been engaged to help the faculty of a prestigious College of Engineering define its value proposition and to reflect it in, among other things, its admission process. I am not about to tell the Deans that they should begin looking for followers. Instead, I am encouraging the idea that there are various ways of leading. Ideally, over time, students will learn to do what the assertive, traditional leader does when that is necessary, but also to lead in other ways when that is called for. By one helpful definition—situational leadership—the best leaders survey their social milieu and make a determination of what leader behavior is needed at a given moment, filling the gap if they can. None of this calls for followership; it calls for various kinds of leadership.

Further, the literature of leadership education is filled with four-factor typologies that tell us the various “flavors” leadership comes in. LIFO, for example, says there are Supporting, Controlling, Conserving, and Adapting leaders. DiSC tells us there are Dominant, Interactive, Steady, and Conscientious types. A given individual can one who characteristically and temperamentally leads in a methodical way, seeking clarity and the assurance data provides (Conserving/Steady). Another will be more attentive to social norms and feelings (Adapting/Interactive). None of this is aggressive leadership--nor followership.

The world does need engineer-leaders, but students should be helped to understand just what kind of leadership they are most comfortable providing. We should help round out all students, but we should not be encouraging any student to be a follower, certainly not all of the time.

See a related blog, “Are Humble Leaders Good Leaders?”