The Art of Followership: Business Publications Dedicated to the Analysis and Attributes of Great Leaders Tend to Ignore Half of the Equation. the Nature of Leadership Can Best Be Understood by Turning over the Coin and Studying Followership

Article excerpt

Look on the shelves labelled "Leadership" in your local bookshop and you will see an array of publications on the characteristics of great leaders. Beleaguered executives are invited to compare themselves with lists of leadership competencies, against which they always find themselves wanting. Attempts to imitate others, even the most successful leaders, are doomed to failure. As Bill Burns, CEO of CHF, the $20bn global pharmaceutical division of Roche, told us: "The idea of us all becoming Jack Welch is nonsense."

The underlying assumption of a great many of these books is that leadership is something we do to other people. We do not agree. In our view, leadership is something we do to other people. We do not agree. In our view, leadership is something we do with other people. Leadership is a relationship; a relationship between leaders and followers. Followers are the other side of the leadership equation. Without them, there is no relationship and no leadership.

So, put yourself in the role of a follower and ask: "What do you expect of a leader?" Surprisingly, perhaps, the question is seldom asked explicitly by researchers. We have libraries full of leadership studies, but the analysis of followership has barely begun. Yet it is difficult to operate effectively as a leader without some sense of what followers want or need.

But is it possible to generalise about what followers want? Over the past 20 years we have interviewed more than 1,000 people from every level, from the boardroom to the shop floor, on the subject of leadership. These interviews have been complemented by directly observing a number of global organisations including Capital One, GlaxoSmithKline, Gap, Legal & General, Lufthansa, Nestle, Polygram, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Roche, Sony, Unilever and WPP (Goffee and Jones, 1998, 2005). We have found that followers are as individualistic as leaders and, when interviewed, their replies are diverse. However, there is a pattern to their responses which can be described under four broad headings. The four elements that followers want from leaders are: authenticity; significance; excitement; and community.


First, followers demand authenticity. We want our leaders to show us who they are, to reveal some of their real human differences. Consider Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of communications group WPP. Sorrell runs an organisation full of creative talent. Creative people are notoriously difficult to manage but they are critical to WPP's success. Sorrell himself is energetic, opinionated and clever. Over a 20-year period he has applied these talents to build a formidable global business. He has also learned to use some of his personal differences as a leader.

Interviews with Sorrell's colleagues show a fairly consistent picture. First, they will tell you of his rapid response to emails, whenever and wherever he may be. It is not unusual for Sorrell to spend a working week in the US but remain on UK time. All of Sorrell's 15,000 colleagues have access to him. As he told us: "If someone contacts you, there's a reason. It's got nothing to do with the hierarchy. It doesn't matter if they're not a big person. There's nothing more frustrating than a voicemail and then nothing back. We're in a service business."

But this is not the only difference that he communicates. "I am seen as the boring, workaholic accountant and as a micro-manager," he says. "But I take it as a compliment rather than an insult. Involvement is important. You've got to know what's going on." Anyone receiving a visit from Sorrell can expect some tough one-to-one questioning, on the numbers as well as the creative side of the business. Sorrell's difference reminds people that WPP is a creative business.

The other thing Sorrell's colleagues note is his permanent state of dissatisfaction. He constantly reminds people that "there's a long way to go". Sorrell uses his leadership differences-accessibility, close involvement in business detail and restlessness-to balance the creative side. …