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Goes The Follower, So Goes The Leader
by Peter Block
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Business News Briefs
for a Change
As Goes The Follower,
So Goes The Leader
by Peter Block
This culture holds firmly to the belief that our institutions
and our citizens are driven and shaped by those who lead them. When we look
at a workplace, we explain its culture by looking at the management style
and vision of its leaders. We ignore the possibility that leaders are created,
manufactured and molded by their followers. Employees hold important cards
that determine what the organization will become. Leaders have their place
and we would each rather have a great leader than a small one, but we consistently
undervalue the extent to which the leadership we get is exactly the leadership
we have created.
Joel Henning is an author, consultant and friend of mine. I recently participated
in a simulation he designed in which teams are asked to role-play three
different styles of leadership.
Team 1 role-plays a high-control, patriarchal leadership
They are given a short case study and are to define the problem, devise
a solution and run an employee meeting as a true patriarch would do it.
They have all the answers, save the questions for the end, and basically
take the stance that employees are the problem and if they will follow the
leader, and swallow the vision, they will save their jobs and be rewarded
for their compliance.
Team 2 is to practice cosmetic empowerment.
They define the problem, devise a solution and run a meeting using modern
language of participation, collegiality and participation, but never really
give up control. The leader still holds all the cards but plays them in
good cheerleader fashion. Everyone is called an associate, the change program
has a catchy title, all will be trained in the new skills, fear will be
driven out of the workplace and all are given a slogan tee shirt and a plastic
vision card. The meeting ends with reassurance that the leadership team
will role model the new behaviors.
Team 3s task is to role-play genuine participation
and empowerment. They invite people to help define
the problem and they commit to seek joint solutions. They express their
own doubts and underline the complexity of the problem and the fact that
the future is hard to predict. Their strategy is to run the meeting as a
dialogue and commit to developing solutions which redistribute power, information
and resources in a meaningful way.
The employees responses to each of these strategies stunned me. The
simulation began with the patriarchs. The people were quiet, with their
arms folded, and had one or two pale, informational questions at the end.
When asked their feelings about the meeting, they said they felt controlled,
The cosmetic empowerment team went next and the employees asked many questions,
all of which were cynical and reeked of barter and deal making. They asked,
Whats in it for me? and Where did this fad come
from? They wanted the leaders to prove their sincerity. There was
a lot of laughter and energy during the meeting. Upon reflection, they felt
manipulated and doubtful, although they admired the cleverness of the strategy.
The genuine participation group went last and when they shared their intention
to involve everyone in defining the problem and solution the employees would
have none of it. They wanted a common vision and strategy, they wanted to
know what was expected of them and were fed up with this soft, open-ended
non-solution. They questioned who was in charge and who was going to steer
the ship to a safe harbor. They wanted to know what management was going
to do to fix the problem. In processing the meeting, they felt management
had abdicated. The employees had 20 suggestions about how the team could
have done a better job and voted no confidence.
There was something very real about the simulation. What was disturbing
We resent patriarchy and its dominance,
We become cynical at attempts at cosmetic change,
Yet faced with the prospects of real participation
and accountability for an unpredictable tomorrow, patriarchy begins to
look better and better.
One of the participants summed it up with this statement,
We hated patriarchy, we were cynical about cosmetics, but when we
experienced participation, patriarchy suddenly looked really good.
While we may talk blithely about the end of command and control, emotionally
we miss it when its gone. If we are offered real choice and power,
we push our leaders back into a controlling and directive stance. Our lips
may say no to a benevolent monarch, but our eyes say yes. Leaders see the
longing for good parenting in our eyes, and they have little choice but
Instead of treating bosses as simply one player in the drama, we make them
all-powerful. What they do is the center of our attention. We place our
freedom in their hands, and should they offer it to us, as in the simulation
above, we say we liked you better as a parent.
Another aspect of the simulation was the variation in the experience of
each team as it planned its presentation. The task was the easiest for the
patriarchal team. They knew what high control looked like, they agreements
quickly on what to do and who should do it, and finished before the time
The team planning cosmetic change had the most fun. They created slogans,
visuals and catchy recognition programs. The fun extended into the employee
meeting, which was run as a variety show. Everyone enjoyed it, leaders
included. Granted it was manipulation, but since it was entertaining, everyone
seemed to put up with it.
The genuine participation group was miserable during the planning and constantly
were asking for more time. When they ran the employee meeting, no one wanted
to play the leader. They were hesitant during the meeting and depressed
when it was over, especially after receiving 20 suggestions for improvement.
The simulation underlined what we intuitively know:
The clarity and simplicity of command and control make
it irresistible. It is easy to plan and easy to implement. It is the perfect
means to postpone the struggle over real, shared accountability.
It is very sobering to see the struggle in this culture,
to create participative institutions which demand people to act on their
own freedom. All of which brings me back to the belief that it is the energy
and willingness of the followers that creates much of the style and strategy
of the leader. Given the simplicity and clarity of high control leaders,
it is no wonder they are still so common and even attractive.
In all these ways, our expectations create the leaders we receive. They
are the effect, we are the cause. High control bosses are created by our
reluctance to care for the whole and assume the risks inherent in our own
freedom. If we could accept this idea, we could then have the leadership
that we seek and our search for better leadership would be over.