ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

July 1998


Creating A Workplace Community

Finding Your Way Through Performance Measurement

A Quality Vacation On The Jersey Shore

The Honda Dirtbusters Cleaned Up In Nashville

Consolidation Processes Save Time, Money And Win Awards


As Goes The Follower, So Goes The Leader
by Peter Block

Off -Target Marketing - Can We Talk
by Bill Brewer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review


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 style.
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 3’s 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, punished.
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, “What’s 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 was that:

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 it’s 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 to respond.
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 was up.
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.

July '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News