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Followership matters.

Isn’t it odd how so many books have been written on “Leadership”* – yet almost nothing on “Followership”? How on earth did civilized America come to elect Trump? How did the Republican Party come to see this shallow vessel of rank incompetence as their leader?

I devoted a chapter to followership in “Understanding Leaders” and this is how it starts. At the time I had hardly heard of Trump.

“Alpha Males dominate wolf packs, boss baboon tribes and lord it over harems of elephants, and elephant seals for that matter. They, like their human equivalents, are sexual predators, aggressive, and have frequent temper tantrums. In many respects we should not find Alpha Males attractive – and yet we do. Naomi wolf told Al Gore that he was a Beta Male, who needed to become an Alpha Male if he was to win the Presidency. It is clear that most of us need an Alpha leader just as much as they need followers. Feathers get ruffled along the way because our basic biological drivers have not yet caught up with out more rapidly developed culture. Dr Law of Princeton University’s thesis is that men are driven to control the wealth or prestige that provides the security women seek to ensure that they and their children are protected. The male search for power may be independent of any search for sexual rewards, but it is intriguing how often power leads to sexual areas. “I don’t know a single head of state who has not yielded to some sort of carnal temptation” said Francois Mitterand  (President of France) and added with a self- indulgent smile “That in itself is a reason to govern.”

Perhaps the irony and hypocrisy of it all is the extent to which so many societies expect their heads of state to avoid lust and statecraft at the same time. Strive to dominate but deny the very urge that spurs the drive and rewards it. We may as well demand that a lion eat lettuce!

There is an inevitable tension in practice between the Alpha Leader and his or her actions, and the relatively cozy world of the unthinking follower. Their framework for operating has already been proscribed, their authority and status has been legitimized, key deliverables are understood. The Leader then motivates by ensuring each follower has the skills and the space to succeed, by praising and rewarding success and by continually supporting and helping. An Eden before the Fall – or is it?

There are several problems with this prelapsarian picture of a single life of happy leaders and followers complacently pottering into a warm and certain future. Unfortunately, life just isn’t like that. Let’s look at three problems in particular:

  • The first is that people have many emotional and irrational reasons for being followers, and these need to be understood, and not abused.
  • The second is that, alas, we are not living in the Garden of Eden, and many followers experience occasions that create fear and vulnerabilities so that they stop acting rationally – they become spineless sycophants or gangs, mobs, rather than rational and calm individuals;
  • The third is that many of our Alpha Leaders self-indulgently want reflected glory – the most narcissistic feed off it. We ape them and perhaps unwittingly collaborate together to exacerbate their worst inclinations. At the same time we are influenced by the style and spirit of our leaders no matter how egregious that may be.

Food for thought – haver a good day, James.

  • * James is publishing his master class – The New Leadership – at the end of July.
  • ** “Why sex matters” Dr Bobbi S. Law: Princeton University Press.