Leadership Series 6: The Roots of Connection, Creating Followership

By Bill Dann

As I have talked about earlier in this series, leadership is measured by followership.  Leadership is not conferred on you by title or position but rather earned and conferred upon you by followers.  Followers choose to be committed to you and your organization, they choose whether to be “engaged” (the term used by Gallup to measure employee commitment to the organization).

Bad bosses are the number one reason employees leave an organization.  Great leaders and the organizational culture they create are the principle reason employees choose to stay, to work hard etc.

Before diving more deeply into this, a word about those who chose not to follow or be engaged, no matter the qualities of the leader.  Work is not the only arena in which we live our lives.  We have families, physical and emotional difficulties, all of which impact our attitude about work and life in general.  No matter the level and quality of effort to engage such folks, they may continue in the short run to not be cooperative, productive or engaged.  That choice is not a bad mark upon the leader but a fact of life for that individual at this time.  Such individuals may comprise from 10-20% of the workforce at any given time.  They are referred to as “Won’t Do” employees in my book, Creating High Performers.

For the 80-90% of employees that thrive under great leaders, however, the following key elements are most often present in the leaders that achieve a high level of followership:

  1. Demonstrated commitment
    This is a strong dedicated commitment of the leader to a purpose or vision that inspires.  Put bluntly, employees are not going to pledge allegiance to a leader seeking more profits, more status, a bonus and the like.  There is nothing there for the heart to connect with, no source of charisma.  Profits may be how you keep score, but the game needs to be about a tangible improvement in people’s lives. Where the leader is committed, the organization is committed. If commitment is sincerely held and demonstrated by the leader, followership can flourish.
  2. Worker choice
    High performance is nurtured on a foundation that starts with worker choice.  True leaders understand that execution and ultimate success is dependent upon worker choice to be productive, effective, high quality and high service to either internal or external customers of their work. You cannot demand genuine, friendly customer service or cooperation with other teams or high quality work.  Rather, you can encourage, coach, applaud and lead by example to get to those ends.  Honoring the employee right to choose vs. demanding performance is the key distinction here.
  3. A “servant leader”
    This begins with taking responsibility to dialogue with employees to encourage their choice to perform at a high level. Then, it continues with a commitment to direct, train, coach, acknowledge results and maintain genuine relationship.  Obviously, a CEO cannot do this with all employees, but a single interaction with these qualities spreads like wildfire and becomes your brand as a leader.  Ultimately, your job is to do all that you can to enable employee success.  It’s a mentality of “I serve you” vs. “you serve me”.
  4. A strong set of core values
    Employees are following a person, not a position. What defines that person?  Their commitments and character.  Your actions demonstrate that character.  Ask any employee what they think their leader believes in, and they will tell you.  The messages you send re. what is important and what is not will paint a clear picture.  They know what pleases and what irritates you.  They know the beliefs that guide your decisions because all decisions have trade-offs and opportunity costs.  Alignment with your demonstrated values will drive followership.
  5. Relationship
    Research has shown that employees gauge their value to the organization not based on position or compensation but rather the extent to which the organization (i.e. leaders) engage in two-way communication with them. Two-way communication can arise only if there is interest in relationship, in knowing what others think and what they see.  A leader who demonstrates interest in employee lives and thinking will create followership. Making relationship a priority comes from a belief that those closest to the work and to the customer know best how to execute for that customer.  But employees will only serve up those ideas if they believe you are sincere in wanting to understand and put those ideas to work.
  6. Humility
    Look at the revered leaders of our time, examples include Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Barack Obama. They rarely took credit for their accomplishments.  Rather, credit was given to those who executed, to the followers.  If it appears that the game is about leader and his or her success, followership will be diminished.
  7. Integrity
    The above is a demanding list. More challenging is maintaining those qualities when the pressure is on; when acting on your core values means less profit, a blemished image admitting mistakes.  But doing so is how legends are born.  Seeing that you can make the choices you profess to believe in, even when it does damage to you personally, gives followers confidence that you won’t betray them, that you are worthy of their trust.
  8. Service
    What I am trying to get at here is demonstration outside of your work life that adherence to values and to service is how you live your life generally. It is really a corollary of the points I made on integrity.  Do you serve your family, your church, your community as you serve those you work with?  Seeing how you live your life outside of work will impact how you are seen and whether others chose to follow you at work.

This is a demanding list to be sure.  Understand that workers want to work for such a leader.  Meaning they will overlook missteps and bad moments knowing you are committed to these qualities and ends.  They will help you reach and sustain these qualities because that is where they wish to be.  As Ken Blanchard famously said, “no one wants to work for a loser”.  Rather, they will help you be a winner.

Categories: LeadershipOrg Culture

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“…I love Bill’s book. He introduces 7 Questions you can use to partner with your people for better performance…Use Bill Dann’s good questions, and I guarantee not only that you will become a better leader/manager, but that your people will become better performers.”

Ken Blanchard
Coauthor of The One Minute Manager and Cofounder of the Ken Blanchard Companies