What can organizations do to position themselves for success in turbulent times?  Most people offer an obvious and simple answer: we need to develop effective leaders. I agree we should keep things simple, just not this simplistic.  Developing effective leaders is a simplistic response to a difficult question, and it has fueled an unbalanced leader-centric focus in the United States. Let’s take a look.

Organizations from all sectors sponsor development initiatives designed to produce the organizational leaders of tomorrow.  But what about producing effective followers? Secondary education perpetuates this leader-centric focus by encouraging students to get involved in programs and extra-curricular activities that will help develop them into leaders.  I don’t have an issue with this.  But don’t organizations and democracies also depend on followers who have the courage and integrity to hold leaders accountable? And higher education remains as responsible as secondary education.  Colleges emphasize their ability to produce leaders.  But don’t most college graduates also need to know how to add value as effective followers?

Leaders matter, but followers matter just as much. Barbara Kellerman, a professor of public leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and one of the founders of the International Leadership Association (ILA), states in her book titled Followership,“It [the book] points to the roles followers play.  And it reminds us what on some level we already know: better followers beget better leaders.”  I had the privilege of speaking with, and listening to, professor Kellerman at previous ILA conferences and she always impresses me with her ability to communicate the nuances of leadership, such as the importance of followers.  She continues to raise awareness to what leadership scholars have been saying for decades: both leaders and followers are important factors impacting the leadership process.

Given that both leaders and followers impact the leadership process, organizations and institutions need to think differently, and do more.  They should adopt programs that develop both leaders and followers, and messaging should reflect the importance and value of both.

But here’s the rub: people don’t have motivational posters lining their office walls with catchy quotes about followers changing the world. Instead, people associate followers with being lemmings, or sheep, and this inspires no one.  But the research clearly indicates that followers who add value are anything but lemmings. They are engaged individuals with the integrity who possess the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors required to actively support and challenge leaders in attempts to positively impact the leadership process. Nevertheless, people will still default to the common understanding of followers as lemmings.  So, what are we supposed to do?  What can organizations do to help position themselves for success in turbulent times?

Organizations must embrace the concept of high performers. These are people who have the awareness to identify what role they occupy in a given situation. Either a leader or a follower.  And have the repertoire of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors to add the right value given their role at the time.  Everyone in an organization should be a high performer.  They should possess the awareness and skills required to meaningfully contribute relative to the situation.  This concept incorporates the importance of both leaders and followers, while circumventing the natural negative reaction to the common understanding of followers.

Organizations need to engage in conversations about their development initiatives. To thrive in turbulent time, organizations must move away from a leader-centric focus and adopt a more useful understanding of leadership that includes both leaders and followers.  When leadership initiatives evolve and focus on developing high performers, then and only then will organizations be better positioned for success in turbulent times.

(Adapted from part two of the original 3-part series published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 11-14-17 sharing takeaways from the International Leadership Association’s Global Conference in Brussels, Belgium)