Meeting the needs of followers

Learning & Development Magazine

Leaders must have the skills to identify what drives those they lead, says Stephen Schneider

It is often said that the key to leadership is creating the space and place in which others can perform. But when half of the leadership equation is about the follower's ability to follow, why does so little of the management literature consider the led?

As Michael Maccoby pointed out in the Harvard Business Review (Why people follow the leader: The power of transference, September 2004), the presumption among management scholars seems to be that followers merely respond to their leaders' charisma. However, the reality is that followers have their own dynamic; they can be driven to follow, as much as leaders are driven to lead. Organisations committed to supporting and developing those in leadership roles must ensure they consider what drives their followers.

Recently we were asked to advise on a highly effective operations director unusually committed to her work and her boss, the managing director. When, following an acquisition, the MD became much less available for the operations director on a day-to-day basis, the dynamic of their relationship changed dramatically. Suddenly the employee who had been so eager to please became distant, aggressive and intractable.

Through a mentoring process of probing questions, the MD began to see the relationship through the operations director's eyes, in particular what had motivated her to be such a loyal follower – and, crucially, why that had changed. On a rational level, things were largely as they were – she understood where the company was going, was clear about her individual role in that future and was content with her status. However, on an unconscious level, the situation had altered dramatically. We discoverd that the operations director idealised her boss because while he had time to nurture her, he represented all she had never had in her relationship with her father. The moment his focus moved to the acquisition however, the boss became the ‘bad father’ she had experienced in childhood and all the difficulties of that past relationship were projected onto him. This kind of transference is a common occurrence in the leader/follower dynamic.

The MD quickly saw how important it was to find time to nurture the operations director, while continuing to focus on his new business venture. Thus he was able to re-engage her appropriately with his leadership – and in the business; a mark of true leadership.

It is still true, of course, that the role of leadership is about creating the space and place in which others can perform, about articulating a vision of the future and individuals’ roles within that – and motivating everyone to give of their best. This challenge is difficult enough, particularly for those personalities that often rise to the top in organisations – the charismatics and narcissists whose inner drive creates such super-performance. Those personalities can become quite disorientated on reaching the top role when suddenly the job becomes more about others' performance than their own.

But as our example shows, there is even more to the leadership role than this. The key for leaders is to recognise the two, very different aspects of motivation: the rational ones, which are conscious and relate to familiar subjects such as money and status – and the chance of achieving these things by following a good leader; and the irrational ones, which in fact are more influential. For this, leaders will require skills and awareness that they may not currently have.

The solution for leaders has a lot do with Warren Bennis’s notion of 'deep listening' around the organisation; it is about becoming more attuned to other people. There are rich rewards for the leader who learns to understand the deep, unconscious issues driving followers' behaviour and can respond appropriately.