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Is Leadership Overrated?

Is Leadership Overrated?

General John Buford exhibited excellent "followership" at Gettysburg. Image courtesy of Rob Shenk.

I had the privilege to attend the 2015 ICMA Gettysburg Leadership Institute, In the Footsteps of Leaders, a few weeks ago. Indeed, that pivotal three-day engagement in July 1863 between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade, provides innumerable examples of leadership, good and bad, exhibited by the officers and men of both armies.

Veritable libraries full of books have been written about the leadership skills exhibited by the men now immortalized in bronze on the former battlefield. So much so, that I found it difficult to express my own thoughts on the leadership lessons learned. In following up on our discussions during the Institute, I discovered a rarely considered perspective on leadership that gives a new dimension to these men.

They were followers as well as leaders. 

In a recent article about leadership, Edward Pallas and Al Uy describe Union General John Buford’s exemplary “followership.” They assert that his attributes as a follower were what inspired him to go beyond the typical role of the cavalry, which was simply to reconnoiter and report. At Gettysburg, Buford ordered his troops to dismount, assume the role of infantry (giving the impression of a much larger force), and take and hold a strategically strong position against a larger approaching Confederate force, thereby buying valuable time for the bulk of the Union army to arrive.

Followership isn’t the antithesis of leadership, rather, a good follower is a collaborator in the success of organizational goals. Pallas and Uy cite Robert Kelly, author and organizational development consultant, and write that an exemplary follower must be:

“…an independent, critical thinker and be actively engaged in the organization.  Critical thinkers are their own person and think for themselves.  They give constructive criticism and are innovative and creative.  When defining active engagement Kelly states the best followers take initiative, take ownership of the situation, are committed to the goals of the organization, and go above and beyond the job.”

This certainly describes the initiative shown by General Buford at Gettysburg.

In Kelly’s 1992 book, The Power of Followership, he observed that most people, no matter how impressive their rank or title, spend more time as followers than as leaders.  He suggests more time is spent reporting to people rather than having people report to us.

In a typical organization one expects that there are more followers than leaders, yet when have you heard about a “Followership Training Program”? I suspect if you did, you would think it was a joke. As business consultants and authors Don Grayson & Ryan Speckhart observe:

“…little effort is expended to train effective followers. For every follower training program, there are thousands of leader training programs. This disparity exists despite the fact that there are significantly more followers than leaders, particularly when you consider that all leaders are also followers. Even the CEO reporting to a board of directors is a follower…”

Grayson and Speckhart make five observations on the leader-follower relationship based on years of experience in consulting psychology with organizations.

1. Leadership is “overvalued.” Not everyone is suited to be a leader and too much emphasis on developing leadership skills in everyone is wasteful. This is why a majority of employees don’t have confidence in their leaders. Foster leadership in those with the right qualities, but don’t fail to invest in the bulk of the followers as well.

2. Developing better followership skills is vital and more valuable. All of the current trends are toward flatter, less hierarchical organizations. Combine this with technological advances that are leveling the playing field as well and is the result is less informational disparity between leaders and followers then ever before. Often the follower contributes directly to organizational success through first person contact with clients and customers. They are very often the most visible representatives of your brand to the rest of the world.

3. Being “number two” is a legitimate position and should be considered a career option. People are often intimidated by “the boss”. Perhaps not intentionally, but experience shows that the higher a person goes up the organizational pyramid the less candid feedback they receive. An effective “number two” can be the one to provide analysis, state contrary opinions, speak for others, and make recommendations to the leader when others might not be as likely to. Rather than consider such a position as second rate or not quite “ready for prime time,” the number two should be recognized as a valuable asset.

4. Successful leaders and followers collaborate. There are points at which the distinctions become clearer, but the overwhelming emphasis on leadership development and the cult-like reverence for high profile charismatic leaders has skewed the perception that leadership is everything. It’s not.The authors suggest that in the early stages of a project the leader defines the scope, goals, and limitations, but as the project progresses, collaboration begins as followers step up and offer ideas, opinions and critiques. Finally, as the project nears completion, the roles become more defined as the leader defines the end of the project. Optimally the culmination would be a collaborative “lessons learned” wrap up.

5. Followership has no following. Unlike leadership with a wealth of material available to guide training, there is a dearth of followership training aids. It is just as important for leaders to seek ways to develop effective followers as it is to work on their own leadership skills.

According to Barbara Kellerman, lecturer at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, the leveling of the playing field described by Grayson and Speckhart has changed the notion that leaders lead and followers follow, giving followers more power. Good leadership comes from learning to be a good follower.

Kellerman highlights five skills learned from being a good follower that will make you a better leader.

1. Awareness – Understanding and appreciating the needs of others is critical. A leader that is “tuned in,” whether it be to customers, employees, colleagues, or board members, knows what motivates or demotivates them.

2. Diplomacy – Followers know when getting along is the right thing to do. Not every battle is worth fighting. A diplomat can work with someone with differences while not ignoring those differences.

3. Courage - A good follower has the courage to dissent when a leader, manager, or superior, is headed off track, Kellerman says. The same traits of a good leader guts and strength of conviction, are essential.

4. Collaboration – Kellerman echoes Grayson and Speckhart’s observation that collaboration is an essential aspect of followership that leaders need to embrace. The CEO is rarely the only one responsible for the latest product or innovation. More often than not there is a team involved. Collaborative, aware, and diplomatic leaders who understand the followership role share credit when credit is due.

5. Critical Thinking - In order to be a good follower, you need to be able to think for yourself says Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., associate dean of the faculty at the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. "Many of the same qualities that we admire in leaders—competence, motivation, intelligence—are the same qualities that we want in the very best followers. Moreover, leaders, regardless of their level, also need to follow," he points out.

This brings us back to General Buford. He didn’t just do what was expected of him as a cavalry officer. His understanding of the overall mission, critical thinking, and innovation as an outstanding follower made him the first of many pivotal leaders on those three fateful days in July 1863 that marked a major turning point in the struggle to preserve the United States.  

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Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.