Look to the followers to learn about a leader

Dr. Bruce Hiebert  |  November 13, 2017

Young creative business people meeting at office

Good leaders are found by looking at their followers. No title on the door or box in the organizational chart can make one a leader if there are no followers.

People commit themselves to good leaders on the basis of their individual motivations, not because of a title or role or the presence of “leadership traits.” Unfortunately, that’s a point often overlooked when organizations are looking for leaders to promote.

Let’s look at boss A. She’s demanding, stingy with the compliments and quick to point out faults in subordinates. She’s also short, dresses poorly and has a whiney voice. Is she a leader? Well, does she have followers?

It’s quite possible that boss A is a respected leader. If her staff show loyalty and perseverance then she’s a leader.

Being a leader is not a function of the person. It’s a function of what followers get from the relationship. If they are achieving their personal goals with a sense of coherence and value then they may be deeply devoted followers, changing jobs to keep working with her as she shifts her role in the organization.

All she needs to be is consistent and the type of person who helps subordinates achieve.

They may say she’s tough to work for, but they may say it with pride. They won’t say she’s demeaning. Instead, they’ll say she’s challenging them to perform.

vThe problem for boss A is her characteristics are unlikely to lead to promotion. Her superiors are likely to look at her personal characteristics and not her followers. Those at the top tend to make decisions on the basis of stereotypes and nothing about boss A speaks of stereotypic leadership so her chances of promotion are reduced.

Boss B is different. He’s careful to compliment, gives clear directions and never punishes failure.

He’s also tall, dresses well, has a smooth voice and a great chin. But, while boss B’s characteristics are highly attractive that does not mean he is a leader.

Is he consistent and the type of person who helps subordinates achieve? If not, then his subordinates are likely to say things such as he’s a great guy, but… and then let it hang. They may transfer out as soon as possible seeking someone who they regard as a leader.

However, unlike boss A, all those personal characteristics are very attractive to stereotyping superiors.

He is likely to be promoted, especially if he is capable of speaking in public and making decisions. Unlike boss A, there is a good chance he will become a senior VP in short order, even if followerless all the while.

As these two possible leaders show, understanding who is a leader requires examining the followers.

To identify leaders, look to find those who have staff who are committed, enthusiastic and working with initiative.

Measure how long they stay. If your organization wants good leaders then those are the folk to promote, not those who merely have the appearance of leadership.

Dr. Bruce Hiebert teaches in the MBA,  Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration programs at University Canada West, a boutique university located in the heart of Vancouver, British Columbia.

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