The Courageous Follower

"If you scroll through the subject catalog at the Library of Congress, you will find the category ‘leadership’ and hundreds of books on the subject.  You will not find a category 'followership,' and you will only find a handful of articles and books on the subject, tucked away under the leadership rubric."

- The Courageous Follow, page XVII

The author of The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, Ira Chaleff, wrote the above in the preface to the first edition of his book in 2003.  The latest edition of the book (the third) was published in 2009, but even now in 2013, the situation hasn’t changed much.  I did a quick search on Amazon using the terms “followership” and “leadership” to see how many titles were listed. Perhaps not surprisingly, my search resulted in 257 titles for “followership” compared to 18,167 titles for “leadership.”  It seems we’re still much more interested in leadership than we are in followership.

Chaleff’s book begins to address the overall lack of attention to followership.  Early in the book he presents a four quadrant model of followership based on the dimensions of support (i.e. high support, low support) and challenge (high challenge, low challenge). This results in the following four categories:

1. Partners – followers who provide high levels of support and are also willing to challenge the leader when they feel doing so helps the leader and the organization.
2. Implementers – followers who provide high levels of support, but are not willing or do not feel it necessary to challenge the leader.
3. Individualists – followers who do not provide much support for the leader and tend to challenge a leader frequently. (I’m not sure these are actually “followers.”  Perhaps “challengers” would be a more appropriate label.)
4. Resources – followers who put in a good day of work, but don’t go beyond the minimum expected of them.

Chaleff wrote this book primarily for people who aspire to be partner-followers.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Seven kinds of courage

"Courage is the great balancer of power in relationships.  An individual, who is not afraid to speak and act on the truth as she perceives it, despite external inequities in a relationship, is a force to be reckoned with."
- The Courageous Follower, page 20

To be a partner-follower of a leader requires courage.  Without courage, a follower is not apt to challenge a leader’s behavior, policies, or decisions.  Chaleff lists the following six kinds of courage that he feels the partner-follower should exhibit in supporting an organization’s leader:

  • The courage to assume responsibility – responsibility for the organization and responsibility for one’s self. To have this kind of courage you must stop viewing the leader-follower relationship as a type of parent-child or teacher-pupil relationship.

  • The courage to serve – not being afraid of the hard work required to serve a leader.

  • The courage to challenge – the willingness to voice concern when a leader’s or group’s behaviors or policies conflict with the follower’s sense of what is right.

  • The courage to participate in transformation – being willing to champion the need for change and to stay with the organization and leader as they mutually struggle to make real change.

  • The courage to take moral action – the willingness to take a stand that is different from their leader. Not shying from holding themselves, the leader, and the organization to a set of higher standards and values.

  • The courage to speak to the hierarchy – regardless of one’s title, a courageous follower is one that is willing to speak to anyone above in the hierarchy.

Chaleff devotes a separate chapter to each of these kinds of courage and follows them with a chapter on a kind of courage that the leader needs to exhibit in support of courageous followers — the courage to listen to followers.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Courageously Earning Partner Follower Status

"Sometimes, followers who have a lot to offer fail to form a relationship with a leader that permits them to contribute all that they can."
- The Courageous Follower, page 82

Courageous followers, like leaders, are not born with the status.  They must earn it.  To earn the respect of and credibility with a leader is not easy.  Chaleff references Baldesar Castiglione, a contemporary of Machiavelli, in explaining that, “it is only through a relationship of service to a leader, rendered in ways the leader can appreciate and value, that a follower builds a platform from which to meaningfully influence the tone and performance of the leader’s tenure.”

For me, the key takeaway here is the awareness that to be seen as a partner-follower by a leader is not just about having the courage to speak up.  It’s also about making sure that you speak up in ways that the leader is apt to appreciate and value.  To help uncover what those “ways” might be, Chaleff makes several suggestions.

The first suggestion, one that I’ve long practiced and espoused is to seek feedback from others on your communication style.

The second suggestion, one that the rugged individualist in me has not tried, is to observe others who appear to have successfully won a leader’s trust.  Chaleff doesn’t recommend that we simply copy these people.  Instead, he offers the following questions to guide us in learning from the contrast that might be observable:

  • Who seems to serve both the leader and the common purpose in ways that the leader readily accepts?

  • What do they do that contributes to the leader being so receptive to their input?

  • How does this contrast with our own approach?

  • Is there something we can learn that will allow us to improve the quality of our own approach to the leader?

  • Is there a way to adapt what we observe to the reality of who we are?

  • What will it take for us to integrate this change so it is natural and sustainable?

  • If our own efforts to support a leader are generally or occasionally well received, what contributes to our success, and how can we reinforce this?

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Served "just right"

"As we develop and form our self-image, we start screening out feedback that contradicts that image.  For those who become public figures – CEOs, principals, commanding officers, managing partners, politicians – protecting this public image may seem most important.  More screens go up, and the only messages that penetrate are the ones that validate our image of ourselves."
- The Courageous Follower, page 90

Whereas insight #1 suggests consideration of our own communication style, insight #2 is specifically about delivering messages in ways that protect a leader’s ego.  When you are faced with giving feedback to a leader about his or her behavior, Chaleff suggests two tactics and provides examples of each.  The first tactic is to preface the feedback with defusing statements that convey respect and remind the leader of the value of honesty.  For example, “You know that I respect what you are trying to do, and I’m sure you’d want me to be honest with you” or “You know how highly I think of your work, and I hope you won’t mind my speaking frankly.”

The second tactic Chaleff recommends is linking the feedback to outcomes that the leader desires, or what motivates them.  For example, “I think what you are doing will affect (what the leader values).  May I give you my views?”

As a corporate trainer and Organizational Development professional, I like to think that I’m pretty good at communicating with leaders.  I plan on using some of the ideas, approaches, and phrases from this book to become an even stronger, more courageous, partner-follower.

Are you an Implementer-follower or a partner-follower? If you are a partner-follower, how are you courageous?

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Art Bingham

ABOUT Art Bingham

WHO ARE YOU? I am a learning and development professional with over 20 years experience in leadership, team, and organizational development; corporate training; and corporate coaching...
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