The Leadership Paradox

Much has been, and likely will continue to be, written about the topic of leadership. The word alone inspires us to extract new definitions, craft clever mantras, and share our opinions and predictions about its continued importance—or pending obsolescence—in the business world today.

Yet one business axiom will always remain true—despite anything written, despite ever-changing business environments, and despite the mantle of leadership being passed from one generation to the next. Without followers, we have no need for leaders.

It wasn’t long ago when leadership was thought to be reserved for those in the C-Suite and upper management. Employees lower on the organizational chart were thought to be followers, as they often didn’t have a choice to do anything but. However, in many corners of business today, focus is being placed on the rise of power and influence of the “follower”. This in large part, thanks to advances in technology that allow anyone to have greater connection with any audience they choose. These omnipresent individuals, teams or groups are also usually the closest to the product or service being offered, and those paying for them, i.e. the customer. This tends to make them the ones in the organization with the expert knowledge, technical skills, and experience necessary to understand how to get things done most effectively.

This amalgamation of traits results in incredible, yet unspoken power.

What those in managerial levels and above (“leaders”) do understand and accept is that the changing organizational structures are placing more decision-making and responsibility in the hands of followers (defined as all of us that report to someone, anywhere in an organizational structure). Today, we have more matrixed corporate structures where teams and team dynamics rule the processes of work. We have multiple reporting lines, multiple and concurrent bosses, and project leads, all coupled with the ever-present and frustrating lack of time, energy, and resources to meet all the objectives established.

This means the true pulse of business on a daily basis, is in the hands of the people with the most influence—regardless of where they are in the organization.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that influence is my definition of the word leadership. Now, if you have positional leadership (aka people who report to you) it would be wise to learn how to keep your influential leader-followers with your company. Otherwise, you will be faced with the challenge of codifying their knowledge and processes before their eventual departure. Humble leaders should be bold enough to address this power shift of sorts, and align their leadership skills to better serve the needs of the follower.

So, how should leaders react? Listen first. Various studies for decades have consistently reinforced that recognition and support are the primary motivating factors for someone to stay put in their job. Offering challenging and rewarding opportunities also sits high on the list for retention. You can spice things up for influential followers who aren’t satisfied in their current position  by moving them around in the organization, giving them a chance to view the business from various perspectives.

Provide training and encouragement to anyone seeking it, as it’s better to understand what motivates your contributors by communicating with them openly and often. You can’t solve all their problems or give everyone everything they want, but when they can tell you’re truly listening and understand them, they’re more likely to support and stick with you in return.

Leaders need to be better aware of these dynamics and adjust their styles to better accommodate the needs of these individual and critical influencers in their business.

With less opportunities for “upward” movement and a general lack of desire for “leadership” positions, people today know their value rests with their knowledge and contact bases. Unlike past generations, where success was readily defined by moving up in the same organization, followers today are more willing to move their base of power and influence freely among companies, averaging 12 job changes throughout the span of their working lives.

This shift is ever-present across industries and will continue to redefine the role of leadership and followership across companies today.

This discussion takes us back full circle to another old business axiom: the only thing constant in business is change.

Most successful leaders no longer rely on positional leadership, but are rather strong communicators who share their knowledge rather than hoard it. They build valued relationships throughout their organization and beyond, to better understand and appreciate what motivates their key assets. They focus attention on listening, realizing that they are oftentimes not the technical experts of their business and need to empower others more than ever.

With the baby-boomer generation riding their careers off into the sunset taking yesterday’s perception of leadership with them, the younger generations are filling the void, strongly taking hold of the business landscape, and shifting it once again. It used to be that only the “strong” survived. Today, it is the “emotionally-aware” who rule the day.

So, is the role of leadership vastly different today? Yes and no. Leadership should be about inspiring, influencing and persuading followers towards a common, agreed upon goal. This generalized definition is not the issue of contention, but rather the new role that followers play in the process. It’s not just the goal that we’re focused on today, but the process of identifying and guiding the real leaders who will help you get there.

Would you like Joe’s help creating an effective strategy to lead your followers by following their lead? 😉 You can start the conversation here.