A couple of days ago I wrote about the moral quality of leadership. Following also has a moral dimension that is important to understand, especially for insurance CIOs whose teams include confident IT professionals, suggests Catherine Stagg-Macey, former Celent analyst and current principal of Belgrave Street, an executive coaching consultancy. CIOs and other leaders need to understand what might be called "the grammar of assent" or acceptance of leadership on the part of team members, and they also need to appreciate what they owe to their "followers." Stagg-Macey shared an amusing video to illustrate the dynamic of leader and follower.
While the importance of leadership is not overrated, the role of followers tends to be left out of the discussion according to Stagg-Macey. "To choose to be a follower requires self-awareness of how your values and vision line up with the leader," she comments. "And then the courage to step into being a follower."
[For more on leadership see CIOs Must Be Leaders, Not Mere Technocrats.]
We rightly admire leaders, in part perhaps because followers are often regarded as an undifferentiated mass of humanity or "sheep." But that's not the kind of follower Stagg-Macey has in mind. There will always be people who merely go with the flow, but no great movements or team accomplishments of any kind happen without commitment on the part of leaders and followers.
"The idea of following is somehow seen as weak or second rate in our culture, but it really does take courage to follow," Stagg-Macey observes. "The world needs more leaders, and we also need people who will follow those they believe in."
"Following is not a passive place," Stagg-Macey continues. "I see the follower as being the important feedback mechanism for the leader. The follower gets to point out what's working, what isn't working, what is magic and what is missing. The leader gets to decide what to do with that information. It's a continual process of action and reflection and realignment."
One might add that in a successful organization, followers are themselves leaders — and a leader may be the follower of a leader at a higher level. Such is the case with the CIO of an insurance carrier, who is answerable to the senior leadership of the company and must assent to its strategy — even while influencing it. The direct reports to a CIO are leaders in their own right, and even subordinates at the lowest level should be encouraged to show leadership when they have insight into ways the organization could be improved.
The video that Stagg-Macey shared demonstrates the follower-as-leader principle, at least with regard to the first follower's influence on the success of the endeavor. As absurd as the example may feel, I'm confident that many a CIO reader has felt a little bit like the leader featured in the video, exposed in the assertion of what at first may seem ridiculous, but seems natural when others get on board.