Leadership is exalted these days. Executives who see themselves as managers are told that's not enough – they must exercise leadership. People lower in the hierarchy are told that even they must be leaders since leadership can come at all levels. Leadership is considered pivotal for organizational success.
But Marc and Samantha Hurwitz, husband-and-wife consultants who live in Toronto, argue that leadership is only half the story. Followership is the other, equally important, half of the equation. We are all followers. And if we are ham-handed at that aspect of our working lives, we'll have trouble being successful, no matter how brilliant our leadership skills.
"If you want to be your best organizational self, you need to focus on both roles," Ms. Hurwitz says in an interview.
In their new book Leadership is Half the Story, they compare it to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the dazzling dance sequences from the 1936 musical Swing Time. The couple only dance the same steps some of the times – and Rogers moves backward in high heels – partnering with different, complementary moves.
"Ginger wasn't Fred and Fred wasn't Ginger. The essence of followership is having a distinct set of skills that are complementary to those of the leader," they write.
"Excellent leadership and excellent followership are needed to optimize a partnership. Having a strong leader push a weak partner around the dance floor is barely dancing. Having a strong follower pull a weak leader around is, at best mediocre. It is the combination of technical mastery and skilful leadership/follower partnership skills that creates a winning team."
That partnership role breaks from the normal model in our minds, which he describes as essentially viewing leaders as adults and followers as infant-like. They define five complementary partnering skills, each with a leader and a follower :
1. Decision framing/decision advocating: Although we think of leaders boldly expounding a vision and taking decisions, their model actually had leaders framing the parameters for the decision with the ideas advocated by followers. The leader creates the collaborative decision-making environment, brings stakeholders to the table, and guides the process, advising on the vision, resources available and risks. "As a follower you can add a ton of value by your analysis, your perspective, your ideas and advocating for other people's ideas," Ms. Hurwitz says . "Once the decision is made your role is to figure out how to implement it effectively."
2. Performance coaching/peak performing: Leaders must demonstrate commitment to their people, ensuring an environment of purpose, progress and positivity. The flip side is that followers must put their best foot forward, taking responsibility for their own engagement, development and on-the-job performance. Peak performance is their own responsibility, not somebody else's. "It's an adult view of the relationship," she stresses.
3. Organizational mentoring/organizational agility: The leader must guide others on how best to navigate and operate within the organization, providing context and opportunities, while the follower must be agile, taking initiatives that align with the overall priorities. The adept follower asks lots of questions and figures out ways the business can make more money.
4. Cascade communicating/dashboard communicating: The leader keeps the team informed to stimulate the right initiatives by followers. Those communications cascade throughout the organization. Leaders keep spreading their messages of how to be a winning organization. But the follower is more focused, trying to keep the leader informed as efficiently as possible on crucial issues in order to stimulate the right leadership action. "Leaders are busy, so you must be efficient," she says. Marc struggled with that at one point when he was told by his boss, to his surprise, that he wasn't a strong communicator. He had a leader's style, but that wasn't desired in that relationship. His boss wanted him to determine what information she most needed and the best way to deliver it in accordance with her style.
5. Relationship framing/relationship building: The leader must create an environment that facilitates comfortable relationships amongst the team. Equity is important, to avoid the growth of "in" groups and "out" groups. As a follower, you must build a strong relationship with the leader so you can help the boss as much as possible. Yes, relationships with teammates are important, but the critical one is with the leader. If have your own subordinates, you must also assume a different dance step for that context, framing the relationship environment for them.
This all comes together in a key principle: Partnerships at work need leadership and followership – they are equal, dynamic and different. Mr. Hurwitz points to basketball, where the teammate with the ball is the leader, and everybody is guided by his actions. But when he passes the ball, a new leader is anointed, and he is now a follower, looking for how best to help the leader. It's dynamic and ever-changing, throughout the game . It's the same at work.
You may be a great leader. But are you a great follower? Leadership is only half the story.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter