News: Leading through followership: Q&A with Stephen Bennett


Leading through followership: Q&A with Stephen Bennett

Stephen Bennett shares the increasing importance of followership as organisations become flatter, and emphasises the need to collaborate for greater business effectiveness
Leading through followership: Q&A with Stephen Bennett

A leader requires a strong sense of principles and a large measure of courage and perseverance


Business leaders must attempt to regain public confidence by imposing standards and values consistent with an ethical way of doing business


Stephen Bennett shares the increasing importance of followership as organizations become flatter, and emphasizes the need to collaborate for greater business effectiveness

What is the essence of leadership, followership and partnership working in tandem?

Leadership and followership are really two sides of the same coin. A leader will also be a follower at different times of the day. For example, I was recently talking to someone who runs a very large UK group owned by an American parent company, and he explained this very well by saying, “I am a leader during the morning and as soon as the US opens, I become a follower immediately.” So, there you see a very stark example of most of us having both leadership and followership responsibilities. The important question in leadership is to ask the question, “Why would anybody follow you?” And the important question to ask in the context of followership is, “Why would anybody want you in their team?” So, leadership and followership are two parts to the same issue. You cannot be a good leader, unless you understand what good followership is all about and practice it.

With respect to partnership, in most large and complex organizations, which have a number of inter-dependent parts to the business, real effectiveness is possible only by breaking down the silo mentality. To create a high performance team, the ability to collaborate with other parts of the organization is critical. And this partnership is made possible through trust and respect. If you recognize the benefits of collaboration with people, and you trust and respect them, then you will find ways of working across the borders of your organization and indeed outside of your organization.

Is the concept of leadership and followership only relevant in the case of large and complex businesses? What is its role in a small organization?

It is equally relevant regardless of the size or complexity of the organization. Collaboration may not necessarily be an issue within, but it could be important also to collaborate outside. For example, my organization has a flat structure where people are clear about their roles. They understand that leadership is not about status or position, but is defined by a particular need from a particular client. Although I am the CEO of the business for a particular client, I might be reporting to someone else who is heading that assignment. And despite being relatively small, we do need to collaborate across the organization as well as collaborate with other organizations, which have something to add to the way we service our clients.

How can one identify who is a more effective leader in the organization to follow?

Leadership talent should be identified through a focused education and development program, covering the holistic development of the individual and the measurement of progression on a regular basis. So, a company that really nurtures its talent and develops its people with the aim of succession, will probably have a sensible capability framework, a strong performance management agenda, integrated development interventions such as we offer, and focused one-to-one coaching, all of which enable one to identify and nurture real talent for leadership as an on-going process.

So then, what makes a great leader?

Here, I would like to make a distinction between leaders and leadership. Great leaders create great leadership. In other words, they create an environment in which people are able to flourish as leaders and followers. Hence, one of the essential outcomes of a very effective leader is that she/he has been able to create a leadership environment in which people feel empowered to be effective followers by being courageous, by asking questions, by asking for forgiveness and not for permission, and by disagreeing agreeably.

The popular practice is to view leadership as the ultimate aspiration. In this context, how do you make people understand the need for followership?

Well, it takes time and persistence. It takes the ability to demonstrate the power of teamwork, and of followership within. In our programs, we often ask participants to share an example of the best boss they have worked for and one of the worst bosses they have worked for.The responses are always similar, concentrating on skills such as vision, communication and so on. But, essentially it boils down to a great leader being one who makes people in his team feel that their contribution is valued, and empowers people to demonstrate their worth as an effective follower. It is really about realizing that not everything is about the leader- most of what happens in the organization is about what followers, not leaders, do.

Please share an example of a case where such a change was implemented

In the UK, we worked with a large financial services business, where there were many middle managers who had, over the years, become disaffected. Messages from the senior level were not reaching the junior levels properly, as this mid-layer was distorting the messages through alienated followership behavior. And they were not alienated just because they had been there a long time, but because they felt the organization no longer valued them. In other words, the ‘leadership culture’ was wrong. So, there was a need to re-establish the sense of loyalty and value senior management showed towards this group, and to properly understand what their issues were. This led to us focusing on creating a re-energized leadership environment where those issues were resolved. This helped us turn this alienated group into a more dynamic force to their benefit and that of the organization.

Driving such a change has to come from the top. What are the challenges while working with corporate leaders today?

One of the challenges is that because everything is moving so fast and there is a huge pressure on cost, leaders want people to change at the pace their business is changing. But, ‘people change’ just can’t be rushed in this way. In this context, I always think of the great line in the British political satire ‘Yes Minister’, where the principal secretary to the Cabinet says, “Minister if you want things done quickly, it takes time!”

The second challenge is similar and relates to the tension between short and long-term returns. Since investors want returns quickly, senior management is always juggling between ‘returns now’ and ‘investing for returns in the future’. For example, in the booming Indian domestic market, if businesses can plough back today’s profits as long-term investment, it should lead to better future results. However, investors want to see the returns now and that creates a conflict.

The third challenge, also related to the first two points, is that business leaders must attempt to regain the confidence of the public by imposing standards and values consistent with an ethical way of doing business. I like to believe that most (admittedly, not all) people the world over are inherently good. Don’t we want to work in a place that upholds the same values we would like to feel we live our own life by? To do this, a leader requires a strong sense of principles and a large measure of courage and perseverance.

Stephen Bennett is CEO, Inspirational Development Group

Read full story

Topics: Leadership, #Updates

Did you find this story helpful?



What are the top work tech investment focus areas for your company currently?

How are you helping to build the future of work?

READ our latest issue for perspectives on the many facets that form tomorrow's workplace.