We Need More Followers in Government


The ongoing shutdown of the United States government over the continuing budget resolution, and, later, the debt ceiling debate, has bred much discussion over the “leadership crisis” in congress. It’s true, of course, that the inability to perform the most basic  function of government — pass a budget — must constitute a some degree of failure, but I’m more forgiving of them for not being able to tackle the bigger problems of our day. Because we simply don’t allow them to.

In their book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky make the argument that leaders in our culture have a tendency to take on problems as their own to fix. After all, that’s what leaders do, right? We elect them to go to Washington and solve problems — and they usually go willingly. But Heifetz and Linsky also make the case that good leaders know that big problems are rarely technical problems to be fixed quickly; they’re problems that require everyone to adapt and overcome. And so, they say, good leaders “give the work back.” And I think that we often don’t allow congress to give the work back. We don’t want to participate; we just want it fixed in a very selfish way. In other words, we aren’t being good followers. We aren’t participating in a meaningful way.

An example of a big problem — probably the problem of our generation — is the reining in the national debt, and balancing the federal budget. As you can see from this New York Times infographic, nearly 50 percent of all federal spending goes toward either Social security, or Medicare. And this is an adaptive problem, one that we need to allow our leaders to face in an honest way, and one that we all need to be engaged in solving. Because it will take a change by all of us to overcome this issue.

This is the double-edged sword of follower-centered leadership theory. The fact that leadership is shared between leader and follower, in the simplest terms, means you’re not able to place all of the blame, or the credit, on the leader. Our elected leaders are not our champions, chosen for their excellence to take on our problems on their own. They’re our representatives, selected, according to social identify theory, as those most like us, who speak on behalf of an actively engaged followership.

We, as a nation, have to work on being better followers by sharing in the leadership process. When we look back at those figures who we identify as being among our best leaders, all of them asked for our engagement in solving the world’s problems. Kennedy challenged us to “ask what you can do for your country?” Lyndon Johnson declared, “We shall overcome.” Even Teddy Roosevelt was on the mark when he said, “The most successful politician is he who says what the people are thinking most often and in the loudest voice.”


Leaders as Dividers

We tend to think of leaders as being uniters — individuals who can use their breathtaking and often mysterious powers of influence over others to set the crowd in pursuit of a common goal. And this is, indeed, the dominant view of leadership: the effect of an individual on the group.

Consider for a moment, though, that leaders are, in fact, not generally uniters. Leaders are inherently divisive figures. They stand up, choose a side, chart a course, set the tone. And, in doing so, they bisect an issue, placing people squarely on one side or another. They demarcate. They make people choose a side.

In their book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky make the case that leadership is a risky business. Leaders who are, in fact, leading, threaten people by challenging the status quo — challenging people’s values, challenging people’s understanding of the world, challenging people’s self-efficacy. Change is scary, but necessary. And, evolutionarily speaking, it’s also beneficial. Ideas are evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary; and I think successful leaders make themselves the personification of ideas — the face of change, if you will.


But this changes the nature of leadership then, doesn’t it? If leaders aren’t pipers sent to entice the crowd with their song and lead us toward unity, then what? I think, rather, they become markers, or bisectors that allow followers to choose a side. And this puts more power in the hands of the followers than previously considered.

Leadership scholar James Macgregor Burns wrote, “The key distinctive role of leadership at the outset is that leaders take the initiative. They address their creative insights to potential followers, seize their attention, and sparks further interaction. The first act is decisive because it breaks up a static situation and establishes a relationship.”

And this has implications for that relationship between leader and followers. When we take into consideration a more powerful followership, the relationship becomes less top-down, less dictatorial. Power becomes more diffuse, more follower-centered. People follow because they identify with the ideas that the leader personifies, not necessarily with the leader. The leader’s primary role is to define the issue and envision the future.

I think of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, in which he says that, of the quarter million people who crowded the National Mall in August 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, none of them came for him. They came for themselves. The line had been drawn for so long between black and white; Dr. King redrew it between freedom and oppression, and they picked a side.