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The Art of Causing 'Followership'

By Dr. John R. Grinnell and the late Dr. James N. Farr

No leader can achieve his or her goals without the efforts of others. Their success rests on the following deeper and more powerful question: Potential leaders ask themselves, "How do I get individuals to do what I need them to do?" Real leaders ask, "What can I say or do to get them to “cause themselves” to do what I need them to do?" Real leadership is the art of "causing followership."

The Art

The art of causing followership is founded on a few deceptively simple principles. The first principle: People do what their beliefs, mind and emotions tell them to do, not what the leader says to do. Ignoring the psychological and emotional needs of followers is akin to wearing a blindfold on an obstacle course. Consider a ditch digger who works past exhaustion and an executive who takes three-hour lunches. Both are motivated 100 percent to fulfill their own current needs. Shouting instructions louder or clarifying job descriptions won't fundamentally change those needs.

Wise leaders who acknowledge this also grasp the second fundamental principle of causing followership: The follower provides the motivation. No leader can motivate others. They can only cause followers to motivate themselves. While this may seem like semantics, it is a subtle, but profound shift in understanding real leadership. Successful leaders, like effective followers, are motivated to achieve goals. An individual's efforts toward this end are done for personal satisfying reasons. At some level, all human action, even that of the selfless community leader, fulfills a personal need. Thus the third principle: All motivation is self-serving.

The critical question for a real leader is: "How do I deliver behavior on my part that will cause my followers to motivate themselves?" Answering this question is the key to creating followership. Unlocking the power that typically lies dormant in the followers can be viewed as a function of four primary conditions, each one linked to create the psychological environment for real leadership.

The four conditions are:

  • Understanding the follower’s Psychological/Social needs / accurate, timely, and useful information
  • Perceptual agility
  • Need-goal alignment
  • Behavioral agility

The first necessary condition, frequently sabotaged by bad systems or bad relationships, is the constant flow of accurate, timely, and useful information. The most valuable kind of information is "negative" feedback from followers. Any leader who protects his or her fragile ego with a compulsive need to appear perfect, strong, or the one with all the answers will stop this vital flow of information. Often times we hear these leaders cry, "My people don't treat me with respect!" Little wonder, since these individuals invariably posture to protect and maintain their own egos.

Much of the negative feedback that potential leaders avoid can be reframed. If leaders view negative feedback as a reflection of the follower's perception, that feedback loses its sting and becomes indeterminate data. A person's criticisms can tell you more about how that person's mind prioritizes goals than it does about your performance. More fundamentally, such criticism tells you about his or her needs.

A second necessary condition for real leadership is perceptual agility. This is the skill of listening, thinking, and analyzing outside of your own frame of reference. Leaders with perceptual agility see the world as others see it. Mentally, they walk a mile in another person's shoes at a moment’s notice. Operating from one's own frame of reference is a severe limitation to accurately reading follower's needs.

Once the information is flowing, and the leader has developed the perceptual agility to map the mental terrain, a real leader must create needgoal alignment. Linking the follower's needs to a goal taps into the follower's own rich source of motivation and commitment. Any leader who can align his goals with a follower's needs will reap the harvest of tremendous energy locked inside each human being. Any leader who neglects to consider the follower's needs will be forced to spend tremendous amounts of his or her own energy to maintain that status quo.

Much of current leadership is designed around a control/authority model. In light of the psychological reality that people only do what they want to do, the current approach means that people follow the work only as hard as is necessary to avoid the consequences of disobedience. Leadership that creates need-goal alignment opens the way for people to go far beyond the demands of authority.

The critical question for a real leader:

What behavior on my part will cause my followers to motivate themselves?

Finally, a leader must develop the behavioral agility necessary to translate all of this mental maneuvering into action. We've all heard the phrase, "Walk the talk," and willingly embrace it as long as it doesn't rock the boat. Leadership that sees and meets the need of the follower requires a leader who responds to those needs with appropriate action. It's one thing to understand the follower's needs and quite another thing to consciously adapt your behavior to take them into account.

Leadership can be learned and improved. However, it requires dissatisfaction with the status quo, a belief that it could be better, and the desire to change. Learning leadership means facing the inevitable discomfort of hearing negative feedback, the discipline of trying new approaches, and the awkwardness of new behaviors. Yet, the rewards far outweigh the costs. Releasing the energy and motivation of your followers opens new opportunities to transcend the petty mini-battles of internal conflicts and to form a team of aligned followers that are prepared to fight the big battles.

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