Balancing the Need for Leaders and Followers

Leading is courageous. So is following. How do we balance the need for leadership and followership? Good leadership is a polarity; it involves a leader who accepts accountability and followers who accept responsibility. Tied together with the energy of courage, this polarity is a powerful indicator of the health of any organization.

Let’s begin with what a polarity is. According to Barry Johnson, a polarity is also known as a wicked problem, dilemma, chronic tension, duality, or dichotomy. According to Barry, they are interdependent pairs of values, competencies, and/or objectives that support each other and a greater purpose. Polarities are ongoing, unstoppable, and indestructible.

An easy example of polarity is breathing. When you breathe in, you must breathe out. What happens when you do one and not the other? That’s right — you fail. That is the dilemma. Even though we would only like to focus on leading or following, we have to focus on leading and following. That is what moves this issue from a problem to a dilemma.

The difference between a dilemma and problem? And. If it is a problem, I can fix it — that is an “either/or.” It is either one thing or another, but not both. A polarity offers a Gordian knot of challenges, one that can only be managed, not solved. This is why we must discuss the issue as leadership and followership. You need both, not just one or the other.

So what is leadership? James McGregor Burns writes that leadership is a relationship between the leader and the led. He adds that each plays an important role, and that each has made a conscious and courageous choice in their role to the other.

Thus, if leadership is a relationship, then to choose to lead is to volunteer to be held accountable. If you are a person of integrity and truly believe in your people and your cause, you engage in an ongoing dialogue about the direction you take, the follower’s alignment with it, and seek to constantly earn and re-earn the active engagement of your followers every day.

True leaders — those whose first and last thoughts are of the people and ideas they represent — volunteer to lead. They are not elected, chosen, or appointed.

We have seen many people with titles, offices, and power who are in leadership positions, but choose not to lead. They choose to manage, to command, to direct, and to order, but not to lead. If you are truly leading, you are in a constant dialogue of accountability for the actions you take as a leader.

When you make the choice to lead, then you are opening yourself to the need for your followers to ask, to critique, and to judge. Your role is to help them make the choice to follow. Unless you want compliance and not commitment, blind faith and not informed judgment.

So leadership is all about accountability. What is followership? Like leadership, you also make a choice to follow. Followership is a position with clear requirements, too. Followership is to choose, implicitly or explicitly, to align ourselves with another’s ideas and thoughts, perhaps committing ourselves to what we believe is a greater good.

If leadership is a relationship of accountability, followership is responsibility in action. To choose to follow is to hold ourselves and others responsible. As followers, we must be responsible for our thought process, accepting and acting on our choice to follow the leader’s direction. It means being responsible for the legacy you leave as a follower.

Leaders are accountable. Followers are responsible.

And if you are a follower, how do you exercise that responsibility? How do you hold leaders accountable and yourself responsible?

With great courage. Courage comes from the Latin — cor or heart. It is the same root word as the Spanish “corazon” (heart) and the French, cor. In French, courage — simply stated — means from the heart. Courage is the energy surrounding leading and following. The courage to volunteer to be accountable as a leader and the courage to be held responsible as a follower.

So check out your organization. Do leaders hold themselves accountable? Do followers choose responsibility? If so, why? If not, how might you act with courage to change the situation?

5 thoughts on “A Powerful Leadership Indicator That You Shouldn’t Ignore

  1. Derek White says:

    Good article! I really recognise the polarity of roles and the dysfunction caused when both sides don’t know, excercise , or believe in these roles. Thanks, Derek

  2. Kyenpiya says:

    I just love the fact that followership in its self requires a choice to be held responsible just as much as leading requires a choice to be held accountable. So, whichever side you’re on, you have to choose to play role well enough so as not to jeopardize the other. Great piece!

  3. Great to now see the growing realisation that leadership is a choice and not an appointment. Also that you are only a leader if you followers say you are! Love the point about accountability and responsibility, many controlling cultures can engender learned helplessness and the subsequent abdication of that responsibility

  4. Lauren Fleiser says:

    Great article thank you. It is good to know the distinction between accountability and responsibility.

  5. Shelley Brown says:

    Excellent article on the duality of leadership and followership. We hear a lot more about leadership than followership. Which would be like focussing only on the person leading when two people are dancing…you can’t have one without the other!

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