Many people want to be leaders; very few want to be, and continue to be, followers. But there is a great need to have a few leaders and to have many good followers. There are many books written, and training sessions held, on leadership. A training session on followership is a rarity.
It was a Scandinavian consultant, many years ago, who wrote a significant book on followership, and conducted programmes around the world, with great effect. But it was not enough. There is still not sufficient understanding of followership!
Good followers need to have skills of adaptability, of comprehension, of patience, of self-confidence. They should have a high emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). They should be able to protect their own core values and core strengths; yet be able to adjust to the varied profiles of their bosses, who are presently their leaders. And they need to do this over a period of many years - which is difficult.
However, to be a good leader in the future, you need to be a good follower today!
There are many examples of leaders and followers who later became leaders. Closer home, there is Mahatma Gandhi, the leader, with Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel as followers. There was Lenin, with his follower, Stalin; there was Nasser, with his follower, Sadat; and the list goes on.
In the labour movement in India, there was Peter D’Mello, the leader and uncrowned king of the All India Port and Dock Workers Union, and his follower, George Fernandes, who emerged after Mr D’Mello died, to become even more powerful as a leader, than his mentor ever was.
Leaders may be autocratic, democratic, or free rein. They may be stultified into any one or may be situational leaders, changing styles based on the time and the environment.
Founders of companies, or great change agents, are likely to have varying styles.
Followers need to adapt to these changes with fluency and without disruption. And this is not easy.
Also, all followers do not necessarily succeed the leader. One or some do. The others continue to remain followers.
There is the other question: Will the follower use the leader’s style as a template, to follow himself?
A wise follower, when he becomes a leader, will decide the style which best suits his own personality, beliefs, values and the environment he has to work in. It would be foolish of him to just ape his previous boss. He would make himself the laughing stock and be labeled as a sham!
There are those followers, who may not be able to take their boss’ situational leadership in their stride, or with equanimity. Their temperament does not allow this.
There are others who have too much sense of self-worth. They cannot go beyond a point.
There are others who have the spark of entrepreneurship. They would rather quit and work for themselves, than take any humiliation, or what they think is humiliation.
There are those very few who have the three main ingredients that enable them to walk out and walk straight - financial, emotional, and intellectual independence. They require no supports, except those that they choose to have. They are very, very, few.
And there are those who THINK they have the three supports - and walk out to find themselves drowning with a sense of despair!
When I was told the story of the decision to start the Renusagar power plant, which is perhaps the most efficient power plant in the country today, I thought it was one of the finest examples of good followership. The venerable Mr DPM was a senior advisor and constant companion of GD Birla (GD).
Mr GD had to decide whether to start his own electricity generating plant at Hindalco (60% of the cost of making aluminium is energy), because the Uttar Pradesh (UP) electricity board kept increasing the charges in spite of earlier assurances to keep the price constant for a period of time.
Most of the senior managers felt that the cost of putting up a dedicated power plant was too high and not worth the money or the effort. When an informal vote was taken at the meeting, the majority said no. But Mr GD, having assessed the mood of the house, and in spite of it, said yes.
I am told that after a pregnant silence, Mr DPM broke it with a question: “Sir, when shall we start the work?”
A lesson in great leadership – and also in great followership!
(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India- FIMC. He was a successful corporate executive for 14 years and then pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books, a business columnist and has been visiting professor in Marketing in the US, Europe, and Asia for over 40 years. His latest books are "Marketing in a Digital/Data World with Brian Almeida and "Customer Value Starvation can kill" with Gautam Mahajan. He now spends most of his time on NGO work and is presently Chairman, Consumer Education and Research Society, India)