What is the best relationship between leaders and followers?

Written by
Patricia Hind

21 Jan 2016

21 Jan 2016 • by Patricia Hind

Relational leadership roles, rights and responsibilities

A common view of leadership today is that it is about ‘getting things done, through people’. This deceptively simple statement does not specify any particular leadership characteristics or abilities. This represents a shift from more traditional views which held that leadership was a matter of personality traits associated with being able to communicate a vision and setting a direction for others to follow.  We often refer to the contemporary approach as ‘Relational Leadership’, implying that the essence of leadership is not held exclusively in the personal characteristics and attributes of the individual with the title of leader, but that it resides in the dynamics of the relationship between the leaders and the followers.

So far so good – this approach acknowledges the importance of everybody in the immediate Leader – Follower Relationship (LFR), but very often research and practice stops there, with all further consideration continuing to place an overemphasis on the individual leadership role. There are no ‘follower development’ programmes in management education! There are, of course, ‘team development’ courses, which are, in a roundabout way, aimed at followership, but the specific relationship between leaders and followers is rarely examined. 

Empower people to deliver the best

This is a real gap in our understanding because successful leadership, usually assumed to be a key factor in successful organisations, tends to be judged as a result of the performance of the people who actually work for the organisational leaders. Good leaders can enable and empower people to deliver of their best, in a way that benefits both the organisation and all the individuals involved.

Yet we rarely examine this key link between leaders and followers to see how it works best, who needs to do what or what is expected of the people involved. To make the LFR effective, it is critical that, as well as developing the skills of leaders, we understand what it means to be an effective follower in that relationship. Both contributors to that relationship are essential and are in a truly symbiotic partnership you can’t have one without the other, and not everybody can be top dog. 

So, let’s think about the different roles in that relationship. Ultimately, everyone involved is there to ensure that the strategic objectives of the organisation are met. The leaders’ role may be to set those strategic objectives, or to communicate them to others. He or she needs to make clear what is expected of organisational members, and as far as possible to make sure that they have the resources to meet, or exceed, those expectations.  The leader must manage performance, rewarding and refining as necessary. We’re mostly clear about this role – there is a great deal of research and published information available, but what it takes to be a good follower is a much less sexy topic!  

We know that a good follower is an active and participative team member, and that their key role must be to deliver what is asked of them. They must give of their best, work hard and support the leadership of the organisation in committing to its’ success. This does not mean they are blind followers, a good team member will be a ‘critical friend’ to his or her leader and bring the skills of critical thinking to question, challenge and support leadership decisions. 

Ensure your people can have a voice

This leads us on to the responsibilities involved. Effective team members give voice to the uneasiness they feel when the behaviors or policies of the leader or group are confusing or conflict with their sense of what is right. Correspondingly, leaders have a responsibility to create an environment where those concerns can be safely expressed and listened to. Leaders must take the trouble to know the capabilities and motivations of their people so that their work will be meaningful and satisfying, yet followers must take responsibility for themselves and the work they do for the organisation. In creating this vital bond, team members should not hold a paternalistic image of the leader or organisation, nor should they expect either to provide for their career security, or to make all their decisions for them.  

As well as roles and responsibilities, to make this relationship work, leaders and followers both have rights which should be acknowledged. Obviously we understand the formal contractual rights of ‘pay and ration’s’ which are explicit and acknowledged. These terms and conditions are critical to make any relationship work. But even more importantly is the ‘psychological contract’ which implicitly underpins how each of the partners hopes to be treated and respected.  Leaders have the right to expect those who report to them to work to the best of their ability and to trust and support their decisions, within the environment of ‘critical friendship’ that we mentioned earlier. Followers have the right to be respected and valued for their work and also to be given opportunities to develop and excel, whilst they meet their side of the bargain. 

Fundamentally, a good leader - follower relationship is about trust, openness and respect. It goes much further than simply doing no harm or damage to people within their working environment. A good LFR is one that represents true collaboration between the partners in and considers both the value given and the value gained by both. 

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