Are We Flawed as Followers?

With so many corporate leaders in disrepute, what can be done about bad leadership? Perhaps some of today’s leaders get away with various and sundry peccadilloes because their followers fail to demand accountability.

“Leading in America has never been easy,” writes Barbara Kellerman in The End of Leadership. “But now it is more difficult than ever—not only because we have too many bad leaders, but because we have too many bad followers.”

As followers, many of us are too timid, disengaged, fearful or alienated to speak up, making it easy for corporate leaders to do what they want—and what’s best for their bank accounts.

The leadership-development industry has become huge, with $50 billion a year spent on corporate training. Shouldn’t the curriculum include elements of followership or creating cultures of trust? Everyone, including the CEO, has to answer to someone, be it a board, stockholders or a senior team.

Question These Assumptions

Kellerman asks those in charge of leadership-development programs to question the assumptions the industry promotes:

  • Leadership can be learned by most. Leaders matter more than anyone else.
  • Context is tertiary.

She also suggests several important mindset shifts based on these assumptions:

  1. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by changing human nature. No amount of preaching or sermonizing—no exhortations to virtuous conduct, uplifting thoughts or wholesome habits—will obviate the fact that our nature is constant (even when our behaviors change).
  2. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership without stopping and slowing bad followership. Leaders and followers are always interdependent.
  3. We cannot stop or slow bad leadership by sticking our heads in the sand. Amnesia, wishful thinking, the lies we tell as individuals and organizations, and all of the other mind games we play to deny or distort reality get us nowhere. Avoidance inures us to the costs and casualties of bad leadership, allowing them to fester.

What do you think about Kellerman’s observations on bad leadership? Are we being naively optimistic to think that followers in organizations can speak up and stop bad leadership? Tell me what your opinion is.

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