Follow the leader; but what does that make me?

The search for ‘good leadership’ may be a defining characteristic of our time. A 2016 Deloitte survey found that leadership was among the top ranked priorities of participating companies. Of Australian participants, 94% rated leadership as ‘important’ or ‘very important’. According to the same Deloitte article, in 2015, companies spent $31 billion on leadership programs. With all this focus on leaders, less attention is given to ‘followers’. And less analysis still on whether people whose work does not involve an explicit leadership role think of themselves as ‘followers’ or as something else entirely.

Despite the persistent focus on leaders, as Robert E Kelley wrote as early as 1988, ‘not all corporate success is due to leadership’. What’s more, as Kelley pointed out, despite the attention given to leaders, most of us, in fact, are in ‘follower’ roles in our work lives – even those in leadership positions typically report to a higher authority. And yet, there is a continued focus in cultivating the personal attitudes and behaviours of leaders and in celebrating the achievements of successful leaders. Indeed, exceptionally successful business leaders are revered to such an extent that they achieve a level of celebrity.

The Forbes World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list, published annually, is indicative: alongside political leaders and activists are athletes, coaches, Hollywood actors and producers and, of course, CEO’s. J Andrew Morris and colleagues note that business leaders have been described as ‘idols, heroes, saviors, warriors and magicians, and omnipotent and omniscient demagogues’ (2005:1324). We are encouraged to heed the wisdom of these leaders not just in terms of their subject matter expertise – their apparent business acumen; but because they have something to teach us as people.

It may be true that some exceptionally successful people are themselves exceptional. But, is it possible that this elevation of leaders and leadership is actually counter-productive? Are there downsides in focusing on leadership as a special achievement of a special kind of person? Well, some research suggests it can have perverse effects – rewarding the wrong kinds of personality types with leadership roles. It can also diminish the rewards available to employees not in leadership roles who bring expertise, commitment and dedication to their work. These are genuine concerns for organisations who want to succeed by acting responsibly and building positive organisational cultures. Treating leaders as a special category of people – focusing on their differences from followers, rather than their similarities, risks over-emphasising the difference in these roles.

The ballooning of CEO pay is one extreme example of what can happen when leaders are seen as innately different from, and innately more valuable than, ‘followers’. In the UK the ratio of CEO pay as compared to the average wage was 15:1 in 1980, 47:1 in 1998 and roughly 183:1 in 2014. A 2015 survey by Glassdoor of large, publicly traded companies on the S&P 500 in the US found that the ratio of CEO to median worker pay was 204. At the most extreme end was Discovery Communications where the CEO to median worker ratio was 1951. That is, the CEO earned 1,951 times what the median worker at Discovery Communications earned.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that a 2016 study by Glassdoor found ‘higher CEO compensation is statistically linked to lower CEO approval ratings on average.’ What’s more, a University of California study found that leaders perceptions of followers impacts organisational performance; from interpersonal liking, to ‘relationship quality between followers and leaders’ and ‘follower’s job-satisfaction’. The study also found that leaders perceptions of followers influences the way that they treat followers and that, consequently, followers tend to fulfil the perceptions that leaders have about them. Leaders perceptions of their employees matter, just as employee perceptions of their leaders matter.

The point then, is not to suggest that leadership is not important, but to remember that leadership refers to a role and that the quality of the relationship between leaders and followers is just as important as the quality of leaders themselves. Treating leadership success as merely a personal attribute can distract attention from this fact. And as examples from politics all too frequently show, too much emphasis on leadership can have the perverse impact of losing the trust of ‘followers’.

Angie Bletsas is a senior consultant at Rapid Context. She specialises in in critical analysis, academic and applied research project design and management. Specialist expertise in social policy.

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