I just finished reading an insightful article on leadership in the digital age: How Digital Leadership Is(n’t) Different, which is part of a special report by the MITSloan Management Review on the challenges of the digital transformation. Sponsored by Deloitte, the article is meticulously researched and in many ways reflects the state of the art in advising top management on leadership in the digital age. And yet, a quick search confirmed that one key word is missing from the piece. That key word is follower. Followership is leadership’s inseparable twin, and I never cease to be amazed at the all but exclusive focus on leadership most experts in the field have.
Regardless of which definition of leadership you prefer, there can be no doubt that leadership is first and foremost a functional resource for group performance. As a matter of fact, anthropological evidence suggests that leadership evolved in ancestral human groups as a tool for survival (and reproduction) of the group’s members – all of whom were followers almost all of the time. Leadership, in other words, was ‘invented’ for the benefit of followers. Why then are we obsessed with the role leadership plays in benefitting customers and external stakeholders? Why do leaders seldom seem to ask: what’s in it for my followers? Why, in fact, is it taken for granted that followers will always be happy to follow their leader? These are key questions touching on the most important leadership trait according to the authors of the article: a transformative vision and forward-looking perspective: “Providing vision and direction have been long-standing essential components of leadership. But in a digital environment, with the emphasis on future change, they take on new significance.”
The significance of this trait notwithstanding, it doesn’t warrant the implicit assumption that followers will be happy to subscribe to their leader’s transformative vision. The somewhat circular logic behind that assumption seems to be this: Leaders are meant to lead other people, and it’s the leader’s job to come up with a vision, hence people will follow it. Certainly, the list of key leadership tasks the article features omits the generation of shared purpose or active follower support for the grand transformative plan dangled in front of them.
Followers are simply assumed to buy into their leader’s vision. However, expecting people to follow you on the (implicit) grounds that you have been appointed as their leader in effect anchors your leadership in position power, aka coercion, which is by and large a sure-fire recipe for mediocre outcomes, if not eventual leadership failure. To be sure, coercion usually causes compliance, but at the cost of resentment, alienation, and, consequently, below-par performances. In fact, expecting employees to subscribe to the leader’s vision reflects an underhand form of command-and-control leadership, which is a far cry from the notion of the inclusive, cooperative, non-hierarchical people management digital leadership endorses. After all, the leader defines and introduces the vision – it’s the most important leadership trait, remember – and he or she is no doubt bound to run regular checks on the inroads ‘empowered’ employees have been making towards it. Against this background, it is small wonder that global engagement scores keep hovering at shockingly low levels (13% according to the 2017 Gallup State of the Global Workplace report – yes, THIRTEEN!), coinciding with an ever-widening ‘communication gap’ between the need for effective leadership communication and leaders’ actual delivery (see image). Indeed, that gap is inextricably linked to the ongoing global leadership crisis, and there is already talk of the failure of the whole agile approach to people management, which closely overlaps the concept of digital leadership, of course. Promising power to the people and failing to make good on that promise has never been a good idea, even in the best of circumstances. And who would seriously consider our VUCA world the best of circumstances?
What, then, are leaders caught up in the digital transformation supposed to do? It all starts, as usual, with a mindset change. The focus needs to shift from leadership to followership. As the former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower famously quipped: “Leadership is the art of getting other people to do what you want done because they want to do it.” Because they want to do it. That’s another way of saying that leadership only ever maximises outcomes if it maximises the interests of the leader’s followers – if they are intrinsically motivated; if it is about them rather than the company’s customers or external stakeholders; if, in short, followership is a rational strategy. Certainly, the findings of empirical research in this regard are straightforward: companies that put employees first perform better. Period. To succeed, digital leaders thus need to emphasise the benefits their transformative vision entails for each and every one of their employees. This key communication task ought to be part of any list of the dos and don’ts of digital leadership. Let’s call it generating digital followership.
In conclusion, in the VUCA world the digital transformation has helped create followers more than ever want leaders to give them direction. This involves proactive, persuasive, ‘follower-centric’ leadership communications making sure the direction the team or organisation is going to be headed is seen as the right one from the perspective of the leader’s followers. In doing so, leaders take an important step toward closing the communication gap at the heart of the global leadership crisis.
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