Leadership at all Levels: Do Leaders Need Followers?

“I’d really like to help you Sir, and I agree you should get some compensation, but I’m just not authorized… my supervisor will call you tomorrow morning. I’m sorry…”

Feel like a familiar conversation? I think we’ve all been there. For me it was with a rental car whose wipers broke. And since we only use wipers when it rains, I was left in a downpour with no wipers. I called the company who said they could only help if I took the car back to where I picked it up. So there I was (bravely I thought) driving through the rain. The words I started this article with were uttered by a customer service rep—a good guy doing his best. Only thing is his company didn’t believe in giving him authority or responsibility. They didn’t let him lead.

Leadership at all levels isn’t a new or even controversial concept. Deloitte research from 2014 shows leadership is the ‘top human capital concern’ and recommends developing leaders at all levels as an urgent priority in business. But although it’s the subject of Forbes and Entrepreneur articles, just like ‘employee engagement’, leadership at all levels is fast becoming a buzzword that won’t make it past research papers, blogs and tweets.

Follow The Leader?

Why? Well there’re two reasons why leadership at all levels hasn’t made it to a living philosophy in the majority of organizations.

The first reason is hinted at in a conversation I had with a business leader a few weeks back. He asked a straightforward question: “If everyone leads, who’s left to follow?”

It’s a reasonable question whose formulation is revealing. It’s based on the idea of an organization with a well-established hierarchy and a culture where only the senior team contributes to developing strategy. They spot problems and develop new company systems to tackle them. In an organization like that frontline staff are left to focus on achieving objectives and KPIs. Their thoughts and contributions are an afterthought at the end of a yearly performance review.

The fact is some organizations don’t want people taking ownership. Maybe it’s down to a lack of trust in employees, maybe it’s a lack of belief in them.

For my money, that’s an organizational model past its sell by date.

Responsive Organizations Need Invested Staff

But there’s another reason leadership at all levels often doesn’t make the leap to reality. Some organizations like the theory but balk at the time, money and effort it takes to bring it to life.

That’s short sighted. If frontline staff, middle managers and senior managers all lead a business that business becomes a responsive and dynamic organization.

Responsive because when staff see small problems they take action immediately. If that seems unlikely think about Toyota. One of its key quality control principles is Jidoka: production workers have the authority to push a line-stop button if they notice quality problems or equipment malfunctions.

If people are given the opportunity to contribute on issues that affect them, they take ownership of what they’re doing. And that means businesses become more flexible, and yes, more profitable.

Making Leadership at all Levels Real

That doesn’t come at the cost of everyone fighting to get their ideas heard and implemented. And that’s because a good leader is a good follower. And since good leaders empower other leaders it becomes a virtuous circle with everyone leading to do things better.

It’s true leadership at all levels takes time, money and effort to work. But here’s a few tips I’ve gleaned over the years in making it a reality:

  • give people real responsibility and then hold them accountable
  • get people involved in how your organization implements objectives and strategies
  • create forums where people can voice their concerns and ideas as well as take initiative
  • avoid creating a restrictive workplace where processes hamper your staff’s ability to act in the best interests of your organization
  • take the easy wins: ask your staff to identify areas of your organization they’d like to improve and give them the space to do it

Author: Joe Britto

Joe is a psychological coach, writer, interactive consultant and founder of Innate Leaders. He works with a wide range of leaders from organizations including non-profits as well as the public and private sectors. His work focuses on creating long term sustainable change by developing a leadership mindset throughout an organization.

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