I recently attended a conference where one of the speakers spoke glowingly about the need to develop “followership” within the workforce. Her logic was impeccable. Give the workforce reasons to come to work and enjoy being followers. I wanted to scream. The very idea of “followership” is demeaning and outdated. It has its roots in a day where men (primarily) assumed leadership positions because of superior education, technical skills, or birthright. There were two kinds of people in the world, leaders, and followers. Leaders were superior beings than followers. Many times, through divine placement into the social order.
Today, we enjoy the most highly educated workforce in humanity’s history, and in many ways, their technical skills are as good as or better than their bosses. Who in their right mind gets up in the morning, excited that they will go to work and be a “follower?” There are over half a billion profiles on LinkedIn. I am confident in saying, not one of them has placed in their profile that they are a “follower” looking for a leader.
Furthermore, if anyone is listening, millennials and the generation behind them have made it clear that they are not interested in being followers of anyone. Why should they have been taught since infancy that they are “special” and that they can change the world?
In his book, Turn the Ship Around, Captain David Marquet tells the story of taking over command of the nuclear-powered attack submarine, the USS Santa Fe. During the first training exercise, he discovered rather rudely that the Navy had trained him in a leadership system that would not work. He had to design a new system on the fly, one that abolished the notion of leader-follower to a leader-leader model. He describes the impact of leaders developing followers, “Psychologically for the leader, this is tremendously rewarding. It is seductive. Psychologically for most followers, this is debilitating”. In two years, this new leadership system turned the submarine from the lowest-performing ship in the fleet to the highest performance the Navy had ever seen.
Writer and speakers still talk about the need for bold and courageous leaders. I no longer believe this. The need or our day is for people in positions of organizational leadership to create a workforce that is bold and courageous. This means the destruction of “followership.”