The Art of Following – Being open about what you want


I’ve written two posts about following in the hope of redressing the balance on LinkedIn that’s currently vastly in favour of tips on leadership. Followers make up the majority of our human population and the professional population LinkedIn addresses, though sometimes in some contexts we lead and in others we follow.

The Art of Following

The Art of Following – Obedience

I’ve suggested that in following we don’t always have to do what we’re told. Even in the military, and even in war, there are limits to obedience. But how we deal with uncongenial demands is important. A good follower criticises constructively, but is capable of compromise and compliance when led reasonably and openly. Sulking, sullen non-compliance is an unwise strategy. Better, if compliance is impossible, to get out of the situation entirely.

I’ve led two companies for more than twenty years – LLP Group, a regional consultancy and software reseller in Central and Eastern Europe, and systems@work, a software author specialising in professional services and expense management systems. If there is one thing I’ve learned about management it is that there aren’t any failsafe formulas.

I’ve worked extensively for international companies as a consultant and I’ve been impressed by how methodical they are in what they do – in marketing, finance, HR, and operations. When they arrived in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s they brought their procedures and manuals with them. And to some extent these work, but they must always be interpreted rather than blindly followed. Standard procedures must be adapted to local contexts and cultures.

If there is one area where I’ve always seen procedures fail it is in the are of motivation. What works in Manhattan doesn’t always work in Moscow.


In my experience you must understand each of your followers individually if you’re to motivate them well. Some staff need constant attention and reassurance, even, in some cases the kind of micro-management that others abhor. Some want to belong to a well defined team, whether it’s the whole of or only part of a company, and love team-building activities, and other kinds of company jolly. Others want to be left alone and have no interest in the ‘group’. Some need public recognition, through a job title, others want more money. Some must be allowed to be creative, others just want to do what they’re told. The variations are as many as there are human beings in the world.

Leaders must be sensitive and percipient. Followers must be open both about what they want and what they don’t want. A good follower can help his or her leader by saying or showing what he or she needs. Nothing is worse than hidden resentment. Resentments so often end with terminal crises.

Some years ago I visited one of our subsidiaries and spoke to everyone in the company. There was a feeling that morale was low and I wanted to understand what was wrong. What I found was that our employees didn’t feel appreciated, and that in many cases rewards had been promised but not delivered – a car, a salary rise, a more generous bonus, a promotion. But everyone wanted something different.

If you’re a follower, think about what you want, and make it clear. Don’t demand. Ask nicely! And if something has been promised to you and not delivered, remind your leader gently. He or she may, albeit unforgivably, have simply forgotten.

The Inane Idea of Leadership


I’ve heard and read more than I can bear about ‘Leadership’.


Browse through the Group posts on LinkedIn and you’ll see hundreds on the subject (these are from the Project Management group):

These took me just five minutes to find.

I’ll never read a single one of them, not only because of the split infinitives, and the incorrect capitalisations, but because the entire concept, like its twin ‘success’, is utterly inane and entirely chimerical. Though I have to admit that ‘The Leadership Style of Anna Hazare’ does tickle my fancy a little (it turns out that he’s a 74-year-old former soldier fighting corruption in India, but I couldn’t read beyond the point where the writer introduced ‘four types’ of leadership).

I suspect that ‘leadership’ is originally an American concept, even if it’s caught on like a global epidemic amongst those who read and write for LinkedIn. I think of strong-jawed pioneers leading waggon trains into the unknown, slaughtering Indians as they go. I think of the ‘right stuff’ that took America’s astronauts to the Moon. I think of George W Bush leading the nation on a futile expedition to Iraq and of Donald Trump vowing to ‘make America great again’, by which he means ‘the greatest’. It’s essentially a military ideal closely linked to conquest, and it’s lauded in a country where too many Generals have made it to the White House.

I don’t believe in ‘leadership’. I don’t believe there’s an important quality you can distil from the mess of other qualities and characteristics that ordinary or exceptional people possess that is the very essence of ‘leadership’. Those who define it, train themselves in it, or chase after it are deluded. Those who crave it in others, wanting merely to follow, are yet more foolish.

Leaders find themselves ‘leading’, the best of them reluctantly, in virtue of their ideas, their courage, their determination, their principles, and their intelligence, sometimes entirely in virtue of their ability to delegate decision-making to others, or to achieve a consensus amongst their peers. The best are cajoled into the role (just as the UK’s Speaker of the House of Commons must be dragged to his chair following his election). The best don’t shoulder their way forwards and upwards. Sadly, it’s all too often delusion, ignorance, obstinacy, ruthlessness, self-interest, cruelty, skilful myth-making or obsession that inspires obedience in some and makes others into leaders. I think of Putin.

Let’s not forget that what we admire in today’s leaders we might revile or reject in them tomorrow. ‘Fred, the Shred’ who led the Royal Bank of Scotland to supremacy amongst the UK’s high street banks was later stripped of his knighthood when the bank nearly failed. Even Churchill, the right leader in 1940, was defeated at a General Election before victory was won in the East. Cecil Rhodes is not what he was.

Political leadership usually ends in failure. In business too, elevating the concept of ‘leadership’ to pre-eminence in the Pantheon of business ideals is plain stupid. Let’s hear much less about it and about its equally inane, intellectually vacuous twin, ‘success’.

You’re not what you wear – Papal lessons in leadership

I love Pope Francis. I’m not a religious man, I hasten to say, and there are more than one or two things I would disagree with him about, but there’s clearly a lot to learn from him about leadership and much to admire.

Pope in Yellow 2

Take the cheap yellow cape he wore in the Philippines at an open-air Mass. Just what everyone else was wearing. Just what you and i would wear if we were caught unexpectedly in a typhoon. Utilitarian, ill-cut, but functional. Forget Burberry.

Pope Francis doesn’t set himself apart. And that, surely, is something that all leaders must learn. Set aside, instead, the crimson Prada slippers, the motorcades, the five-star hotels, and be the same as everyone else. Don’t kid yourself that your position demands that a special dignity be preserved. You are what you are, not what you wear.

I was equally touched to see that when Pope Francis left the Philippines for Europe, he carried his own tatty briefcase. What was in it, I wonder? Toothbrush, pyjamas, a spare pair of socks, laptop, business cards, an old sandwich, ticket, passport, cash? On second thoughts, perhaps a Bible rather than a laptop.

Pope bag