While examining the leader-follower relationship it is important to bear in mind that the dynamics are much more complex than those between two individuals. There are usually at least several followers who are close to the leader, and the interaction between followers profoundly affects the group. Trust between the members of this group is as critical as trust between a leader and follower.
As in a family, there are issues of alliances and shifting alliances, favoritism and perceived favoritism, treatment according to birth order and gender, competing needs and demands for attention, differing styles and invidious comparisons, and limited resources. If these issues can be managed, the group will find strength in both diversity and unity.
There are at least two broad dimensions in these group relationships that courageous followers must stay alert to—how followers relate to each other and how they relate collectively to the leader.
How followers relate to each other:
Staying alert to the individual needs of each member brings us into collaborative unity rather than fractious competitiveness.
Appreciating our differences enables us to utilize those differences in the service of the common purpose.
Respecting each other’s boundaries allows us to cross them by mutual consent without triggering turf warfare.
Building strong lateral communication and coordination among ourselves enables us to accomplish our functions.
Participating in creative thinking about issues instead of rigidly defending our positions invites the power of synergy into the group.
Remembering whom we serve will help us find common ground when we seem to be splitting into factions.
If we need to compete, it is best to outdo each other in forwarding the common purpose rather than in undermining each others’ efforts.
Being willing to both lead and follow our peers, as the situation warrants, permits competency-based leadership.
How followers relate to the leader:
A follower’s need to shine for the leader at the expense of the other stars in the group will cause stellar explosions in the group dynamics.
When presenting our counsel to the leader, we will earn both our peers’ and the leader’s trust if we also present full and fair descriptions of our peers’ positions.
When followers bring their internal squabbles to the leader, it drains the leader and evokes impatient and poorly thought-out responses.
If a leader plays one follower against another, we need to resist the attractiveness of temporarily being in favor, and work collectively to change the dynamic.
When our peers act courageously toward the leader, it is critical that we support them and do not leave them out on the proverbial limb alone.
An effective follower stays sensitive to the complex dynamics within the leader’s close support group. The dance has now become a lively reel, and we pay attention to all the whirling partners continuously changing positions within the dance’s framework.