No matter how healthy the relationship between a leader and followers, it is not a substitute for a leader’s relationships with peers. Even in a relaxed leader-follower relationship there is always some tendency to maintain a little distance, a distinction in roles. We need to be alert to a leader who lacks peer relationships and encourage their development. Men, in particular, are not known for tending to their relationships. Sometimes as they move up the ladder they leave friends behind and wind up instead with associates.
Some leaders mix in their professional circles. While important, this tends to be a business or political activity. They are presenting their social personae. Leaders need relationships that get below the surface, relationships that allow them to talk about their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths.
The need for peer relations exists for all leaders, but is critical for charismatic leaders such as religious figures whose followers’ devotion blinds them to their flaws. We have seen the number of evangelical ministers who have fallen from grace in recent years. Courageous followers must encourage charismatic leaders to cultivate relationships with others who do not hold them in awe.
It may require someone who has known the leader in different roles and stages of development to “get through” to him. It may require someone of similar stature to empathize with and challenge him. He may just need a buddy to have a heart-to-heart talk with. A close relationship with just one peer can also present a problem, however, if the relationship mutually reinforces an unhealthy condition such as sexism or alcoholism. A diversity of peer relationships avoids undue influence by one individual. Peer relationships might include:
a longtime friend or relative,
other prominent leaders in the same or related fields,
a former follower who has become a leader of comparable stature,
a former mentor who reestablishes a relationship with the leader,
a peer support group, such as a monthly roundtable in which business leaders discuss their problems,
a spiritual counselor, respected author, or consultant who can speak to a leader on equal terms.
It is not the role of followers to engineer a leader’s social relations. But it is the role of courageous followers to stay alert to a leader’s well-being. Isolation from peers is a warning sign that should be heeded.