from the desk of H. Bowie...

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Leadership and Followership: 21 Key Observations

I was reading recently about a couple of different situations involving traits of both leadership and followership.

First, there was the statement by Liz Cheney that “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” contradicting recent statements from Donald Trump, setting up a battle for Republican Party leadership, and prompting a Tweet from Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) asserting that “Liz Cheney does not understand the responsibilities of leadership.”

Then there was the brouhaha at and around Basecamp, following some controversial leadership decisions announced by the founders, including: “no more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account,” and “no more committees.”

Some reflection on these two situations has compelled me to dispense the following bits of wisdom on the subjects of leading and following. Some of these may seem obvious, and some controversial, but they are all equally true and valuable, based on my own experience doing a fair bit of both in a number of different organizations.

  1. Leadership consists primarily of making decisions and communicating those decisions.

  2. Followership consists primarily of accepting and implementing decisions.

  3. To live in human society almost always involves more following than leading – even for anointed leaders.

  4. Much of what we call management within an organization involves a combination of leading and following: each leader must follow direction from other leaders who are operating within their areas of authority; at the same time, they must understand and internalize such direction, and tailor the implementation and communication details of such direction as appropriate for usage by their own teams.

  5. Both leadership and followership are primarily forward-looking affairs: neither leaders nor followers can afford to dwell for long on past failures or successes.

  6. The best way to ensure that nothing will ever get done is to wait for a perfect decision.

  7. Even though no decision is perfect, some decisions are vastly better than others.

  8. Facts matter. You can make decisions based on untruths, and you can persuade followers to accept those decisions for some periods of time, but sooner or later such decisions will come back to bite you.

  9. The obvious choices are not always the best ones. The most important decisions often require hard choices involving significant tradeoffs.

  10. We are all individuals, and we are all different, but each of us should have some degree of integrity about what we believe, how we make our beliefs known to others, and how we act in accordance with those beliefs.

  11. We live in a multi-tribal society: that is, each of us belongs to more than one tribe, we have some degree of choice in terms of where we place our allegiances, and each tribe has its own goals and rules. Not all actions (no matter how well intentioned) are appropriate at all times within all tribes.

  12. We all get to decide when to lead, and when to follow.

  13. We all get to decide who to follow, and how to lead.

  14. We are all responsible for our own decisions.

  15. Decisions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences may include a parting of ways with others.

  16. We each may place differing degrees of trust in various leaders, but no leader is infallible, and the leaders who least deserve our trust are those who claim infallibility.

  17. Effective leaders often defer decisions while more relevant information is being collected.

  18. Effective leaders recognize that there always comes a time when the negative consequences of failing to decide begin to outweigh the risks associated with making a decision.

  19. The primary purpose of a committee is to dilute or deflect responsibility for announced decisions, or to misdirect attention away from which decisions are the important ones, and who is making them.

  20. Quests for consensus sometimes work when the group size is no more than four, and when all members of the group already know and respect one another. In any other situation, quests for consensus generally result in a masking of differences, rather than true agreement.

  21. The best leaders seek counsel from others, and sometimes delegate decision-making authority to others, but generally reserve the authority to make a final decision when:

    • The decision has significant consequences,
    • The decision-making power lies within the leader’s authority,
    • The leader feels sufficiently well informed, and
    • The leader has a strong opinion on the issues at hand.

    Note that the four conditions above are joined by an and: if any of them are missing, then it may be best for the leader to defer to others.

I will leave the application of these observations to the two situations mentioned earlier as an exercise for the reader.

May 6, 2021