What Are Your Leadership Derailers?

Here’s the thing: we all want to be better leaders.

But too often we focus on what to do as leaders while neglecting what not to do.

That’s where leadership derailers come in—the things that take us off track and inhibit our leadership effectiveness. If we want to be good leaders, we must be aware of our derailers and begin working on them.

“Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”David Gergen, political commentator and senior advisor to four U.S. presidents, from his book, Eyewitness to Power

10 Common Leadership Derailers

Here are ten common derailers, based on my research and work with leaders from many different industries, sectors, countries, and stages of career development:

  1. Avoidance: avoiding difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  2. Burnout: becoming run-down and feeling exhausted, often due to lack of self-care.
  3. Bottleneck: feeling you must make all decisions or taking on too much work yourself, causing delays.
  4. Delegation: not entrusting tasks to others sufficiently, leading to reduced motivation.
  5. Feedback: not providing feedback well or often enough, or not soliciting it enough or receiving it well.
  6. Insecurity: lacking confidence about leading or feeling unqualified to lead; being unassertive.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others; needing things to be flawless.
  8. Procrastination: putting things off until later or the last minute.
  9. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.
  10. Workaholism: being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it.

While these are common derailers, there are many more. In fact, I’ve identified more than sixty derailers that inhibit leadership effectiveness.

What are your top leadership derailers? And what will you do about them?

See our new Leadership Derailers Assessment to find out—and then get to work on improving your leadership.

 

Reflection Questions

  • What do you struggle with as a leader?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?
  • Who will you ask for help?

This always works best when colleagues openly discuss it together. We all have derailers. We all have work to do. So get real. And get busy with the important work of intentional leadership development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

Gregg

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Leadership Derailers

  • “Instead of learning from other people’s success, learn from their mistakes. Most of the people who fail share common reasons, whereas success can be attributed to various different kinds of reasons.” –Jack Ma, Chinese entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Conflict Is Good–And How to Manage It

Do you know how to manage conflict well? Most people avoid conflict. Why?

There are many reasons, with fear at the heart of them all:

  • Fear of tension
  • Fear of hurting others
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of escalation of tough issues
  • Fear of a break in the relationship
  • Fear of an unexpected outcome, perhaps tougher to manage
  • Fear of being viewed as a troublemaker
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of having to deal with difficult consequences

These fears are understandable. So we end up avoiding it like the plague.

“In my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time

 

Signs of Conflict Avoidance

Conflict avoidance is widespread in organizations and teams. Signs of it in action:

  • People hold back and withhold opinions.
  • Meetings are boring or lame because people don’t really engage.
  • Team members don’t challenge each other.
  • Teams slide toward mediocrity since recurring issues never get addressed.
  • Leaders don’t invite differing views.
  • Some people are allowed to remain silent during meetings.
  • People say what they really feel only behind others’ backs.
  • Managers don’t get critical information.
  • People get cynical or burned out because the same problems keep reappearing.
  • People develop blind spots because they never get the feedback they need that’s tough and necessary.
  • People sense that the leader is abdicating responsibility by letting some things remain undiscussable.

Do you recognize these signs in your context? Here’s the problem: conflict is good for teams. In fact, it’s essential.

 

Mining for Conflict (Stop One in How to Manage Conflict)

Author Patrick Lencioni writes about a conflict continuum, ranging from artificial harmony on one end to mean-spirited personal attacks on the other, with most organizations leaning toward the former. The ideal conflict point is in the middle.

Productive conflict is what we need. Respectful conflict. Conflict grounded in trust. And conflict centered around shared goals, not egos or agendas.

Conflict can’t be productive without high levels of trust. How can you feel comfortable airing out the real issues if you don’t trust the people in the room? Without that trust, and the productive conflict it allows, how can the team drive toward shared commitments, accountability, and results?

With high trust and a focus on shared goals, we can channel conflict toward the pursuit of truth (what’s really going on here?) and the quest for high performance, instead of feeble attempts by fragile egos to notch points.

Managing conflict is hard because most people run away from it or get triggered by it, allowing stimuli to hijack their response. It’s uncomfortable because it elicits a physiological response: chemicals, hormones, blood flow, and heart rate signal “Danger, danger!”

Part of the job of leaders is to create an environment where people feel comfortable engaging in conflict instead of fleeing it. Better yet, viewing it as an asset. As a potential advantage.

Leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to recognize that people handle conflict differently, based on their personality, upbringing, culture, and more. We must learn to read each other and help each other navigate this difficult terrain.

Lencioni recommends that leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold. Why? Some of the real breakthroughs can only be found on the other side of conflict.

 

How to Mine for Conflict

How does this work in practice? A leader must go digging for buried disagreements or the things that aren’t being said. Also, a leader must have the courage to bring the group’s attention to sensitive issues, where people feel uncomfortable, and push them to work through the issues despite the awkwardness and difficulty. A leader mustn’t let people avoid the issues or sensitive discussions. In addition, a leader must create a holding environment where it’s safe for some sparks to fly.

One leadership practice here is counterintuitive: catch people disagreeing during a meeting and praise them for modeling needed behavior. Remind them that the goal is not to focus on who wins, but on how conflict can help us understand core issues, root causes, and possible solutions.

By doing this, leaders can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence.

 

Regulate the Temperature

Another leadership practice here is “regulating the temperature.” Most teams generate friction and heat in their work together, especially in pressure-filled situations. Too often, leaders step in and artificially dial down the temperature as people start to feel uncomfortable.

That’s a mistake. The key is to keep the temperature hot enough—but not too hot—so that productive disagreement can continue as people work through the tension and start approaching solutions, instead of sweeping things under the rug.

Another leadership practice: depersonalize conflict. Reframe it away from who’s scoring points and toward a quest for understanding and a commitment to the shared vision.

A final leadership practice: driving to clear agreements and closure at the end of meetings. Too often, teams end meetings with ambiguity. People leave the meeting without a clear understanding of exactly what was decided and who’ll do what by when. Many meetings are poorly run, with tangents and poor time management. Attendees leave the meeting before a crisp accounting of the decisions and next steps is made. Leaders need to build in adequate time for this critical last step.

 

Not Just for Managers or Others in a Position of Authority

Important note: the leadership practices above don’t apply just to managers who have a formal position of authority. Distinguishing between leadership and authority, we note that anybody in a team can employ these leadership practices, regardless of their title. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, we noted the advanced leadership practice of building a culture of stewardship in which leaders unleash the leadership, initiative, creativity, and commitment of everybody in the organization by giving them an automatic license to lead, as long as they operate by the shared values. Conflict management is a skill we all need.

 

Conclusion: How to Manage Conflict

The bottom line: while most people avoid it, we should embrace conflict as a necessary part of effective teamwork (and relationships generally)—and learn how to manage it well.

Productive conflict saves time.

It builds trust.

And it leads to better results.

Productive conflict is a prerequisite for high-performing teams and trusting relationships.

Avoid conflict at your peril.

 

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Recommended Books on Managing Conflict Effectively

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study: “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

 

Avoiding Important Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that a very high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

 

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety. It’s a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. As with floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, it reduces or eliminates psychological safety.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.” That’s because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so they don’t share their ideas.

 

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni. He noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to avoid, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust. That’s because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Importance of Credibility in Leadership

Credibility: the quality of being worthy of belief and trust


Credibility, which flows from character and competence, is one of the most essential aspects of leadership. High credibility is a tremendous asset for leaders seeking to achieve exceptional performance and positive impacts. Low credibility is devastating.

Credible leaders are straight with people, even about hard topics. They walk the talk and practice what they preach. They do what they say they will do and follow through on promises.

Think about what you have wanted from your leaders, parents, teachers, and coaches over the years. Next, think of the impact that credible leaders have had on your life. And think of the kind of leader you would want your children or best friend to work for.

 

Characteristics of Admired Leaders

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations:

“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. 
“…people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted.”
-James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

Table 1. Characteristics of Admired Leaders
(% of respondents selecting each characteristic over time periods)

 

The Benefits of Leadership Credibility

According to their research, when people perceive their manager to have high credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization
  • Feel a strong sense of team spirit
  • See their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization
  • Feel attached and committed to the organization
  • Have a sense of ownership of the organization

When they perceive their manager to have low credibility, they are significantly more likely to:

  • Produce only if carefully watched
  • Be motivated primarily by money
  • Say good things about the organization publicly but criticize it privately
  • Consider looking for another job if the organization experiences problems
  • Feel unsupported and unappreciated

That leads them to the Kouzes-Posner 1st Law of Leadership:

“If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”


And then to the Kouzes-Posner 2nd Law of Leadership:

DWYSYWD: “Do what you say you will do.”


Today we all face grave challenges, from the pandemic and economic crisis, with all their stresses and pressures, to competitive and technological disruption. Now more than ever we need credible leaders worthy of our belief and trust.

What are you doing to build leadership credibility?


“Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.” -John C. Maxwell

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Leading from Below

In our work with leaders across sectors and industries, we often get asked about how people can “lead from below”: how they can exert influence on the organization and its culture even when they do not have much (or any) formal authority, or when they work in middle management, or when they work for a bad or mediocre manager, or for a company with a toxic culture.

The short answer: you can do much more than you think.

Ronald Heifetz from Harvard has noted that, since we tend to conflate leadership and authority, even the idea of leading without authority can be perplexing. Authority is the right to make decisions, give orders, and enforce obedience. There are many leaders who operate that way, but leadership is fundamentally different.

 

Leadership without Authority

Much of the important leadership we’ve seen in organizations comes not just from people with authority but also from people throughout the organization, regardless of their title. We have seen brilliant leadership in action from people with little authority, from new people, from interns.

One of the advanced leadership practices we advocate in our Triple Crown Leadership book, based on our interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries, is unleashing the latent leadership, creativity, and agency of people throughout the organization—viewing them as “stewards” of the organization’s shared purpose, values, and vision and its quest to be excellent, ethical, and enduring. That means developing and expecting leadership not just from above but also from below. That means that everyone has essentially two job descriptions: first, their normal duties, and second, defending the organization’s results imperative, ethics imperative, and sustainability imperative.

 

The Dangers of Leading from Below

In addressing how to lead from below, we first note that there are real dangers associated with it. When handled poorly, it can cause real problems. You can become a lightning rod. Or you can be attacked. You can be the messenger who gets shot, or become the scapegoat. Truth be told, you can lose your job.

Some managers view leading from below by those they supervise as a challenge or insult. If they are insecure or arrogant, they may attack or punish you. Other times, your colleagues will view it as an attack on the group, and they may feel obligated to isolate you out of loyalty to the group. When leading without authority, you should expect some resistance, and you need to play it smart.

Note also that there are great rewards possible from leading from below, both for you and the organization. Here are some tips based on our own experiences and what we have seen in the leadership literature.


1. Embrace your own potential and abilities. 

Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders and relinquish their own power and responsibility. With a more enlightened viewpoint, you may find that you have more potential and influence than you think arising from your knowledge, skills, relationships, work ethic, and access to information or people.


2. Reframe your mindset about your role (and your manager). 

Too often, followers give too much deference to their leaders or are too quick to throw up their hands and abdicate responsibility for what is happening in the organization, pointing fingers of blame at their colleagues who happen to be in positions of authority. The best followers do all they can to help the organization achieve its purpose, vision, and goals while operating within the bounds of values and ethics.

This means shaking things up, taking risks, and helping leaders get better (e.g., by informing them of problems they may not be aware of, raising tough issues, asking provocative questions, letting their manager know what they need to succeed, and developing relationships of trust with all they work with). We should also check our beliefs about our leaders: do we hold them to unrealistic expectations of perfection or judge them too harshly even when we may not be aware of all the challenges they face, with the pressures and demands of leadership? Have we walked a mile in their shoes?


3. Have a bias for action. 

Too many people wait to be anointed before acting, or for conditions to be “just right” (which almost never happens). In Leadership without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz writes, “many people wait until they gain authority, formal or informal, to begin leading. They see authority as a prerequisite. Yet those who do lead usually feel that they are taking action beyond whatever authority they have.”


4. Look for ways to increase your leverage by building informal authority. 

People generally respond positively to leadership regardless of whether it comes from positions of authority or not. Build up your bank account of informal authority by first and foremost establishing credibility through character and competence, as well as demonstrating trustworthiness, respect, courage, clarity, commitment, and effective communication and listening (even to people with whom you disagree).


5. Clearly establish your loyalty to the organization’s purpose, values, and vision.

That way, people know this is not a power play or selfish ambition. It must be clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have your colleagues’ and the organization’s best interests at heart. Be thoughtful about how you communicate to your colleagues, taking nothing for granted.


6. Identify allies, relevant stakeholders, and potential adversaries. 

Map out all the people, teams, and divisions involved, and see things from their perspective. Recruit as many allies as you can, especially those with deep credibility, influence, and insight into the organization—thinking also about who is trustworthy. Be open to new ideas, recognizing that you may be missing something that you cannot see clearly from your perch, and that other people come at it from a different perspective.


7. Determine your best approach.

Will you try to get results by changing the mind or behavior of your manager or management team. Or mobilize colleagues around you as change agents (or some combination)? Too often, followers assume that they have to do the former, but in many cases the latter approach can be more effective over time.


8. Recognize that by lacking authority you have some advantages. 

The cons of lacking authority are clear and obvious, such as lacking power over people and resources. The pros are less obvious but often important, including more latitude to do things differently, freedom from political limitations, less need to account for an overwhelming array of stakeholders often with conflicting interests, more access to information on the front lines, and an ability to advocate for focused issues as opposed to the full array of considerations.


9. Speak up and raise concerns when needed. 

This is one of the most important aspects of leading from below, in part because it is so rare. According to the Corporate Executive Board (now part of Gartner), “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news, and “only 19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.” Leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, “If I had to reduce the responsibilities of a good follower to a single rule, it would be to speak truth to power.”

How to speak up when needed? First, get all the facts and avoid jumping to conclusions. Our brains make extensive use of mental shortcuts and these can often lead to mistaken assumptions or biases. If the issue is in fact real, address it directly with the person in question, but ask and learn first (seeking to understand). No guns blazing with accusations. Be open to their input and try to see things from their perspective.

If not satisfied or resolved after dealing directly with the person involved, then go up the chain of command to object or blow the whistle. Meanwhile, consider seeking allies (and legal or human resources help, if needed).


10. Be prepared to walk away, if need be. 

Before assuming too much risk, think through your professional options (i.e., where would you work if you left this organization) and your personal and family finances. Have you been living lean and diligently building up savings and investments so that you are not living paycheck to paycheck and beholden to an organization that may no longer fit with your values or goals?

The best way to develop one’s own leadership skills is to practice leadership, even if one lacks the formal authority to lead. Leading from below is never easy and not without risk, but it is a powerful way to learn while also providing a great service to your colleagues and organization.

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Post-Script: Research on Leading from Below and Followership

There are many research findings that relate to the question of “leading from below,” and many of them arise from the study of “followership.” For example, Kelley (1992) created a widely known typology of followership:

  • Passive followers: look to the leader for direction and motivation
  • Conformist followers: are always on the leader’s side but still looking to the leader for direction and guidance
  • Alienated followers: think for themselves and exhibit a lot of negative energy
  • Pragmatics: fence-sitters who support the status quote but do not get on board until others do
  • Exemplary followers: are active and positive and offer independent constructive criticism

Kelley notes that effective followers are good at: leading themselves and thinking for themselves, exercising control and independence, and working without supervision; showing strong commitment to organizational goals as well as their personal goals; building their competence and mastering job skills; being credible, ethical, and courageous.

Follower Typology

Chaleff (2009) encouraged followers to take a proactive role and work with leaders to achieve common outcomes. He noted that followers need the courage to: assume responsibility for the common purpose, support the leader and the organization, constructively challenge the leader if the common purpose or integrity of the group is being threatened, champion the need for change when necessary, and take a moral stand that is different from the leader’s to prevent ethical abuses. His follower typology:

  • Resource (low support, low challenge): does just enough to get by
  • Implementer (high support, low challenge): supports and gets the work done but fails to challenge the leader’s goals and values
  • Individualist (low support, high challenge): speaks up and lets the leader know where he/she stands (often marginalized by others)
  • Partner (high support, high challenge): takes individual responsibility and supports the leader but always willing to challenge the leader when necessary

In another typology from Kellerman (2008), followers can be: isolates (completely unengaged), bystanders (observers who do not participate), participants (partially engaged and willing to take a stand on some issues), activists (determined to act on their own belief, often as change agents), or diehards (engaged to the extreme, totally dedicated to their cause, whether supporting or opposing the leader).

The Positive Aspects of Being a Follower

Too often, the research lionizes the leader (what Meindl called a “romance of leadership”), while neglecting the contributions of followers. Recent research highlights the positive aspects of being a follower, including:

  • Getting the job done
  • Working in the best interest of the mission
  • Learning from leaders
  • Supporting leaders
  • Challenging leaders

 

Toxic Leaders

In The Allure of Toxic LeadersJean Lipman-Blumen addresses the question of why people follow bad or toxic leaders (who are unethical or use people or their position for their own ends). She points to a number of human needs, desires, feelings, and fears, including: need for reassuring authority figures (especially in times of crisis), need for security and certainty, need to feel chosen or special, need to be part of a community, fear of isolation, and feelings of powerlessness to challenge bad leaders.

In Leadership: Theory and PracticePeter Northouse writes about the cost of followers who fail to stand up to toxic leaders: “when followers are passive or submissive, their inaction can contribute to unfettered leadership and unintentionally support toxic leaders…. Followers can create contexts that are unhealthy and make it possible for leaders who are not interested in the common good to thrive.”

In The Leadership Experience (2005), Richard Daft notes several demands of effective followers, including:

  • The will to assume responsibility for personal behavior and its impact on the organization
  • The will to serve the needs of the organization and the people in it
  • The will to challenge when necessary, including taking courageous stands for principles
  • The will to participate in transformation, including confronting challenges and work toward reshaping the organization
  • The will to leave when the manager or organization are toxic or unethical or when it is time to move on to another phase of life

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Albert Hirschman noted that employees have several options when they are dissatisfied with their manager or organization:

  1. Neglect: allow conditions to worsen
  2. Loyalty: passively wait for conditions to improve
  3. Voice: active and constructive attempts to improve conditions
  4. Exit: leave the organization

 

Related Books and Articles

  • Ira Chaleff, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders, third edition (Berrett-Koehler, 2009).
  • Richard Daft, The Leadership Experience (Thomson Southwestern, 2005).
  • Amy E. Gallo, “How to Speak Up about Ethical Issues at Work,” Harvard Business Blogs, June 2015.
  • Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press, 1994)
  • Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970).
  • Barbara Kellerman, “What Every Leader Needs to Know about Followers,” Harvard Business Review, December 2007.
  • Robert Kelley, The Power of Followership (Consultants to Executives and Organizations, 1992).
  • Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  • Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, eighth edition (SAGE Publications, 2019).
  • Ronald Riggio, Ira Chaleff, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Art of Followership (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Ten Keys to Self-Leadership

Man reflecting in front of water

We face a barrage of challenges these days: rapid change, a barrage of demands on our attention, tension between work and home, and more. There’s one meta-skill that shapes how we respond to all these challenges: self-leadership. 

Without it, we cannot sustain ourselves for long.

Leading self may be obvious, but it’s far from easy. We neglect it at our peril.

The task of leading self is the task of a lifetime. Here are ten keys to self-leadership:

 

1. Healthy Habits. 

When we are leading self well, we develop an energizing rhythm of self-care. It includes the “fundamentals” that many of us take for granted: good nutrition, vigorous exercise, consistently good sleep, breaks during the day, and regular check-ins to take stock of the big picture. Too often we protest that we don’t have time for such things. That is shortsighted. It is when times are tough that we need these habits the most. Without them, we unravel.


2. Inner Life.

Today, we are so consumed with daily obligations and distractions that we can lose ourselves in them. Our inner voice is drowned out by noise and shuffle. John W. Gardner once wrote, “By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” We numb ourselves with compulsive smartphone use and binge-watching. In the process, we are rewiring our brains and sabotaging our ability to engage in deep reflection and work. Knowing ourselves means discovering our:

  • Purpose: our reason for being (or what infuses our life with meaning and significance)—including a sense of why we do what we do, and why we want to lead
  • Values: what we value most in life (and the behaviors that manifest those things)
  • Strengths: what we are good at
  • Passions: what we get lost in, or what fills us with energy

Often, it takes time to discover these foundational elements. They become clearer over time if we “listen to our life,” as Parker Palmer encourages. We must build these essentials into our life and work. It helps to share them with loved ones about for input, support, connection, and follow-through.

“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.” -Paulo Coelho

 

3. Authentic Integrity.

When we act with integrity, we are not only honest, truthful, and trustworthy; we are also whole. In today’s world, it is easy to live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided life,” with a chasm between how we live and who we really are.

“One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Instead of dividing ourselves, we must integrate all aspects of our self into one coherent whole. In doing so, we must be who we really are, not a projection of something crafted to please or impress others.  In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, Christopher Gergen and I called this “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. When we live this way, we develop what Palmer calls a “hidden wholeness.” 

“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” -Parker Palmer


4. Brutal Honesty. 

Our brains are wondrous creations, with incredible capacity for sensing, thinking, remembering, learning, calculating, pattern-spotting, imagining, creating, associating, dreaming, and regenerating cells, all while subconsciously regulating our internal bodily functions and sleep.

But our brains are prone to subconscious shortcuts and biases and we are exceptionally good at rationalizing our behavior, whether good or bad. In short, we are masterful at deceiving ourselves and explaining hard truths away.

Are we needy for recognition or approval? Desperate to impress? Losing ourselves in work? Hiding our brokenness? None of us is perfect, but without brutal honesty, we will not be able to break out of unproductive patterns that cause pain for us and others.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho

 

5. Inspiration. 

There is much to be concerned about in the world today. Just look at the headlines. Sometimes we should switch off the frenzied feeds of doom and gloom and turn our gaze elsewhere: What fills us with life? What makes us crackle with energy? What lifts us up? Inspiration can come from different sources: Love. Dreams. Connection. Adventure. Opportunity. Wonder. The coming of spring. The hope of healing. The sense of having helped.

What inspires you? Have you lost touch with it?


6. Courage. 

We tend to put courage on a pedestal. Typically, we think of people suddenly reinventing their lives or leaping into the line of fire. We think of fearlessness. In truth, courage does not come without fear. We show courage when we act even though we are afraid.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” -Susan Jeffers

Courage is a prerequisite for everything that is necessary and valuable in life. What use is a good idea not launched into the world? A conviction not defended? A precious relationship not fiercely guarded? A talent that stays backstage? A manuscript that never ships?

It is not enough to have convictions: we must act on them, even when–especially when—they are hard. Courage is not always about acts of heroism. It is much more often the day-to-day hard work of showing up, getting started, putting ourselves out there, doing our best, and persisting. It requires mucking through the swamp of uncertainty.


7. Wholeheartedness. 

Too often, we live and lead just from our head. We think, reason, assess. Pros and cons. Cost/benefit. We avoid the mysterious territory of the heart. Brené Brown reminds us that we fall into the trap of trying to impress others, with fear and shame driving that fool’s errand.

The alternative, she says, is vulnerability, and embracing what she calls the “gifts of imperfection,” which can lead to connection, joy, and wholeheartedness.

“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” -Brené Brown

 

8. Significance.

Jeff Sapadafora talks about achieving a level of success in his life with a family, prestige, and a big home in the mountains—and yet feeling surprisingly unsettled. Over time—with an increasing disconnect between his life and his values, driven by his focus on ego and accumulation—that feeling grew into what he calls “smoldering discontent.”

In his book, HalfTime, Bob Buford wrote about the struggle that can occupy much of our lives for those fortunate enough not to be consumed with survival matters like disease, hunger, and poverty. If we are fortunate, perhaps we can transform that struggle into success. Too many people stop there, as if wealth and status were the point of life. Buford points instead to a longer journey: from struggle, to success, to significance. Significance ensures that our success matters, that we have a legacy beyond self-aggrandizement and accumulation. A legacy of service and impact.


9. Serenity.

Many people today exist in a precarious state, from the cumulative effects of stress, poor sleep, and burnout. For starters, we need to build renewal into our days. Despite our willpower and ambitions, there are limits to our energy. Without exception, we need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

At a deeper level, we need “sanctuary” in our lives: places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Together, renewal and sanctuary can lead to serenity. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there is an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. The serenity beyond the stress and struggle.


10. Soulfulness.

Leading self ultimately takes us beyond the self. We must look to the “far horizon,” as Dag Hammarskjöld urged, not just at the place where we are walking. We must tame our egos and find a deep and abiding humility about the vastness of our universe and a shuddering gratitude for our place in it. This is the place of soulfulness.

“You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul.” -Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

This is the place where we pause and get quiet, and instead of pushing and fighting, we sit and listen. Sometimes, with grace, we open up a space in our lives where we can begin to make out a call—quiet but steady—that had been sounding all along. Wrapped up in our own struggles and dramas, we were too preoccupied to notice, too consumed to hear.

If we stay with it, really listening, we can begin to fathom its depth.

In the vast well of soulfulness, we come to realize that our lives are not about us alone. Our lives are vessels of connection—a precious, sacred, and mysterious gift.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!