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Leadership at All Levels

You Can't Lead If No One Is Following You

Corbette Doyle | December 1, 2011

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Business leader tug of war

In most organizations, the days of blind allegiance to titular leaders are long gone. For a while, this was largely a U.S. phenomenon, but as we watched country after country fall in the Arab Spring movement, it became clear that, even in a dictatorship, followers will eventually "discard" ineffective leaders.

In Western economies, ineffective leaders have had the cushion of a crisis economy. With high unemployment levels, few people have been willing to quit without another job in hand. Evidence includes the drop in voluntary turnover from 12.5 percent pre-crisis to 9.2 percent in 2010. But a recent survey from MetLife suggests that more than a third of the workforce plans to quit as soon as they can, and 84 percent say they intend to actively look for new work. The number one reason they want to leave? People don't trust their leader. Bad bosses are also the #1 source of stress on the job—and stress leads to reduced performance, poor health, and higher turnover. And according to Right Management's recent survey of 1,400 chief executive officers and heads of human resources departments, the primary reason leaders fail is "failure to build a team or relationships." 1

With a slowly improving economy and the inevitable retirement of baby boomers, this exodus may begin much sooner than companies are prepared for. "Instead of celebrating the upturn, many corporate leaders may well face a new problem: replacing lost employees as the economy kicks into gear and talent is once again a scarce commodity." 2 Who leaves? Your top performers, those with job options because they have the knowledge, skills, and attitude to make a difference—in other words, the people you least want to lose.

Leader Response

What's a leader to do? The first step lies in understanding the extent to which your personal success is dependent on the work of others. Questions you might explore to put the importance of your followers in perspective include:

  • Do you lead a unit or team where subject matter expertise is critical?
  • Does your role involve matrix management such that you do not have hiring/firing power over employees who are key to your role?
  • Do you often lead committees or task forces, the results of which are critical to your success; or are you leading a virtual team that involves people from multiple locations?

An affirmative response to any one of these questions would indicate that you are highly dependent on others.

The next step is to determine how effective you are at engaging and motivating the people you are trying to lead. Does your organization do an annual employee engagement survey? If so, check to see if you can have access to the results for people you formally lead. It's not perfect, but it's a start. How do your responses on questions about trust, inclusion, and giving feedback compare to your peers? In lieu of or to supplement formal survey results, consider using an anonymous survey tool like Survey Monkey or Rypple. Ask questions such as those from Gallup's employee engagement survey.

  • Do you believe your opinions matter?
  • Do you know what's expected of you?
  • Have you received praise for a job well done?

Once you have diagnosed your need for engaged followers and your current skill at motivating followers, explore proven strategies for employee engagement and effective team management. For those in more traditional leadership roles, ask yourself if you consistently provide clear communications about the results you expect, timelines, processes, etc. Do you give frequent feedback rather than the once-a-year, much-dreaded annual performance review? And do you help employees identify their opportunities for career advancement? Engaged, high-potential employees want to grow their careers, and they will seek out—and follow—leaders who help them do that. Team management can be more complex and requires that leaders ensure that members know who is actually on the team, particularly complicated in a virtual world, provide compelling team goals that people can care about, and make sure that there's sufficient task direction and resource support to get the work done. 3

While these tips may be useful when you have a semblance of formal authority, technology and globalization have increased the likelihood that you will be responsible for getting results when it isn't clear to those around you that you are their leader. Leadership expert Jay Conger suggests several strategies for "Exerting Influence without Authority," including: using persuasion as a consensus tool rather than a hammer, spending one-on-one time with people whose buy-in you need to build a coalition of advocates, and mastering the art of networking in a highly connected world. 4 Networking inside an organization is less about the number of people you are connected to on LinkedIn and more about your ability to identify and get what you need from the go-to people at each "gate" in the organization. This will be the subject of a future column.


Leaders and followers are like dance partners; success is mutually dependent on the actions of both. The best leaders recognize this and build teams of people who will follow them just as readily during times of full employment as they will when jobs are scarce commodities.

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1 Right Management. "Poor Relationships Top Cause for Leader Failure." News release, November 15, 2011.
2 Chafetz, Bill, Robin Adair Erickson, and Josh Ensell. "Where Did Our Employees Go?" Deloitte Review, 2011.
3 Coutu, Diane. "Why Teams Don't Work." Harvard Business Review 87, no. 5 (2009): 98–105.
4 Johnson, Lauren Keller. "Debriefing Jay Conger: Exerting Influence without Authority." Harvard Business Review 8, no. 12 (2003): 3–4.