The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders

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Many significant failures-from FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina to the recent economic collapse-could have been prevented or mitigated if those lower in the hierarchy were successful at communicating to leaders the risks they saw in the system. Ira Chaleff's Courageous Follower model has facilitated healthy upward information flow in organizations for over 15 years. The Harvard Business Review called Chaleff a pioneer in the emerging field of followership-this new edition shares his latest thinking on an increasingly vital topic. The updated third edition of The Courageous Follower includes a new chapter, "The Courage to Speak to the Hierarchy." Much of Chaleff's model is based on followers having access to the leader. But today, followers can be handed questionable policies and orders that come from many levels above them-even from the other side of the world. Chaleff explores how they can respond effectively, particularly using the power now available through advances in communications technology. Everyone is a follower at least some of the time. Chaleff strips away the passive connotations of that role and provides tools to help followers effectively partner with leaders. He provides rich guidance to leaders and boards on fostering a climate that encourages courageous followership. The results include increased support for leaders, reduced cynicism and organizations saved from serious missteps. NEW Related Product in February 2010 - The Courageous Follower Self-Assessment: Evaluating Your Followership Style and Growth Path

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1. The Dynamics of the Leader-Follower Relationship

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I USED TO HAVE ASPIRATIONS to work closely with prominent leaders but found that when I was actually with them, I would clutch, become tongue-tied, or engage more in flattery than dialogue. In doing this, I wasted whatever opportunity there may have been to develop a meaningful relationship with the leader in which we learned from each other.

When still in the “aspiring” state, I would look forward to being seated at the same table as the head of the organization at a company banquet. Later, as I discovered my nervousness about the interaction, I purposely avoided this close contact. Yet a colleague of mine, who was affable but not normally ingratiating, always aggressively sat himself next to the president of the company if he could. He was incredulous that others did not fight for the opportunity to bring themselves to the president’s attention. For both my colleague and me, the mere fact of close contact with the leader produced changes in how we usually behaved with other people.

As a leader myself, I observed who would influence me and whom I was prone to ignore or dismiss. The people who influenced me from a lateral or subordinate position seemed to have a deep, natural sense of self-worth. They needed this quality because at times I could present a pretty gruff image, which would intimidate a less confident person. They were able to separate out this aspect of my personality and not interpret it as their own failing. They knew their specialties, observed and respected my strengths, supported my efforts, and spoke to me forthrightly when they thought I was off the mark. They also cared as much as I did about the organization’s purpose and our success in achieving it.

 

2. The Courage to Assume Responsibility

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THE MOST FREQUENT COMPLAINT I hear from leaders is that they would like the members of their team to assume more responsibility for the organization and initiate ideas and action on their own. While there are often very good reasons team members don’t do this, embedded in either the leader’s style or the organizational culture, it is interesting to hear that most leaders want their staff to take more initiative. They don’t want to be the only one leading. Recent research on courageous follower behaviors shows that, although each of the behaviors is valued, the courage to assume responsibility is as valued by leaders as the other four behaviors in the model combined. Examining our preparedness to exercise this responsibility is a crucial platform for moving toward partnership with a leader.

When I was at the University of California at Berkeley in the early sixties, a confrontation between the police and students erupted over the subject of free speech. The confrontation happened in the student plaza while the ad hoc student leadership and the administration negotiated the issues elsewhere. I was one of the hundreds of followers supporting the student leadership. By nightfall hundreds of police and thousands of students on both sides of the issue had amassed. The atmosphere was growing ugly, with stink bombs and epithets being hurled at the demonstrators. It looked like the helmeted police would charge into the demonstrators to break up the sit-in. The crowd included a person who was blind and children. I was concerned that people would be hurt.

 

3. The Courage to Serve

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I NEVER CEASE TO BE AMAZED at how many decisions a good chief of staff makes for a U.S. senator without consultation. Given the hundreds of small and large requests a senator receives daily, this is an essential function. It is also the epitome of judgment in serving a leader: knowing when you can speak for the leader and when you had better consult her. It takes courage to serve as a close aide to a senior leader. If you bother leaders with too many matters, you will squander their energy; if you fail to bring things that they need to know to their attention, you may blindside them, causing embarrassment or calamity.

In many organizational cultures, when things go wrong, someone has to pay, to be offered up as a sacrifice, and it may be you. In the British and other governments, it is customary for a minister to resign if there has been a scandal that could tar the prime minister. Like chess, the bishops and rooks are offered to save the king.

At the same time, you may never get all of the credit for the hard work you do. Some of it is done in the leader’s name, and it is she who presents the ideas to the board or the press. Yet if the leader falls from favor, as a close aide you may go down with her.

 

4. The Courage to Challenge

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FOLLOWERS WHO PROVIDE robust support for leaders are in a strong position to challenge their actions that threaten the common purpose. Of the two broad areas in which we must be willing to challenge a leader—behavior and policies—the most difficult is behavior. It truly requires courage.

When I joined a struggling nonprofit organization, its entrepreneurial executive director had a plan to convert it into the marketing arm of a for-profit start-up. He had raised several hundred thousand dollars of venture capital, and it seemed to him a good solution to the needs of both organizations. When he described the plan to me, I thought it was ill advised. The start-up would need a year or two to develop the software for its niche market, and there was no guarantee it would succeed. Although the nonprofit was struggling, it had a history of being able to raise funds; it would no longer be able to do that if it gave up its tax-exempt status. This could kill the organization, which had a worthy purpose.

 

5. The Courage to Participate in Transformation

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I FIND IT TRAGIC THAT ABLE LEADERS who fall dramatically from grace often share a common experience: their closest followers have long been aware of their fatal flaw and were unsuccessful in getting the leader to deal with it. Revelation of the flaw often comes as an unexpected shock to the broader group because it has been carefully managed and kept from public view. But those closest to the leader have usually spent long hours dealing with the fallout from the leader’s behavior and discussing among themselves what to do about it.

In the political world, when a leader self-destructs, it is front-page news, so it has been easier to see examples of this behavior historically than in the business world. Every generation has its political leaders who are shamed out of office, soundly defeated at the polls, or worse. Most are soon forgotten even by their own generation, but a few flame out spectacularly and become part of the national lore, at least for a while.

In the United States, former civil rights activist and Washington, DC, mayor Marion Barry’s cocaine habit and late-night hotel rendezvousing ended in a sting operation, jail sentence, and international disgrace for the Capitol City. President Richard Nixon’s paranoia led him to encourage and cover up the dirty tricks that took the nation to the brink of constitutional crisis and eventually forced his resignation. He only eluded criminal prosecution by a presidential pardon from his successor. President Bill Clinton’s lifelong pattern of wriggling out of the consequences of personally and politically risky behavior played into the hands of his political enemies when he emphatically and falsely denied an involvement with government intern Monica Lewinsky. This experience nearly cost him the presidency, certainly damaged his reputation, and contributed to his party losing the White House in the subsequent election.

 

6. The Courage to Take Moral Action

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MOST ACTIVITIES WE ENGAGE IN fall well within the boundaries of what we consider to be morally right. But sometimes we perceive that boundary being approached or crossed. These ethical junctures require us to examine and clarify our own values and wrestle with the tension between what we feel is right and what opportunities exist for personal gain or loss. We find ourselves face to face with our wonderful and burdensome capacity for free will. The choices we make will define or redefine our character and perhaps our reputation.

In organizational life, this activity is made more complex. Not only do we need to wrestle with these questions in terms of our own choices and behaviors, but we sometimes encounter situations in which we need to take a moral position in relation to the choices and behaviors of our colleagues and, in particular, our leaders. If we have questioned and challenged behavior that crosses or threatens to cross a moral boundary, and that behavior persists, we will be faced with the need to make additional choices.

 

7. The Courage to Speak to the Hierarchy

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WE HAVE EXAMINED AN IDEAL relationship between followers and leaders from many perspectives. Virtually everything discussed rests on the assumption that the individual who is in the follower role has earned the trust of the leader by reason of good works. This, in turn, assumes access to the leader and having formed at least a professional, if not a personal, relationship with the leader.

In practice, in large institutions, government agencies, and corporations, the vast majority of staff, let alone the constituents these organizations serve, do not have direct relationships with the senior leaders. Can the principles of courageous followership apply across these levels?

In the coaching and training I conduct in complex organizations with many tiers of management, this is a crucial question. It is true that the relationship we have with our direct supervisor often has the most bearing on our day-to-day work satisfaction. But our deeper sense of organizational well-being is affected by our perceptions of how clearly the higher strata of leaders are aware of the realities of the organization. Do they know what we experience from our vantage point as they seek to guide the organization toward our common future? Or are they victims of the bubble that forms around senior leaders and filters out the experience of those who have their “boots on the ground”? Too often, there is a sense that senior leaders do not sufficiently grasp these realities or the impact of their own initiatives. The response to this perception is often disappointment, dismay, and cynicism. None of these is the response of a courageous follower.

 

8. The Courage to Listen to Followers

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WHEN COURAGEOUS FOLLOWERS are successful at steering leaders away from potentially disastrous behaviors, actions, or policies, we rarely see the process or even recognize its results. The media do not typically report preventive actions they do not see or catastrophes that didn’t occur.

Similarly, when leaders or organizations self-destruct, we usually see only the visible acts, or failures to act, of the leadership. Unfortunately, courageous followers do not always succeed, despite their best efforts. Attempts that courageous followers may have made to head off the disaster often remain invisible.

As we began the new millennium, contrary to this general rule of courageous follower public invisibility, people around the world got rare glimpses of attempts from below to head off disaster in a range of U.S. institutions. In time, these specific events and personalities will fade from popular view, but leaders would do well to remember such examples as cautionary tales.

In the private sector, headlines were made when a midlevel vice president tried to caution the chairman and CEO of Enron, the country’s largest energy trading corporation, that its accounting procedures were egregiously misrepresenting the company’s financial position. She took a large personal risk by breaking with the corporate culture and sounding the alarm about these practices. The CEO read the detailed memo prepared by the VP and even interviewed her. Then, instead of treating her information with the utmost seriousness, he referred it to the company’s law firm and asked them to investigate the matter but not to make a “detailed analysis” or second-guess the company’s outside accountants, effectively quashing the investigation. Shortly thereafter, the company imploded; investors lost virtually everything; thousands of employees lost most of their retirement funds; and the CEO, other former executives, and the midlevel accountants who enabled the fraudulent business practices were indicted and convicted on a range of criminal charges. The chairman/CEO died before being sentenced. His successor, a key architect of the fraud, was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. Had the CEO only listened to the courageous follower in his ranks and taken her concerns seriously! Perhaps he could have steered the corporate ship, despite the advanced state of its moral rot, to a soft landing instead of a crash and burn.

 

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