What If You Lead and Nobody Follows?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall? Have you stopped beating your wife? What if you gave a party and no one came?

These are three conundrums of different types, but they all have one thing in common—they play on the ambiguities of language. They sound simple, but contain multiple references that cause us to do a double-take.

To that list, add “What if you lead, and nobody follows?”

Noonday Ventures writes about Dirty Word #6—Followership:

OK, do a quick scan of your bookshelf, podcasts, and mental catalog of leadership talks. How many have you heard on the art of following well?

After looking through literally hundreds of those artifacts collected over twenty years, I found exactly…. ONE!
(Incidentally, it was a very useful talk given by a leader at a high-growth church known for its strong leadership.)

Why is that? Why is it that when someone quotes the tired saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way,” we really see only one good option – to lead! I’d guess there are a lot of reasons, but our world certainly glorifies heroic leaders whose brilliance single-handedly tilts the earth to the benefit of their grateful followers.

He could have cited this chestnut: “Unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes.” There are leaders, and there are followers; which will you be— a leader, or a butt-watcher? That seems to be the question, as it is usually posed.

But can this be right? Is our mania for leadership just a social phenomenon of glorifying winners and denigrating losers? Or is there some linguistic and conceptual confusion going on here?

In fact, ambiguity abounds:

• One HR friend tells me, “the leadership area is vague; they can’t figure out if it’s a verb or a noun.”

David Maister says, “I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous.” (But what does David really think?).

• James G. March (Stanford Professor, gurus’ guru, “the Miles Davis of organization theory”) says “I doubt that ‘leadership’ is a useful concept for serious scholarship. The idea of leadership is imposed on our interpretation of history by our human myths, or by the way we think that history is supposed to be described. The fact that we talk about leaders and attribute importance to them is neither surprising nor informative.” [HBR Oct 2006, HBR Interview]

Take that, sled-dog metaphor-slinging consultants!

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The word “lead” is confusing because it used to refer one thing—but the thing it referred to is changing. Hence the ambiguity.

It used to refer to those at the “top” of vertical, command-and-control, fixed-boundary silos called “companies.” “Companies” used to be the atomic unit of business; they contained fixed groupings of people called “organizations.”

Today—not so much.

Today, the atomic unit of business is the individual, not the company. “Organizations” are fluid, crossing corporate boundaries.

“Companies” still exist, of course, but a more useful idea might be “business”—and businesses are ever-changing, morphing blobs of projects and teams that get together to accomplish projects—then move on.

The primary dimension of interaction is becoming horizontal, not vertical. “Leader” becomes a confusing word because of the past vertical associations.

So what’s a “leader”? It’s a role. A role played at a particular point in time by a particular person with appropriate-for-the-moment behaviors and attitudes. And it all changes.

What about “everyone needs to be a leader”? It’s true. Confusing—because of the linguistic heritage—but true. We all need to be able to influence others, and to be influenced by others. That’s how horizontal relationships work.

But we sure could use a new word for all this.

How about “trust”?