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March 31, 2008

The Power of Followership

Michael Feiner
Professor of Management and Bernstein Ethics Fellow
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This post is part of a series in honor of the School’s Leadership and Ethics Week and was first published in The Bottom Line.

I love the tagline for this year’s Ethics Week — Invest in Values: Advance Your Career Through Principled Leadership. I wish I could claim credit for minting it. I love the line because it captures the essence of what will be the most important determinant of an MBA’s professional success.

Let me be specific. Leadership is all about pulling people, all about taking people with you. Whether you’re running a trading desk, leading a consulting engagement, or directing a marketing team, the fact is that motivating and energizing and inspiring your team requires you to build followership. Leading people is much less about exercising power and much more about empowering others to achieve great results.

And the way you go about leading your people every day sends a strong signal about what you value in life, and what you don’t; what you value in relationships, and what you don’t; and what you value in people, and what you don’t. The values that you signal determine whether the relationships that you build will endure or not, and they determine whether your subordinates, peers and bosses will follow your lead or not. Values are the oxygen of followership.

We all know of executives with great leadership ability who diminish their potential for building followership. They do this in any number of ways: by making unwelcome sexual advances toward fellow employees, by caring about nothing beyond their own success, by abusing their access to corporate perquisites, by failing to honor their personal commitments, by treating employees with rudeness and nastiness, by blaming others for their own mistakes, by behaving arrogantly — well, you get the idea. Other leaders get results by pushing people and using fear as a motivator, or relying on the carrot of financial reward to keep their people working hard.

But over the long run, people will only follow a leader whose values they respect. Of course, values must encompass meeting business targets and deadlines, keeping commitments and satisfying customers — clearly, business leaders have to deliver the goods, that is, meet or exceed their objectives. But values must also extend to giving honest feedback, to knowing your people and letting them know, through a multitude of activities, that they matter. They must also — critically — extend to treating people decently, to speaking the truth, to saying what you mean, to telling the emperor when he or she has no clothes and to doing the right thing. People follow not just because of what you do, but because of who you are.

So there really are two reasons for leaders to have a value system that prompts people to feel respected. First and most importantly, it’s just the right and proper and decent thing to do. How sad that this may sound simple-minded and naïve in the halls of today’s business schools!

Secondly, it’s what will determine whether your people will follow you — and enable you to pull your team to achieve the results that you as its leader will be measured against. And determine whether you achieve the success you came to Columbia to ensure.

When you demonstrate principled leadership, amazing things will happen in your organizations. You’ll build followership — and your people will respect and trust and follow you. You’ll make the numbers, grow your businesses and outperform competitors — not just in the short term but in the long term — by treating people with decency, honesty and dignity. There’s nothing inherently soft or weak about this approach. You can set very high performance standards and, at the same time, motivate people to meet these standards without the need to sabotage peers or intimidate employees.

Remember, leadership is all about building followership — and values are the oxygen of followership.


by Wahid Sarij | March 31, 2008 at 1:55 PM

Thanks Professor Feiner. Your book is displayed prominently in my office and remains an important reference. Do you see a way for schools to teach basic values without stepping on individual sensitivities? At minimum, a reiteration of the importance of a value-based approach is a good starting point.

by Osifo Akhuemonkhan | April 01, 2008 at 4:54 PM

Excellent commentary Professor Feiner. The current state of the civil service or bureaucracies in many developing countries for example Nigeria, is a testament to the importance of having leaders with proper values. Proper values that are well defined and communicated across the board to all employees. After a long history of leaders within the civil service who have failed to inspire and instill basic values into the employees that serve under them, the institutions meant to uplift and improve the lives of citizens are doing the exact opposite. Until leaders in these countries embrace the concept of building a followership or as Sen Obama would say, "a working coalition" based on demonstrated principled leadership, they will be stuck in a cycle of corruption and hindered progress among other things.

by LM | April 03, 2008 at 12:06 PM

Great article.

by Mrs. Vargas | April 04, 2008 at 7:01 PM

Your article is excellent and on point Professor Feiner. I am middle manager working for a Health plan. Your fourth paragraph describes a previous and present boss I work for within the same department. Their values of an employee is simply for them to get ahead not caring whether they have values or not. I strongly believe as a manager, you must have believable values, respect, trust and support for those who work under you. This is how they will give you their loyalty 100 percent and roll into followership. I have to say that I have instilled these values to my staff and have seen a significant progress. Now, I am trying to instill these values to my boss.

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