While facilitating a recent Management Essentials training course with a portfolio company client, I had the chance to ask the participants one of my favorite questions: “What’s the opposite of a leader?” Quickly, confidently, and quite predictably, the leaders in the session answered in unison: “Follower! The opposite of a leader is a follower.” Since participants had shared qualities of effective leaders they’ve had over their careers during an earlier exercise in the training, it was a perfect time to explore the original question – and their answer – further.
During the opening exercise for the training, participants had shared that the leaders they felt were highly effective had certain qualities like positivity, trustworthiness, were encouraging, communicative, honest, and dependable, all of which from their experience translated into effective leader behaviors. Who could argue with such a list! In fact, those attributes are found in organizational research on universally, positively endorsed leader qualities, even across different cultures.
So, I asked the class that if a follower is the opposite of a leader, are you saying that you want followers who are negative, untrustworthy, discouraging, non-communicative, dishonest, and that you can’t depend on? Do you still want to stick with your original answer that a follower is the opposite of a leader? You could see some consternation in their eyes as well as light bulbs going on. Quickly, they pivoted and revised their answers. Words like slacker, pot-stirrer, disengaged, disgruntled, pain-in-the-#$%, and freeloader were quickly shared as descriptors for the opposite of a leader. Now they were on to something!
The opposite of a leader is not a follower, but rather a victim.
We have all observed, or if we are honest with ourselves, have actually been that worker who is disengaged periodically, or from time-to-time, simply not at our best. Maybe we had a bad day, let our emotions get the best of us in the moment, or had a hard time with a negative attitude during a meeting or toward a co-worker. We are all human, but that temporary response is drastically different than the chronic gossiper and complainer, the employee who not only resists change but actually undermines or sabotages it passive-aggressively, or the team member who feels the only way they can succeed is if you or someone else loses.
The Gallup Organization has a long, reputable history of research on employee engagement in organizations globally. In the past two years (2020-21), the average percentage of actively disengaged employees that report miserable work experiences and are generally poorly managed is 15%, a level that the pandemic contributes to, but in ways much smaller than you’d think. Certainly, not all disengaged employees take on the mantle of victim, but across organizations of many sizes and industry focus, there is a sizable pool of employees who might find it easier to play the role of victim in a company than as an engaged follower.
Interestingly, further in the training, during a module of conflict management, the group role played a realistic conflict situation which consisted of three characters including one team member proactively addressing an urgent customer need, another who felt threatened by their overly eager coworker and becoming defensive and territorial, and a third co-worker who simply wanted to add fuel to an already smoldering conflict by not taking sides but rather chiding and goading their coworkers into greater conflict, and taking enjoyment in the process I might add!
I asked one of the participants, from their experience, which role-play character do they have to deal with on some regularity. They shared it’s the worker who likes to complain, focuses on the problem not solutions, and would rather interject themselves in conflict situations in ways that heighten the conflict rather than constructively resolve it. The participant added that the negative energy of this pot-stirring type of worker is contagious and can actually bring down the morale of their co-workers, the team, and an entire department. That’s where leadership comes in. Unlocking value in your organization requires strong leadership and willing, engaged followers, but will suffer under the weight of employees with a victim mindset.
Leadership is a tall order and not for the faint of heart. Hiring/selecting, developing, and retaining effective leaders is one of the surest ways to create high performing teams, departments, and organizations. One charge of leadership is to develop followers and turn them into the future leaders in your company. Sometimes, this means investing in victims to help them make the transition to engaged follower.