Followed by… and following?

My morning rhythm includes joining 800,000 others (give or take) in a DC-area-wide Metro commute. During rush hours, this includes navigating crowded platforms to-or-from street level.

The key to success involves following.

The path from train exit door to any given escalator and street level (or the reverse) is always filled with people headed in the same direction, adjacent to comparable numbers headed in the opposite way. Following in the slipstream of those in front, approximately matching speed and direction, results in a smooth transit. To step outside those invisible and undulating lanes is to invite abrupt fits and starts, confrontations, and in the worst cases, jostling those you find rushing right at you.

Blazing your own trail is not necessarily your best idea.

Even in DC, a city riven by partisan, polarized politics, violent disagreement on every momentous issue – health care; tariffs, trade, and jobs; immigration; social equity; and more – each and every day begins with this massive, nearly perfect display of unity and collaboration. Even at street level, a mix of cars, trucks, pedestrians – and now, scooters – the same cooperative spirit prevails.

And it’s all founded on a willingness to follow.

Would that we could carry a greater element of that into the workplace itself! These days, it seems that following isn’t held in high regard. Take politics. Right now, over twenty candidates are vying in one party to carry the banner into next year’s presidential election. It’s more attractive to run oneself than pile on to support a colleague’s campaign. In the Congress, thousands of competing bills are introduced each year, only to neutralize each other. The merest handful develop any sort of following, let alone pass into law. Or take social media. Each day the blogging and the tweets dish out dirt, as an array of critics remind us that there’s no individual or group or cause on the planet worth our following and support.  And the detractors don’t just focus on a single shortcoming for any individual or institution. They’re generally able to come up with several.

This scenario is a fractal. It’s not confined to the top. In many offices across the city – whether public sector or private sector or NGO – teamwork, partnership and collaboration are always constrained. They’re compromised (either a little or a lot) by those who see this or that larger purpose incongruent with some self-interest. Bottom line? For every putative leader, there are dozens of others thinking: given that leader’s many flaws, I’d make an equally good or better trailblazer myself. Why follow him/her?

Which brings me to a second part to my morning rhythm: a Starbucks coffee and a few minutes with a current edition of The Economist. By chance (?), this morning’s reading led me to Bagehot, a regular feature of the magazine. The focus was on Britain’s followership problem.

Hmm. Sometimes it’s easier to consider a sensitive but important issue when seen through a remote lens. So here are a couple of snippets:

[in a 1997 conversation on leadership] came this “I don’t know why people are so fixated on the subject of leadership,”  [Peter Drucker] said… “What we really need to think about is followership.”

It is worth remembering Drucker’s words whenever people talk about Britain’s crisis of leadership. There is no doubt that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are singularly unimpressive figures… Regardless of their abilities, political leaders have to perform before an increasingly hostile audience which routinely questions their motives and trashes their achievements. Followers are a tougher crowd than they used to be…

Walter Bagehot argued that, in order to survive, a political regime needed to gain authority from the citizenry, and then use that authority to get the work of government done. Since Bagehot’s time, British politicians have employed three mechanisms to gain that authority. The first is deference, when voters support leaders they consider their social superiors. The second is class-loyalty, under which people vote for those who represent folk like themselves. The third is competence, when people vote for a candidate the same way they might hire a plumber—because they can fix a problem.

On this side of the pond, you and I would likely have little appetite for deference or class loyalty, in and of themselves[1].   But setting that aside, the rest sounds similar.

This is cause for concern. We have great challenges facing us as a people: sustainability in the case of stressed resources; resilience in the face of hazards; environmental protection in the face of growing populations and economic pressures. To prosper, to live any life worth living, demands that the great majority of us pitch in to move forward a handful of big ideas, as largely framed by others.

In part, the solution requires each of us be bit more inclined to follow. Instead of standing in judgment and insisting on perfection, we might settle for aligning ourselves with those working, however imperfectly, on generally compatible goals. We could be more open to compromise; sometimes even accommodating major adjustments. We might fret less about who has the lead and be more appreciative of imprecise progress toward a common goal.

This same caution applies to the “leaders” themselves. Leadership isn’t a matter of imposing our will on others; it’s more about tapping into the common anxieties and hopes of others, giving those voice, and laying out a framework that will help people reach their ends.

Come to think of it, not much different from that morning-commute-hustle on the subway platforms: there we are content with achieving inexact convergence of interest rather than precise detail; adjusting moment-by-moment. We don’t question the credentials or intent of those ahead of us (any more than those behind us question ours).

Why should cooperation and followership end there?


[1] The original article’s fuller material gives a bit of context/deeper understanding of these preferences and their benefits, again, in the uniquely British setting. Accordingly, the column deserves reading in its entirety, but is difficult to access without a subscription.)

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