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Inspiring Followership

by Richard McGourty on

One can take a quick inventory of leaders they have known and then within that group focus on those who elicited not just followership but enthusiastic followership, followership fueled by a shared commitment to a compelling goal. This is the type of followership that moves mountains. How does this happen?

Inspiring followership is not something that can be scripted, but there are some important factors to consider.

Speaking from the Heart

Leaders who draw upon their deepest convictions and core values are said to “speak from the heart”. They draw people toward them because those who hear them sense a genuineness that says “I am all in, no reservations. And, if you join me, I will stick with you until we achieve our goals.” A leader’s style may vary from loud and impassioned to quiet but steely determination. And, yes, soaring rhetoric can move people but inspiring enthusiastic followership goes beyond style.

A few years ago as the financial crisis overtook the country, the owner of a company who could have cashed out and entered retirement instead addressed his employees and told them he was committed to their common endeavor. He didn’t raise his voice but there was no questioning his intensity. The followership he inspired in that moment lasted years and marked the culture of the company even after he retired.

Grace under Pressure

People want to follow leaders who convey a calm spirit and a clarity of mind that does not fragment under pressure. It is reassuring to employees who are worried about their future to know that their leader is in full possession of the ability to assess complex situations and make wise decisions.

This was on display when a company vice-president was called upon to fill the shoes of the president and founder who had died suddenly. She called everyone together and calmly and clearly explained how the business was going to carry on. Years later, employees looked back on that moment and said that they knew in their bones that she was a person worthy of their support.

Generosity When No One is Looking

Many leaders can turn it on when they are in the spotlight, but a leader who makes time for others when there is no audience is seen as having a set of core values that is truly part of who they are.

A leader of a large manufacturing plant took the time one night to speak with an employee in the parking lot. It was late and he could have excused himself but he did not. The employee told the story of the boss who made time for “an average person like me”. The story got around and it wasn’t an isolated incident. Over time the leader’s reputation as generous and respectful of others no matter their rank formed the foundation for a dedicated work force.

Intellectual Integrity

Leaders are expected to have the courage of their convictions, to say what they are thinking, and to take discussions where they need to go even if it means asking uncomfortable questions. It is easy to go with the flow but a leader who does so quickly falls in the estimation of others.

Sometimes leadership appears in unexpected circumstances; for example, a political appointee assigned to lead a federal government service was expected by the career professionals to coast along with existing practices. When it became apparent that the appointee was a not a passive place-holder but rather a rigorous thinker who expected others to challenge the status quo, the office came alive. Her imagination and disciplined mind sparked others who had lost hope of moving forward. She inspired followership where others had failed.

Exercising Power with Fairness and Mission Focus

Leaders have power, and if there is anything that employees can detect, it is the exercise of that power along the lines of fairness and with a focus on the mission. Put the other way, employees can quickly detect game-playing and the politics of self-interest. A leader who places him or herself and favorites ahead of the common good will lose any chance of having true followers. Some may scramble to curry favor, but that is not true followership. A leader who is said to be “tough but fair” has received a high compliment. It’s as if the employees are saying, “This is the kind of place that rewards hard work and dedication.”

A family business had labored for many years under the leadership of a weak leader. When the baton was passed to the next generation, the employees took notice of certain personnel changes. The message was strong and clear, those who serve the business and treat others with dignity will rise in the organization. There were no speeches, no carefully worded letters emailed to employees, nothing except the actions of key positions. The employees were re-engaged.

 

Leaders who wish to inspire followership are well-advised to communicate their ideas clearly but to not count on that alone. What people remember is not what you say but how you make them feel. To inspire followership, consider the impact of your actions as well as your words.

 

What have leaders done to inspire your followership? How do you inspire the followership of others?

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