“Would people choose to follow me?”

Washington Post sports columnist, Sally Jenkins, landed her column on the front page of today’s paper with a story on why the Denver Broncos are following the leadership of the quarterback Tim Tebow, and why the teams of high-profile coaches in Maryland and Washington D.C. are not. It is a story of the power of followership to give support to good leaders and withdraw it from bad leaders.

The very fact that Jenkins’ column appeared on the front page is a sign of the increasing recognition of the ultimate primacy of followers. Jenkins quotes anthropological research by Christopher Boehm on the range of strategies used in traditional societies as “leveling mechanisms” when leaders misuse their power. Another important book on anthropological record of leadership and followership that I recommend is Naturally Selected by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja.

The Maryland and DC coaches Jenkins cites became increasingly abusive in their desperation to achieve results. Followers may respond to this type of behavior in the short term but ultimately tune out and shut down. Tebow, on the other hand, is a source of inspiration and strength to his teammates.   Jenkins observes, “A leader is worth nothing without voluntary commitment, because the followers are actually more in charge of the outcome.”

She’s right of course. But the power of followers goes beyond simply supporting the leader or withdrawing that support. Followers can also shape leaders to be more of their better selves, and draw less of their dark side (that most of us have) and which tends to emerge under excessive stress. How?

Followers can be very clear that they, too, want to succeed, and will vigorously support the leaders’ efforts to make the team successful. But they will not tolerate any bullying behavior. I have seen this work with junior staff towards the member of Congress for whom they worked, for teachers with their principals and for administrative staff with their senior executives. This is much more effective than people often believe possible. And the literature on bullying behavior says that if two or three people stand together against the bullying behavior it almost always stops.

So followers, continue to use your power to support good leadership, and, if necessary, withdraw support from bad leadership. But remember that you can also help leaders use their gifts well while getting them to stow away their toxic behaviors – – as they will not be countenanced here!

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