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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Leadership and Team-Building - the Courage of the Follower

By Ira Chaleff

"Follower" is not a personality type. It is a role most people play at some times in groups and organizations. But playing it effectively and, in particular, playing it morally, requires courage.

Courage is a great balancer of power in relationships. It is not just those in the leader role who need to act with courage. An individual who is not afraid to speak and act on the truth as she perceives it, despite external inequities in a relationship, is a force to be reckoned with.

Courage implies risk. If there is no risk, courage is not needed. Life, of course, is full of risk at every turn, at every moment. We usually structure our lives to reduce risk to an acceptable level. Courage requires a willingness to consciously raise our level of risk, at least in the short term.

A priest must be willing to tell the bishop that moral turpitude is being covered up in his see. An aide must be willing to tell the governor that her policies will cause extreme hardship. A mid-level manager must be willing to tell senior management that by only paying lip service to quality or customer service they are not only undermining their brand, but the company's integrity.

While silence may appear the safe choice, it often leaves our relationships with leaders or peers sapped of the vitality that honest dialogue produces. A follower needs the courage of an inquisitive child who asks questions without fear, but also needs the courage of an adult who bears the responsibility for a family. The family's need for security may clash with the need to risk that security for higher principles. This is a core issue, for without the willingness to risk on this profound level, we won't speak the truth at times that our integrity requires us to do so. From where can we draw the courage that is needed?

On a practical level, if our livelihood depends on our position with the leader, it is healthy for us to develop contingency plans. Another job opportunity, money in the bank to support us during a transition, a working spouse or partner, any of these can provide a safety net that makes our leap of courage less intimidating. Being prepared to be fired is an antidote to silencing ourselves, though getting fired occurs much less than is feared. Sometimes the courageous truth teller is even rewarded, once the leader recognizes the value of the service provided.

On a deeper level, each of us may find our own courage springs form different sources:

our religious beliefs,

our philosophy,

a role model,

a vision of the future,

a vow made from past experience,

an event that tested us,

a conviction we hold,

our values,

our empathy for others,

our self-esteem,

commitment to our colleagues,

outrage felt towards injustice.

If we are clear on the sources of our courage, this prepares us to accept the consequences of our actions. To act courageously, we may not need to free ourselves from fear, but to experience our fear in the context of our source of courage. If our principles and goals are clear, enormous self-empowerment can occur.

When dealing with the misuse of power, we probably have to fail a few times before we succeed. The first time we are confronted with the misuse of power, with the attitude and force that usually accompanies the misuse, it is so startling that we may flinch or freeze. We may need to go away and prepare ourselves to meet it again.

Our "courage muscle" will develop to the degree we exercise it. If we exercise it when the risks are small. It will be strong enough to meet the challenge when the risks are high. Ultimately there are no formulas for courage: we develop it through determination and practice, self-forgiveness when we fail, and growth when we learn. We may lose a specific "battle" but we win the more important victory of preserving our integrity and providing good stewardship to those in our care.

This article has been adapted from The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, 2nd edition, by Ira Chaleff (2003) and may be reprinted for free in this form with attribution to the author and this biography. Also, please include a link to his web site: Ira Chaleff is president of Executive Coaching & Consulting Associates, in Washington, DC., and is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He is also the co-editor of the Art of Followership (2008).


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