Italian Trulli Philippe Barbe

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credit: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Of leaders and followers

by Philippe Barbe
21 Jul 2021

What makes you a leader?

Asked this question in a large setting of other leaders, I answered honesty… “I don’t know, the best thing to do would be to ask my “followers””, who were in reality my subordinates, each of whom may follow for different reasons. In any case, they know better than me why they follow!

I should have added that my superiors, by entrusting me to lead a team, would also have a view on the question.

Which got me thinking that the question itself was not quite right.

Yes, I lead people, but there is also a hierarchical structure that makes me the so-called “leader” where I derive “positional authority” over some people with my power to set direction and evaluate among other things. “The clothes make the man (or woman)” as the saying goes.

However, there are different clothes and different men and women.

There are the super models and the famous actors and actresses who excel at wearing the clothes; there are also ordinary people who by their demeanor carry a high elegance no matter what they wear; there are people with no taste for clothes, which does not preclude them from being fine people who live fulfilling lives. There are all sorts of variations between the extremes. In the same way, there are various forms of leadership which derive in varying degrees from the attributes of the position and the personality.

In any case, there is no leader if there are no followers. The idea that everyone should be a leader is absurd. A company with only CEOs would accomplish nothing!

The canard that being a leader is a wholly desirable characteristic is also absurd. The 20th century bestowed upon mankind a few persuasive leaders who managed to have over 110 million people kill each other in wars, and others who led their countries into foolish destructive enterprises.

Loïc Finaz, in his wonderful book La Liberté du commandement, posits that attributes should be thoughts in pairs… I propose leadership and progress. What good is leadership if it is not to make progress? Can any progress be accomplished without leadership?

The reality of leading for me is that I communicate a vision. It is never my vision. It is always one that is defined in relationship with others.

If the enterprise is to survive, the value of what our team is accomplishing is measured by how much it will be useful to others. Thus, I cannot ignore my customers, and hence I am a follower. What makes me a leader is that I am an active follower, in the sense that I have the ability to sense the needs, formalize needs that are seldom expressed explicitly, imagine solutions to fulfill these needs, ensure that these solutions are viable, and convince others that it is worth their time.

What makes me a leader is also that I make my followers to be my own leaders, and myself to be one of their followers.

In the technical space where I work, it is not possible to know everything. If the team needs to accomplish something, everyone has to bring his or her own expertise, ask the tough questions and make recommendations. My role is then to ensure that we follow whatever has been recommended that will move the organization forward. And I am subject to that recommendation as well.

There are times when I literally ask team members what they want me to do so that we can reach our objectives, how they want me to do something. In those instances, I am “in charge” only in the sense that I bear the ultimate responsibility, but in some operational aspects, that responsibility is entrusted to a subordinate who for that specific part of the mission becomes in effect my superior.

As a leader, I am at times a follower of my followers and they are the leaders of their leader. This state is not that of a circular hierarchy though.

It is more like parallel hierarchies, possibly upside down, which develop as needed to accomplish various tasks. These parallel hierarchies are not shadow ones. They are explicit. Someone is in charge and accountable with a delegation of authority for which I am ultimately responsible, and a common acceptance of changing authorities depending on what need to be done.

What makes me a leader then?

Aside from communicating the vision, it is simply the trusted authority to orchestrate parallel hierarchies of leaders and followers.