x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

To be a leader, earn respect

Effective leaders should achieve their positions on the basis of their achievements, not merely because of the title on their business card.

There are four reasons that people follow a leader. Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National
There are four reasons that people follow a leader. Illustration by Lee McGorie / The National

As a boy I remember playing a game called "Follow the Leader", where a leader is chosen to be the head of the line, then all of the other boys and girls line up behind the leader. As the leader moves forward, all of the followers have to mimic his or her actions and if they fail to do so, they are out of the game.

Reminiscing about this game made me wonder: "Why should anyone follow you?"

There are four reasons that people follow a leader.

All employees, including future leaders, begin their career being hands-on in the operations, where the focus is independent mastery. Actually, society builds in us the recognition for individual achievement. Ponder with me all of the congratulatory moments in life starting as a teenager: grades, graduation, acceptance to university, grades and graduation again, getting a job, performing well, achieving a bonus, getting an increment increase and eventually being promoted if you are fortunate.

At each point, someone pats you on the back for your individual achievement. Then all those years spent celebrating individual achievement come to a screeching halt when you are promoted into the ranks of management. Only problem is that no one tells you about the coming change.

This brings us to the first reason why people follow a leader, because he or she has the position, or as we would say in Arabic "Ana mudir". Really your employees have no choice but to follow you (or quit) because you are the boss. But just being boss does not mean that they want to follow you or even that you deserve to be followed for any reason other than what is written on your business card. This is the first stop on the leadership career, being boss.

The next reason that people follow is because they "want to". Here we are moving from "I have to" to "I want to". Recognising that being boss can be equated to being a "Lino" (leader in name only), it is a common stop on the career journey for leaders to work doubly hard to make people want to follow them. This includes fulfilling a desire to be liked, which can come at the expense of doing what is best for the business.

Just like a winning sports team that attracts fans, so does the next stop in a leadership career. Here people follow because of the results that the leader produces. When the leader delivers, employees want to be around him. But as a leader, putting security on this level is risky. What happens when another leader outperforms you? The followers switch loyalty.

The primary concerns thus far is that for each of the stops the focus is still mainly about the leader - the position, who he or she is and what is produced. But leadership is about the followers.

This brings us to the final reason that people follow a leader, because of what he or she does for the followers. The primary focus as a leader's career matures becomes developing their team to be the best they can be. This is where the seismic shift takes place and leadership goes from being about "me" (the leader) to "them" (the followers).

Sometimes followers get behind leaders because they admire who they are and what they do. Other times, when neither applies they follow because they have to. The question is: "Why do people follow you?"

 

Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center