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Without Followers, Leaders Are Just Out for a Walk

Tomorrow's Academy

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Managers are accountable for various processes that help an organization accomplish its mission. However, if every manager, from a president on down, does only what is in his or her job description, the organization will still eventually grind to a halt. Throughout the organization there are opportunities to find better ways to accomplish whatever tasks or services are required, and the college needs leaders in these places to move college forward.


The posting below looks at the importance of the leader-follower relationship.. It is from Chapter 8, Following the Leader and Leading the Followers by Joseph Barwick, in Leadership in Place: How Academic Professionals Can Find Their Leadership Voice, edited by Jon F. Wergin, of Antioch University. Copyright © 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-933371-18-4 Anker Publishing Company, Inc. 563 Main Street P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA []. Reprinted with permission.


Rick reis

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Tomorrow's Academia

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Without Followers, Leaders Are Just Out for a Walk

The second basic assumption in this concept of leadership is that others are following the leader. Because this is a necessary component, good leaders have usually been good followers themselves (Hollander, 1987; Kelley, 1992). The leader-follower relationship is formed around an objective that is larger than the needs of either entity. The leader needs the followers in order to reach the objective, and the followers need the guidance, encouragement, and vision of the leader. In other words, leading cannot exist outside the leader-follower relationship.

In academic organizations, leading generally falls into two categories. The first is protecting the interests of one group against the competing interests of another. Faculty often feel in competition with administration, because they do not believe the allocation of resources supports what they do (i.e., teaching and research). Likewise, administrators often believe that faculty are stuck in traditions that impede the progress of the college. Because this rift is so common in academia, leaders in both camps easily take on these oppositional ideologies, and communication becomes strained at best. R.H., president of a large southern college, had a management style most would describe as autocratic. He had very strong opinions about the mission of the college, the value of students, the importance of technology, and even about how to teach. As he was not inclined to keep his opinions to himself, he was openly critical of traditional forms of teaching, in particular the lecture method. Needless to say, the campus began to polarize. R.H. was the founding president and, therefore, had followers who supported him with almost fanatical zeal. On the other side, however, were faculty who were quite successful teaching in ways the president seemed to criticize. Anyone in an academic environment can readily see the multitude of issues at stake here and the potential for an ever-widening division that could eventually bog down the entire college.

A good leader, however-and this is essential to the leader-follower relationship-has enough confidence in his or her own goals and direction not only to allow dissenting opinions but to encourage them (Stout, 1984; Ouchi, 1981). To R.H.'s credit, he sought out opportunities to engage in dialogue with teachers he considered traditional, and he encouraged a strong faculty senate, meeting weekly with representatives of the faculty. Gradually, another group of followers began to emerge. These faculty recognized that R.H.'s criticism of traditional methods of teaching came from a combination of his value for student learning and his believe that every teacher had an obligation to students and the college to constantly seek a better way to teach. New informal leaders arose, who enjoyed experimenting with ways to improve learning, and as they gained recognition within the organization, the dialectic about traditional teaching became less visible. Under R.H.'s leadership, the college gained national recognition for being one of the most innovative colleges in the country. R.H. had the authority to compel faculty through various forms of censure and reward. Instead, he chose to effect change through open debate (see House, 1971). The new faculty leaders who emerged could easily have moved into the camp of traditional teachers, but instead they chose to listen more closely to what the president was trying to say. In doing so, they discovered that the apparently competing interest of the traditional faculty (i.e., autonomy in the classroom) was never really in jeopardy. R.H. wanted innovation. As long as he had it, others were free to do whatever worked. As with most successful organizations, the credit for their success is due as much to the formal leaders-the committed followers-as to the president (Kelley, 1992).

The second category of leading is aligning the interests of one group with those of another (see McGregor, 1960). Colleges have missions, values, and goals, and every employee of the college should support those or have the courage to seek employment with a college whose mission, values, and goals he or she can support. That said, however, there is plenty of room for debate and dissent over specific initiatives, policies, or edicts. It is important, however, for leaders to always be aware of whether they are leading in the direction the college is going, even if they disagree on how to get there. Except in very rare instances, leaders within and throughout the organization cannot lead a college away from the direction established by the president and the board. Efforts to do so are extremely costly in terms of lost energy and creativity. For example, J.B. became head librarian shortly after the installation of a new president. The previous president had enjoyed technology and had invested heavily in making the library a showcase in terms of computers and electronic research. The new president brought a strong message of renewed community focus. He wanted the college to be inviting to the community while at the same time finding better ways to meet the needs of the students. J.B. realized that most of the community patrons avoided the high-tech resources in favor of print and that students usually wanted more personal help with their projects. Working through the dean and eventually the president, J.B. phased out some of the less-used technology and increased holdings in the periodicals. She paid attention to what the community patrons checked out and moved these materials into more prominence with better access. As hiring opportunities occurred, she looked for interpersonal skills above computer skills, believing correctly that the latter could be more easily learned. In a fairly short period of time, use of the library by students had greatly increased, and more than one-third of the patrons were from the community. J.B. had the skills and the choice to continue to grow the library as a state-of-the-art, high-tech learning resource center, but she determined that a shift back to a more traditional library would move the college forward along the path the president had set, and she led in that direction.

J.T. became dean of instruction under a president who had been at the college only three years. The fairly new president had brought much-needed organization and structure to the college, based primarily on the concepts of total quality and continuous improvement. The employees bought into these methods, because they saw that issues were being assessed and problems were being addressed. Successes were evident and celebrated, so morale was also rising. Where the faculty balked, however, was over the president's approach to student learning through "customer focus." These faculty were having trouble thinking of students as customers, because it lessened the students' humanity and put teaching in the same category with selling used cars. J.T. realized that energy was being wasted over vocabulary, so he began to engage faculty in discussions about the needs of their students. They discussed what kinds of attendance policies are best for 35-year-old single mothers coming to school at night. They discussed how best to motivate 18-year-olds who have no clue what they want to do. As they discussed, they implemented and measured new processes and services to meet the needs of a diverse student body. J.T. helped the faculty see that providing better service to students is not just a good business model for improving the institution's bottom line, but it is the right thing to do, which they have already firmly believed. Once the needs of the faculty to hold on to their humanistic values were aligned with the president's need for a continuous improvement approach, students received better service. J.T. could have been a good manager and simply acted according to the president's direction. Instead, he used his leadership ability to bring the values of the faculty into alignment with the goals of the president.

Managers are accountable for various processes that help an organization accomplish its mission. However, if every manager, from a president on down, does only what is in his or her job description, the organization will still eventually grind to a halt. Throughout the organization there are opportunities to find better ways to accomplish whatever tasks or services are required, and the college needs leaders in these places to move college forward.


Hollander, E.P. (1987). Social psychological perspective on leadership. Liberal Education, 73(2), 9-15.

House, R. (1971). A path-goal theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 16(3), 321-338.

Kelley, R.E. (1992). The power of followership: How to create leaders people want to follow and followers who lead themselves. New York, NY: Currency Doubleday.

McGregor, D.M. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Ouchi, W.G. (1981). Theory Z: How American business can meet the Japanese challenge. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Stout, J.K. (1984). The role of self-concept in interpersonal communications. Supervisory Management, 29(2), 12-16.