An interesting leadership moment was recounted recently by sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy in the pages of the Boston Globe. Star Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price verbally accosted NESN sportscaster Dennis Eckersley, once a Sox player, now retired and in the Hall of Fame, on a team charter flight regarding one of Eckersley’s on-air comments about another player, and many of Price’s Red Sox teammates applauded. [Both the Red Sox and NESN are majority owned by Fenway Sports Group, whose controlling owner John Henry also owns the Globe – important for reasons discussed below.]
Shaughnessy cites a similar incident many years earlier to extol the behavior of another Hall of Famer, Baltimore Orioles third basemen Brooks Robinson. Robinson suggested to a young Orioles pitcher who’d harangued the equally young Shaughnessy that he make an apology – ‘that’s not what we do here.’ He cites this as an example of leadership by the Orioles’ star gloveman, and I think it was, but it does raise a larger question: what is the responsibility of followership? Was the fault behind such insensitive social behavior a failure of leadership on the part of a Brooks Robinson-equivalent for the Red Sox, as Shaughnessy suggests, or a failure of followership by the incident’s instigator? Which is more important? [click here and here for recent Shaughnessy columns.]
Leadership is touted broadly as a universal good in society, but Followership is viewed with mixed emotions. Political and organizational leaders dominate the headlines; when was the last time you read a story of followership? Leadership gets 805 million results on Google, while Followership earns 757 thousand; big difference.
General George Patton’s widely quoted maxim ‘Lead me, follow me, or get out of the way’ appropriately positions leading or following as equally valid choices for a soldier, but the phrase in popular use has been co-opted by the brash to denigrate the thoughtful – ‘don’t just sit there, do something!’
A widely circulated cartoon panel from the 1990s shows the view from behind a string of Huskies pulling a dogsled, the caption taunting hard toiling team members ‘if you’re not the lead dog, the view is always the same!’ The point is obvious if crude: beyond the lead role, nothing else matters.
Followership, while infrequently studied, is widely and openly practiced in society today – at least on Twitter and Instagram, where the words of Katy Perry and the pictures of Selena Gomez respectively attract the most followers, more than 100 million each. The follower stuff is all done anonymously, however, and practiced in private. Click ‘Follow’ and it becomes part of your daily newsfeed. One wonders how those numbers would shrink if everyone opting in had to wear a badge saying ‘I follow Katy Perry!’ or show on their business card ‘Director, Marketing. Follower, Selena Gomez’!
Susan Cain, author of a well-regarded book about a different sort of leadership, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, addressed this societal imbalance directly in a New York Times article earlier this year entitled ‘Not Leadership Material? Good. The World Needs Followers.’ She took US colleges to task for an emphasis in admissions on leadership that has led to exaggerated behavior by secondary school students ‘jockeying for leadership positions as resume padders.’ She quotes one faculty advisor at a NJ school: ‘They all want to be president of 50 clubs. They don’t even know what they’re running for.’
It is of course a larger societal issue and our educational system is not the sole factor creating this dichotomy between leadership and followership. Our historians, news media and other social institutions play a role in glorifying leadership to the exclusion of followership as well. Nonetheless, while some will join me in trying to give followership a good name, it is safe to say that no business school advertises its program by saying: ‘Get your MBA here. We have the best program in Followership on the planet!’
How to sort your way through such a messy issue?
The key recognition here is that leadership vs. followership is a false dichotomy. Every organizational inhabitant, with the possible exception of the CEO, is simultaneously both follower and leader. The Vice President of Sales leads an organization of sellers but follows the CEO’s lead as member of the senior management team. The person is the same, but the circumstances change, and the role changes with it. The incumbent has a responsibility to manage the trade-offs and respond differently when the circumstances change.
Even the lowest level inhabitants, say, the janitor who sweeps out the gym or the secretary who types contracts and makes travel reservations, must both follow directions at work and lead a life outside work. They are practicing a life skill that, while beyond the reach of organizational supervision, has a ready application at work; if they do it well, they may qualify to move up.
Furthermore, read up in the literature on followership, and you’ll see skills identified – courage, collaboration, critical thinking, discretion, honesty, etc. – that apply equally well as leadership skills. A good follower is someone who exercises independent critical thinking while acting responsibly within the context set by the organization, its mission and goals, and its formal leaders. [click here for the seminal HBR article on this topic.]
Even CEOs must ‘follow’ if you include broader senses of the word – follow the trends in the markets served by their companies; follow the suggestions of directors; follow the vote of shareholders. Much CEO behavior can be seen to cut the opposite way it’s true, but the best CEOs in my experience distinguish themselves by their judgment in knowing when to follow a market trend or a director suggestion, and when to take a different tack.
In sum, no member of an organization ascends very high in leadership without learning how to be a good follower. Follower mindset therefore has broad application – in fact, just as far as leadership, because it is the flipside of the same coin.
I think we give followership a good name not by making it a separate course of study, but by highlighting its intrinsic connection with leadership. Those who have positions of responsibility in organizations are all doing both all the time.
But the answer to my opening question ‘which is more important: leadership or followership?’ must be leadership. Leadership comes first; followers presuppose leaders. Accordingly, having followers is the essential test of leadership. A fair question for every leader, therefore, and the most important question I’d argue, is ‘who is following your lead?’ Given an ongoing enterprise with followers, the formal leadership assignments come with the greater responsibility to engage followers, and to lead them well. They trust you. Members acting in their leadership role have more direct say about actions taken than their followers, and more accountability if things don’t turn out as intended.
So, on the Red Sox charter plane where this incident occurred, clearly things did not turn out as intended, and it’s fair to ask who was in charge? Who was the leader with more direct say over how things were handled in the moment, to call the leader-follower actors in this scene to account? If you look at it through this lens, here’s what you see: one respected member of the Fenway Sports Group organization was insulted by another respected member of the Fenway Sports Group organization, and the news about it was reported by yet a third respected person who reports through the chain of command to the owner of the Fenway Sports Group—Eckersley to Price to Shaughnessy, and the buck stops with Henry. The fact that the buck also starts with Henry is equally true, and a key point. If the actors are all working for the same boss, on the same payroll, at some level it makes you wonder whether this should have ever happened.
Analyzing the chain of command and assigning appropriate levels of formal accountability within the FSG, NESN, Red Sox and Globe organizations to rectify the situation has been covered in reporting over the past week. Field Manager John Farrell, his boss President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski – both present on the flight – and the latter’s boss CEO Sam Kennedy all come in for some accountability, as do the various members of ownership, including Henry. Tune in to your favorite Boston sports outlets for breaking news, for the story is still unfolding, still ‘has legs’ as they say, pending a face-to-face meeting of Price and Eckersley later this week.
We can speak definitively now however to the ‘leadership moment’ faced by David Price. Price has no formal leadership role on the team, so from one perspective this can only be about followership. However, players assume positions of influence informally with their teammates due to their words and actions, especially on the field of play, and are said to be ‘leaders.’ The same is frequently true in more traditional enterprises, where experience, wisdom or personal presence can convey authority informally that is not granted officially by the table of organization.
A self-styled leader in the clubhouse, Price was unhappy with Eckersley’s blunt style and with his own limited ability to speak with the sportscaster in informal settings compared to the others on the NESN broadcast team, due to Eckersley’s decision, for personal reasons, to limit such exposures. Price chose a semi-public setting—in front of his teammates and the Red Sox traveling retinue—to make loud sarcastic comments to Eckersley about his professional capability. When Eckersley tried to respond, Price chose to forego discussion, telling Eckersley profanely to leave his presence.
Such leadership choices appear in the moment every day, and leaders distinguish themselves by making the choices that deliver (or not) on the essential test of their leadership: to maintain and build followership.
Price’s comments drew laughter and applause from some at the time, implying followership, but off-the-record criticism to reporters from some cropped up afterwards. Opinions are clearly divided about the wisdom of his actions. In the moment, he failed the test. He made a bid to bring the team together around a common foe – someone who was publicly criticizing their play. In attempting retribution for the perceived slight, however, in the heat of the moment, David Price clearly reduced the strength of his followership.
In the coolness after action, it is clear that there are other options for successfully conveying information to a seldom-seen person than an impromptu character assassination in front of a friendly audience – a phone call or text requesting a private meeting would seem the most obvious. Such an action was not in Price’s pitch repertoire, at least at that moment.
A leader must have followers; this incident has reduced their number for one prominent informal leader in the public spotlight here in Boston, at least for now. To his credit, Price has indicated blanket acceptance of any consequences for his actions and outspoken manner.
Everyone will be watching him, like they watch any leader, formal or informal, to see what he does to regain them.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org