Why People Follow

We spend a lot of time analyzing what makes someone a good leader. If you ask what the characteristics are, you'll get numerous answers: vision, charisma, knowledge, etc. We focus on what makes leaders great, but fail to take into consideration why people follow them. I ran across some numbers from Gallup Polls conducted from 2005-2008 which focused on why people follow. Contrary to what you would expect, based on experts' research into people historically considered leaders, many of the defined characteristics never even registered for the followers. When asked what they needed from the leaders in their lives, these followers stated the following four characteristics: trust, compassion, stability and hope.

Trust - Your Word is Your Bond

If we look back on presidents, CEOs, and other leaders of any level, many times what brought them down was a breach of trust. It may have brought down just the person, or the entire organization. Gallup's research shows that trust is the basis for employee engagement. Just 1 in 12 people will be engaged at work if they don't trust leadership; in contrast, 1 in 2 will be engaged if they DO trust leadership.

Trust also increases speed and efficiency at work. It skips over the formality and allows a team to get on with the work. If there is no trust, then you have to start at ground zero every time. Gallup's research shows that teams that are struggling often spend a disproportionate amount of time discussing trust, while successful teams never talk about it at all. Best Buy's Brad Anderson said that "trust is the most cherished and valuable commodity in a work environment." Relationships will trump competence in building trust every time.

Compassion – The Organization Must Have a Heart for People to Love It

Gallup found that people actually expect two different types of compassion, based on the role the leader has in their lives. They expect a global or organizational leader to have more positive energy output or "compassion" in an impersonal way, whereas they expect those who have daily influence in their lives to be "caring" on a more intimate level.

People who believe someone at work cares about them:

  • Are significantly more likely to stay with an organization
  • Have more engaged customers
  • Are substantially more productive
  • Produce more profitability for the organization
Standard Chartered's Mervyn Davies is a perfect example of this. He implemented several organizational-wide programs aimed at improving his employees' mental and physical well-being, and on a personal level encouraged his direct reports to put their families first. In return, he shared personal struggles he was having. Compassion, as are all four characteristics, is more effective in a give and take scenario.

Stability – The Key to Rapid Growth

Followers want someone they believe will provide a solid foundation for them, both financially and in their core values. People sometimes equate stability with lack of change but that's not accurate. You can completely renovate a building without ever touching the foundation upon which it rests. The same is true of an organization. At the most basic level, employees want to be assured of an income. An organization can change or evolve constantly as long as employees are sure they'll have a job to go to and a paycheck at the end of the day. According to the Gallup report, employees who are secure about their organization's financial future are nine times more likely to be engaged at work than those who have no faith.

One key element of stability is transparency. We hear this word all the time without ever considering the impact it has on an organization. Followers need to know where their career is headed and how the company is doing. One organization I worked with had a corporate meeting at the beginning of every year. In it, they discussed metrics ranging from a division's profitability to the goals for the upcoming year. If an employee didn't want to wait until the meetings, they were free to ask questions at any time. This was a key element in the stability and growth of the company.

Hope – If You Aren't Looking Forward, Chances Are No One Else Is Either

Creating hope appears to be the single most important thing leaders can do to engage their employees at work. Gallup's study showed that 69% of employees who were enthusiastic about the future of their company were engaged at work while only 1% of those who were not enthusiastic were engaged. You would think, based on this, that leaders would focus on creating hope for the future, but they don't. They focus on reacting to the demands of the day.

Leaders who react create a poor image for their followers. They give the impression of being out of control and unable to take charge. Leaders who initiate, on the other hand, create a feeling of power and eliminate the feeling of helplessness that often accompanies reactionary responses. Initiating is not an easy habit to put into place. Company cultures more often reward those who create solutions for what needs to be done rather than creating plans for what could be done.

It's also easier to be reactionary. You can set up small goals like meeting your daily sales budget or getting on your daily conference call on time rather than creating larger goals like creating a new product or proposing a market expansion plan. Becoming an initiator is one of the hardest habits to create. It's a lot of work; but it is also one of the most valuable efforts you can undertake to create organizational growth and hope.


Failure is the Path to Success

Typically my blog entries are focused on marketing, but the idea of failure has been weighing heavily on me lately. Every time I turn around, it seems, there is some new quote about failure making an appearance. It came up not too long ago in the copy of “The Happiness Project” I’m reading. One of the tweeters I follow, @AllisonMaslon, posted something about failure. All these messages keep talking about how failure is the road to success. Two of the messages that resonated with me particularly are:

  • Courage is realizing that each failure merely brings you that one step closer to eventual success.
  • If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.

I read these and yet I can’t forget that in today’s culture failure carries a negative connotation – but primarily only with adults. Children are permitted failure, and the message given to them is clearly “Failure is expected and will lead to success.” As with every generality, there are exceptions: the abused child or the child expected to live up to someone else’s expectations, but we must remember – these are exceptions.

Think back to when you were small and learning something new. One of my experiences was learning to hit a baseball. I missed and missed and missed and yet there was always an adult there encouraging me with phrases like “No one gets it right the first time” or “Don’t worry, you’ll hit it the next time” or “Keep trying, everyone fails at first”. My dad, to paraphrase him, gave new meaning to the phrase “It’s not how many times you fall down that matters; it’s how many times you get up” when learning to ride a bicycle. The message is very clear – and the complete antithesis to the message delivered to adults in today’s culture. It is truer, I think, in the work environment than elsewhere.

When was the last time you made a mistake at work undertaking a new task and someone said, “I know this is the first time you’ve tried this, so just give it another go”? It’s more likely you walked away wondering what sort of negative impact your failure had on your boss’s perception of you. You may even have been reprimanded in some way for failing to get the new task right the first time.

As a general rule, people hustle and hustle and keep their heads down, hoping to just get by. Standing out is dangerous. Fear of failure is the stuff of mediocrity and an organization that implements a culture of fear is slitting its own throat. Empowerment to fail is the hallmark of a nonthreatening environment and an environment that recognizes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I see this type of activity every day and I wonder how anything new is ever innovated in corporate environments. Entrepreneurial environments are completely different animals. You can’t compare the two. It’s a rare corporate environment that doesn’t have processes in place designed, intentionally or unintentionally, to keep people from proposing and implementing new ideas, processes or strategies.

If we return to the process of our childhood when failures were accepted and encouraged as something to get past, rather than something to be reprimanded for, how much more improvement and innovation would there be in companies? Suddenly the person who steps up and makes a suggestion for improvement is rewarded, even if the idea isn’t initially successful or practical for implementation. Even in that failure, that person has been a success because perhaps that person inspired the next person to step up and his/her idea IS successful and saves the company time or money.

Or how about looking at the reason for the failure? It is our nature to focus on weaknesses rather than strengths. We traditionally seek to compensate for perceived weaknesses rather than learning to excel using our strengths. Perhaps the failure is the result of a person with a talent for strategy and seeing the forest rather than the trees having found him/herself in a position where the need is for details and seeing the trees rather than the forest. Move that person to the right position and suddenly excellence and success is the norm for that person.

The road to success IS paved by failure, in many shapes and forms. Though society would like to enforce its definitions upon each individual, we need to remember that they are personal definitions and individual benchmarks. One person’s failure may be another’s success.

If you want to be a success, it takes courage – be willing to step up and fail.