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The Follower Revolt: What’s Eating Leaders for Breakfast?

“Followers unite!” And just like that established leaders like Timothy Wolfe, President of the University of Missouri, and Martin Winterkorn, CEO at Volkswagen, are gone.

While there is much talk about developing stronger leaders, what seems a more present reality is that followers have become much more empowered to actively – and sometimes passively – reject leaders they no longer are willing to follow.

Sometimes it appears to be warranted and long overdue. Other times it looks like an angry torch-carrying mob with pitchforks and knives. Either way, flash mobs of dissident followers armed with iPhone cameras, social media, threat of class-action lawsuits and backed by a drama-addicted media – are the new leadership normal. Distrust of institutions and their leaders are like a fuse one spark short of igniting. It is the newest form of organizational risk and it often goes undiagnosed and untreated.

Mostly leaders have not changed but the tolerance of their followers – employees, customers/students/patients/voters, and partners – has. Leadership, power and authority are viewed suspiciously and even contemptuously by increasingly intolerant followers. Trust in leaders is down nine percent since 2011 and only one in five trusts leaders to tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue.

There is truth in this lack of trust. As former NFL coach Bum Philips said after a lop-sided loss, “The film looks suspiciously like the game itself.” The actions of followers look suspiciously like the relationships they have with their leaders. When leaders and the shareholders/donors they report to fail to recognize this revolt against leadership, they risk their positions and their organizations.

We can debate whether the growing disregard for organizations and their leaders is a good thing. I have discussed the dysfunction of our rising victim culture here. But it is difficult to deny the new reality and that that the trend is likely to grow. The 92 million Millennials (vs.77 million baby boomers) represent our largest workforce demographic beginning in 2015 and their distrust of leadership and strong self-assured opinions about work-life, transparency, and purpose, will only add to the demands on leaders. I recommend three key steps for leaders:

Relational Risk — Name it: Leaders must begin by identifying and naming Relational Risk as a new, compelling component of risk management. Often the signs are present but ignored. The New York Times reports “Volkswagen’s command-and-control structure probably made it difficult for Winterkorn to escape responsibility, even if no direct culpability. Critics long faulted a company culture that hampers internal communication and discourages mid-managers from delivering bad news.” Millions of customers threatening class-action lawsuits were a product of unidentified Relational Risk.

Of the University of Missouri, the New York Times wrote, “Wolfe didn’t do himself any favors. A former corporate executive, Wolfe possessed a command-and-control style that didn’t jibe well with campus life. And he clearly didn’t know how to respond to the protests.”

Relationship crisis does not devolve from a single incident but from a series of episodes where relationship damage accumulates because it is ignored or handled ineffectively – incubating risk. Spineless acquiescence or reactive overkill are traps for leaders who fail to name and respect relational risk.

Relational Leadership — Lead it: Relational risk demands relational leadership. I define Relational Leadership as the ability to deliver and sustain productive engagement with widely different groups. It means being engaged with your employees, your customers, your shareholders and especially with outspoken groups that feel powerless – that may seem oppositional or even hostile. Yesterday’s wisdom was: Hold your friends close and your enemies closer.

Today’s wisdom requires leaders with the humility to recognize that those who oppose them constitute one of their most valuable resources. Competitors push leaders to perform better; philosophical opposition introduces differences that may reveal blind spots or opportunities for innovative improvement. Critics push them to get clearer on what they believe and why. A recent study found that highly regarded CEOs were six times as likely to be viewed as humble when compared to least-highly regarded CEOs.

Leaders coddled by uncontested power are often unprepared to lead during a relational crisis. In fact coddled leaders often unwittingly make coddled followers stronger. Today like never before, in both selecting and developing leaders, Relational Leadership skills must be a priority for successfully addressing this new risk of highly critical, sometimes entitled followers.

Relational Metrics — Measure it: The growing relational risk that leaders face is changing the metrics that boards, key shareholders and regulators pay attention to. I recently spoke at a Relational Risk conference at Cambridge University in England with attendees from about 20 countries. A fellow speaker addressed a growing movement requiring more integrated reporting from public companies beyond just financial information to include metrics regarding social and relational capital – a Relationship Scorecard, you might say. This broader reporting is now mandated in Brazil and South Africa and voluntarily being addressed in 20 percent of the FTSI 100 companies in the UK. Governments and shareholders recognize that financial reporting is a pretty narrow, after-the-fact instrument for understanding and anticipating relational risk with customers, employees, communities and the environment.

Instituting a Relationship Scorecard to track and understand the strengths and weaknesses of key constituent relationships is an important step to proactive Relational Leadership. If we want a more accountable, less-entitled society, it must start with leaders competently and plan-fully addressing follower dissonance. Simply blaming the “victims” will not be a viable strategy. In medicine it often leads to medical malpractice. In leaders it risks leadership malpractice. Leadership is similar to medicine where what most often gets you sued is not substandard medical treatment, but callous relationship treatment.

The risk of followership revolt is real. Self-righteous dictators, Pharisees, and command-and-control leaders are no more attractive than self-righteous followers. Relational leaders must be the grown-ups that engage proactively, productively, and relationally; anything less fuels revolt. Relational leaders will view these challenges as opportunities to strengthen leadership, build relationships with dissident groups and grow their relational currency. The time to build Relational Leadership is not in the midst of a crisis – it is now!

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