Sun | May 24, 2020

Trevor E. S. Smith | Should leaders adjust to followers, or followers to leaders?

Published:Sunday | October 6, 2019 | 12:00 AM

An issue that plays out in organisations daily is the dynamics among leaders at all levels and those they are responsible for leading.

Having had to address many problems in teams, this leader-follower challenge is at the heart of much dysfunction in teams.


Many leaders adopt the position that they have been entrusted with the responsibility to guide the team to the achievement of set goals.

From that perspective, they see the need to set the tone and forge a culture that can deliver the results. Executing their game plan is their responsibility, and they will be judged on the basis of their ability to achieve the objectives.

There is a temptation to focus more on lead than heed.


Team members may take the view that this is a collective effort, not a one-person show.

From that perspective, it is important that they should be consulted and have a significant level of influence over team culture and how the team goes about its operations.

From that angle comes the temptation to resist rather than assist.


It is surprising how few teams opt for working at a meeting of the minds and strive for balance between the two perspectives.

Both perspectives have an element of validity. Their approach can be understood. Consequently, efforts should be made to accommodate both.


The leader-follower tension is most notable when there is a change of leadership. New leaders come into the picture with team norms firmly controlling how things are done. Members fall in line with ‘how we do things’. If new leaders are ignorant of the norms or seek to make significant changes, they immediately encounter resistance.

This is a really tricky period.

Pause for a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the new leader – Janet. She just got the new job. She is keen to impress and justify the confidence that has been placed in her.

Janet has spent hours formulating just how she is going to hit the ground running. She has every confidence that she can make a positive difference. Janet is hoping that she will get the support of the team. Then comes the rude awakening!


In reality, many factors intervene to block the support that a new leader craves.

Office politics plays a major role in influencing members to withhold support. Preference for another candidate is a frequent reason.

Then there are many issues that can cause the team to be preoccupied and, therefore, not be ready to be engaged.

Remuneration and working conditions are listed among those issues.


A wise leader should take time to investigate and fully appreciate the environment prior to diving in with fixed plans. Plans need to be designed for the operating context.

A leader will not want to see precious time ticking away while they wait patiently to understand the culture and norms. Still worse, they may have misgivings about what they have seen so far. Waiting passively is not an option.

However, the leader can decide to be intelligently proactive.

Why not initiate meaningful discussions right up front. These are frank exchanges during which visions and expectations are shared and concerns examined. They are designed to result in the identification of an approach that will produce the desired results while taking team member well-being and engagement into consideration.


Sometimes we lose sight of why there is a team in the first place. Refocusing on the purpose and objectives might create a greater readiness to keep an open mind.

Seek opportunities to learn more about the plans and leadership style of the new leader. Work to understand how this will be different from existing team norms. How will you be impacted? Share your perspectives.

And here is an important question: “How many times has undermining a new leader ended up with the preferred candidate getting the job and being successful in it?”

The favoured candidate can demonstrate readiness for leadership by rallying members to unite for the achievement of extraordinary results.


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- Trevor E. S. Smith/Success with People Academy. We help develop high-performance teams. We are interpersonal relations, group dynamics, and performance-enhancement specialists. We provide learning and productivity-enhancement technology solutions. We offer behavioural assessments from Extended DISC on the revolutionary FinxS Platform. Email: