CEO Coach Robinson Blog #Two: CEO Followers and CEO Leaders

by jeremy.robinson on November 23, 2009

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We can’t really talk about leadership without thinking about followers, and follower-ship. In fact, the entire leadership enterprise is based on having good followers.

As a CEO Coach, the fact is that I frequently coach those who are Direct Reports of CEOs.  Most of these executives are amazing in at least one aspect of what they do.  Frequently their allegiance to their CEO bosses is something admirable.

Perhaps their main failing is their inability to stand up to their CEOs and respectfully disagree.  Based on my experience as an Executive Coach for more than twenty-five years, I’d say this is the main failing of most Executives in organizational America they are unbelievably hard workers, but they are not great champions of dissent, even when they have reasons to disagree with decisions at the top. (More about this failure to dissent and all that is involved with this dynamic in a future blog.)

Despite this failing, the followers I’ve coached are far better executives than many of the CEOs and Presidents I’ve coached.  Most work harder, have higher integrity, loyalty, leadership capability and are better team players.

Some of the CEOs I’ve coached remind me of baseball players who say that they never like to watch games when they’re not playing.  In effect, they’re only fans of the game they star in.  Frequently they’re extremely charismatic and personable.  I’ve found them incredibly charming and entertaining.  Often however, they’re much too narcissistic to suit my liking. I’ve been able to help them get results as a coach.  But these are not people I’d ever turn to as a friend. And friend is not a role they play well with others, either.

Many followers I coach are exactly the opposite.  They’re thrilled to be champions of the organizations and bosses they serve, even as their own self-interest might become diluted in the process.   I’m constantly struck by how ably these followers serve despite the odds and the pressures imposed from the top.

Jim Collins writes about Level 5 Leaders in his extraordinary book Good to Great.  These are CEOs he and his researchers have identified whose companies had sky-rocketed in stock price during the period Collins and his team studied them.  Collins found that Level 5 CEOs contained two traits in common:  unbelievable persistence, which wasn’t a surprise to anyone, and deep humility, which was a surprise.

The humble CEO is the realization of the follower-King.  This Chief is in relational attunement with his Executive Team, making others around him feel good about their work and the value they bring.  My view is that this humble leader still remembers what it is to be a great follower.   This leader is the resonant leader that Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee write about in the best book to date on emotional intelligence titled Primal Leadership.

This is the leader whom we followers want to help and whom we are willing to run through walls to serve.  They build trust in multiple ways.  They appreciate champions throughout the organization.  They are generous in their recognition and appreciation of many of the small things so many of us do.

Gratitude is always in their vocabulary.

This is the leader that CEO Coaches like myself yearn to coach.  Not the CEO Prince known for firing people and seeking glory.  But the mild-mannered guy who really is the captain of the ship and would put his life on the line.  She might even do so anonymously.  I’m not talking about the Al “Chainsaw” Dunlaps of the world; but leaders like US Air Pilot Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger. These are the leaders and leadership stories we can’t get enough of.

What do we do to nurture such leaders?  How do we develop them?

Five things come to mind:

1.  We need to nurture modest executives in the leadership ranks and urge companies to take more risks in gambling on their future CEO leadership at the same time we coach them to gain more visibility and confidence in pushing themselves forward.

2. We need to think out of the box about leadership.  Great leaders come in all sizes, shapes, voices, gender and races.  The General McArthur, “I shall return” messianic leader is charismatic and gives a great speech, but that leader wears very hard on organizations and his followers.

3. Leadership is most often about follower-ship than anything else.  Resonant leaders are followers and admirers of their Peers and Direct Reports.  They are constantly learning and praising those around them.

But not in false or overly flattering ways.  They are mostly admired for how authentic they are.

4. Great Leadership comes out more often from the unusual moment than in any ongoing leadership activity or role. The spectacular leaders I’ve known are special because they have known when not to overdo it, when to self-regulate themselves and let others come to the forefront.  Yet, in moments when courage has been demanded of them, they have amazed all of us- often themselves, with what they have said and done.

5. The most important leaders in an organization are not necessarily at the top.  Truly strong organizations have leaders and champions in the middle of their organizations who are fearless in speaking up and taking risks about doing what is needed.  Organizations that reward and protect these mid-level leaders and champions become great talent pipelines. These organizations also end up promoting similar behavior in others.

That’s why we can’t talk about great CEOs without talking about their teams.  Great leadership is more about alignment, attunement, influence and collaboration than it is about control, demand and power.  Tomorrow’s great leader is today’s great follower.  But she still needs to be able to say “No” in critical moments and to speak truth to power.

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