Want leadership engagement? 6 steps to getting people to follow leaders willingly

leadership engagement for leaders

Profound changes are affecting the world of work, and the art of getting people to want to follow leaders willingly is hugely significant, writes Anthony Mitchell, who explains that there are 6 steps organisations can adopt to help with this process

While The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner was published in a different age from today’s business environment, its definition of leadership still holds true. In particular, they defined leadership as ‘”the art of mobilising others to want to strive for shared aspirations”, and when asking people what they wanted from a leader they described one as “someone whose direction you would willingly follow”.

The words ‘want’ and ‘willingly’ are hugely significant. If a leader succeeds in mobilising others through force or extrinsic rewards, it’s not really leadership. If you are able to get people to do things because you have the title of ‘CEO’, or you have the ability to bestow bonuses or fire someone, that’s not leadership.

Not only does it fail the ‘want’ test, but it means that any other person could do the same through title or formal authority, and nobody thinks of leadership as something that requires no personal qualities whatsoever. It’s not just about authoritarian approaches, it’s also about paternalistic approaches that result in ‘heroic leaders’ who ultimately stifle the leadership potential of everyone else.

Today, profound changes are emerging in our world of work and these are having a direct impact on what it means to be an effective leader.

Some of the biggest changes include:

Increasingly low levels of hierarchy in organisations. This can be seen both substantively (e.g. self-managed teams in Agile settings, eschewal of classical middle management roles) and symbolically (activity-based workspaces where nobody has a desk, rather than the size and views of offices being allocated based on seniority).

“If you are able to get people to do things because you have the title of ‘CEO’, or you have the ability to bestow bonuses or fire someone, that’s not leadership”

Reductions in knowledge asymmetry between senior and junior employees. While experience still brings great value, multiple forces have reduced or eliminated the knowledge gap. This includes the influence of the digitally connected world in which ‘answers’ are publicly available through to the likelihood that the most junior employees are likely to be more technologically skilled and more comfortable in contemporary work environments.

Flexible work practices, where manager and employee are less likely (or less frequently) co-located. Project-based work also means that the longevity of a supervisory relationship is often reduced.

Less scorecard-based approaches to performance management. Managers are less likely to have the power of a ‘5-point forced ranking’.

More knowledgeable, empowered employees. Compared to the past, employees today know vastly more about their employment market, their opportunities and what kind of treatment is okay or not okay. Most employees today have less fear about losing their job and indeed, care less about having a long-term position with a company.

Being derailed from a career ladder is not of concern if you have no wish to be on a fixed career ladder in the first place. Moreover, blind trust in corporations and their leaders has vanished as social media and global news have revealed how much untrustworthy behaviour exists (and that it is possible to reject such behaviour).

Greater desire for intrinsic motivation. Linked to the above, employees are more purpose-focused. They are much more likely to crave autonomy, meaning, connection and mastery.

The net effect of all this is to make the ‘want’ component of leadership all-important. Authority as a substitute for genuine leadership is a shrinkingly viable alternative, but still one that far too many titular leaders rely upon.

“Most employees today have less fear about losing their job and indeed, care less about having a long-term position with a company”

It also decouples the term ‘leader’ from job title, organisational level, salary or span of control. Increasingly, the concept of leadership is applicable to every employee in the organisation (and those who are not formally employees), based on their effectiveness in ‘mobilising others to want to strive for shared aspirations’.

This is a scary prospect for those who have relied on authority over actual leadership. Equally, it’s an exciting prospect for creating organisations that are filled with leadership behaviour, right across the workforce. Why? Because the implication is that the company has the incredible energy, optimism, collaboration and effectiveness that comes from a critical mass of people striving for shared aspirations.

How to fill your organisation with leadership
So, if your organisation is changing in all the ways described above, how do you ensure that you have the kind of leadership required for a new world of work. Here are some places to start:

  1. Decouple leadership from title or level, and democratise it. Use the anthropology of the organisation (rituals, symbols, stories, etc) to show that leadership is everyone’s opportunity and responsibility. For example, ‘leadership programs’ should exist for all employees, not just people managers – otherwise you are using an old definition of leadership.
  2. Remove power gradients and address the behaviour of those who seek to create such gradients. Model this from the C-suite.
  3. Design your organisation around intrinsic not extrinsic motivators (while obviously taking care of hygiene needs around income).
  4. Similarly, design your organisation around shared aspirations. Create a ‘one team’ culture that is equally accessible to all, including diversity and inclusion.
  5. Build skills in mobilising others to want to strive for shared aspirations (unrelated to people management). Critical building blocks for this include skills around empathy, dialogue, collaboration, initiative, innovation and inspiration
  6. Help those who’ve been leaders in the traditional mold to understand and adapt to the new world of work. Give them a chance to succeed, but ultimately hold them as accountable as everyone else for being a leader, not an authority figure.