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An Interview With Marc Hurwitz, Co-Founder of FliP U

FliP U’s Marc Hurwitz recently shared his thoughts about followership -- the central concept of the course, The F word that Complements Leadership -- in an interview with Charles Thaxton.

Q.Why do you think, in the last 20 years or so scholars and some in business have become interested in “followership?” Is it a backlash to leadership exhaustion? Or is it in-line with the way companies are changing more generally?

A.The focus on followership is definitely in-line with changes in work today. Almost all leadership theories that are popular today were originally proposed in the 1950s to 1970s. They were a reaction to to business environment back then. In 1980, for example, 20% of work was done in teams. Back in the 70s, a team meant a leader who organized the work, motivated the people, and supervised everything, with followers who did what they were told.

In 2010 , however, 80% of work was done in teams. And the type of teamwork has changed as well. Expertise is dispersed and not 'owned' by an omniscient leader, the speed of change is too fast for it to be pushed down to subordinates (i.e., you need a join-in, not a buy-in), and tasks are far less routine.

All this requires a deeper partnership between leaders and followers, and between leadership and followership. The statistics bear this out. Teams with great followers are 17-43% better at almost anything you can measure, whether it is efficiency, customer satisfaction, quality, engagement, employee satisfaction, and more. In a globally competitive environment, that's a hard-to-ignore number.

The two earliest books on followership were both written in the early 1990's. The leadership industry really took off in the 1980's, and at the end of the 80's a few critical pieces were written against the lionization of leadership, so I also suspect followership was partly a reaction to this burgeoning leadership industry.

Q.A lot of your work has to do with the interdependency of leadership and followership? Why do you think we’re inclined to think of these things in contest in the first place?

A.In a series of studies, James Meindl showed that people have a "Romance of the Leader". I don't know why?

In popular media, it is also easier to tell the tale of one person (whom we call the leader) than the real story. I wish I knew why or how this morphed into the idea that people could only be either a leader or a follower. The fact is, we are all both. It just depends on the situation when we have to lead, or when we have to follow. The message that everyone needs to be a leader all the time is just wrong - imagine a world where this was the case. It would be incredibly chaotic.

In my mind, there is not contest between the two roles unless one of the people involved is doing something wrong.

Q.Do you have any sense why the tech industry, which is arguably more collaborative/follower-based than other fields, is especially prone to leader-worship?

A.I do agree that the tech industry is more collaborative than almost any other field, probably because it is based on knowledge work. And very few things of significance can be created by a single individual.

To make stories digestible, we often report on the brilliance of individuals such as Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg. It's far more complex to talk about the many people it took to actually build Apple, or Microsoft, or Facebook. If you couple that with the 'typical' life of a future tech worker - they are rarely the most popular kid in school, or the natural leader in a crowd - it is ripe for mythologizing the role of leadership. The truth is far more nuanced, complex, and collaborative.

Q.What are the essential traits of followership? What about ones that leaders can or should adopt?

A.First of all, there aren't leaders. There aren't followers. We are all both. And we all need to learn both followership and leadership skills to show up as our best selves at work. Your question, however, was about traits. I would be hard put to identify traits that people didn't need in both roles. Whether you are leading or following you need to be smart, thoughtful, socially aware, possess an above average fluid intelligence (sometimes called IQ), listen well, exercise emotional self-control while also understanding how others react, take turns well, be resilient, be adaptable, etc.

There are, however, different skills when following than when leading. For example, as a follower you need to be able to communicate in a way that stimulates action, be active in figuring out what your leader is trying to achieve, be responsible for your own engagement, and support your peers by being a decision advocate rather than a devil's advocate. As a leader you need to set the direction, communicate a vision, interface with management on behalf of the team, coach, celebrate progress, and more. I also think you need to know how to mentor for strong followership, i.e., be able to support your team in becoming better followers. This is something you can only do if you understand followership and can model strong followership skills as well.