The Courageous Follower: A Book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 11th, 2011 by bobmorris

The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders
Ira Chaleff
Berrett-Koehler (2003)

It is important to keep in mind that a “follower” is not necessarily someone who never leads; rather, a follower is someone who, in a non-leader situation, nonetheless has ample opportunities to exercise judgment, demonstrate initiative, and offer support to someone who has leadership responsibilities. In other words, the terms “leader” and “follower” have much less to do with rank, title, status, etc. and much more to do with relative authority and responsibility. In the U.S. Marine Corps, for example, senior officers will defer to a non-com who possesses better information.

As I began to read Chaleff’s book, I was reminded of James O’Toole’s essay, “Speaking to Power,” in Transparency: How Leaders Create a Culture of Candor that he co-authored with Warren Bennis and Daniel Goleman As he notes, “speaking to power is, perhaps, the oldest of all ethical challenges.” He briefly discusses several plays (Sophocles’ Antigone, John Osborne’s Luther, and Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons) whose protagonist offers a reminder to leaders in our own time of the responsibility to create a transparent “culture of candor.” This precisely what Chaleff has in mind when examining “courageous followers” who, when involved in the dynamics of the leader-follower relationship, must summon the c courage to assume responsibility, to serve, to challenge, to participate in transformation, and to take moral action.

Meanwhile, Chaleff quite correctly poses this question to leaders: “Do you have the courage to listen to followers?” In the book’s final chapter, he shares his thoughts about how important it is for leaders to not only accept but encourage and indeed welcome “messages” that, although perhaps unpleasant to receive, need to be heard and carefully considered. Chaleff urges all leaders to invite “creative challenge” rather than discourage it.

For me, this is one of the most important points that Doris Kearns Goodwin makes in Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. When forming his cabinet after election as the 16th president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a “long armed Ape”), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as “very near being a perfect man.”

It took great courage as a leader for Lincoln to include these opponents in his administration but he needed their advice prior to making what proved to be critically important decisions throughout the Civil War. He welcomed their dissent. Also to Lincoln’s considerable credit, he created a “culture of candor” in which it was not necessary for a follower to be courageous when “speaking to power.”

I highly admire this updated and expanded Third Edition of a book that can be of great value to those who must address today’s leadership crisis…and perhaps prevent tomorrow’s.

 

 

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