Ira Chaleff: An interview by Bob Morris

Ira Chaleff

Ira Chaleff has been named one of the top 100 best thinkers on leadership in the U.S. by Executive Excellence magazine. He lives in Washington, DC, and plays several interesting roles there including executive coach, author, workshop leader and chair of a non-profit board that studies best management and communication practices in political offices. As a coach, he provides a supportive forum for executives to examine and improve their leadership and management styles and processes, their interpersonal and political skills, and their focus on mission achievement. Chaleff’s coaching experience includes a broad range of financial, manufacturing, legal, pharmaceutical, not-for-profit and government organizations.

As an author he has been acknowledged in the Harvard Business Review as one of the pioneers in the emerging field of followership studies. One of his books, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders, is now in its third edition and has been translated into half a dozen languages. He also co-edited, The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations with Ronald E. Riggio and Jean Lipman-Blumen, published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. He has given hundreds of speeches and  workshops on this topic for a wide range of public and private sector groups and recently, with his publisher Berrett-Koehler (, developed an online version of the Followership Styles instrument he uses in these workshops (


Chaleff also occupies a unique niche in Washington, DC. He has served as executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and is currently the chair of its Board.  CMF is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that helps congressional offices serve their constituents through better communication and management practices in their own offices. From this vantage point he has a unique view of leader-follower dynamics in political cultures.

Morris: Before focusing on your books, I have some general questions. First, what is it about executive coaching that you most enjoy?

Chaleff: It’s rare for promising performers, mid-level managers or senior executives to stop the world for awhile to examine how they are interacting with that world, what impact their style is having, and how they might interact more effectively. Coaching gives them that opportunity.

When you make the environment safe, both through confidentiality ground rules and non-judgmental questioning and feedback, people open up and become vitally engaged in their own growth. In addition to the process being of significant benefit to them, it provides the coach with a privileged window into the dynamics of organization life. This helps me keep real and fresh when writing about leadership and followership. I also work with a terrific group of talented coaches so we learn from each other (

Morris: You have much of value to say about strengthening skill sets. In your opinion, what will be the most important skills that business leaders will need during the next 2-3 years?

Chaleff: Every age has its anxieties. Ours is no exception. Globalization, recession, climate change, aging populations, the mind-boggling speed of change, the rise of giant economic and scientific competitors, the 24/7 media cycle all contribute to a background of anxiety. Leaders need to possess or learn the capacity to not add to that anxiety but rather to channel it into adaptive responses. This is where leadership “being” is as or more important than “doing”.

A concomitant skill will be creating cultures that make it explicitly safe for candor between all levels of the organization. Vast knowledge resides at the bottom of the organization that must be able to reach and inform the strategic decision makers at the top. Otherwise warnings about suspect practices do not reach the top of a Lehman Brothers or an Arthur Anderson until those practices sink the organization. They must be able to hear these warnings and look deeply into the organization’s culture, its metrics and its reward systems to understand how it is creating unacceptable risk.

Leaders of the 21st century will encourage their younger staff to imaginatively utilize ever-changing technology to break down walls between levels of the hierarchy, functional departments, partner organizations, stakeholders and customers. They will encourage reverse mentoring and leadership based on competency rather than on position.

They will also understand their power to model the values and behaviors that are needed throughout the organization. These include continuous learning, self-development, authenticity, resilience and personal and social accountability. Gosh, these sound like the qualities of a well developed, mature human being!

Morris: You occupy a very interesting niche in Washington, DC. Some would say bringing good management practices to Congress is both oxymoronic and quixotic. What is your experience in this realm?


Chaleff: Congress has many critics and much of the criticism it receives is well-deserved. Yet most of its members are passionately dedicated and the legislative branch is a crucial institution for our republic. So we need to think about how to make it work better for us.


Congress operates on several levels. The primary unit is the individual member of Congress and his or her office. All members have both a Washington office and one or more offices in their district or State. Representatives are allowed up to 18 full time staff. The size of Senate office staffs varies by state population and can go as high as 80 or so. For these offices to best serve the member’s constituents they need to be well managed. The non-profit I chair has been able to make a significant difference in this realm.


The larger institution is a different kettle of fish. Some of its support services such as the Library of Congress, the Capitol police, the finance functions, can benefit from good management the way any organization can. But at the heart of the institution, which is the two chambers and their elected members, the process becomes so intensely political that good management emphatically takes a back seat to the need for principled leadership. Unfortunately, our system rewards those in leadership roles far more for party victories than for policy achievements. It is a great conundrum as to how to alter those dynamics.


There are small fixes that could curb the worst consequences of this system but the larger dynamics are unlikely to radically change. Therefore, it comes down to the values of the leadership. We need individuals with the courage to be “patriots instead of partiots”. It is said that people get the government they deserve. I interpret this to mean if we want a better legislature we need to individually and collectively raise our voices to demand dialogue instead of posturing, and principled collaboration instead of politically motivated “gotcha”. The Congressional Management Foundation ( is seeking the resources to work at the institutional level and help nudge the culture of Congress in that direction. (Yes, I just slipped in a fund raising appeal!)


Morris: How does your work on leader and follower dynamics play into the prospect of a more functional Congress?


Chaleff: Potentially in several ways. At staff level, for example, the Senate Chiefs of Staff took the initiative to form a bipartisan group that gathers every month or so to discuss an aspect of government service and to build relationships amongst themselves. When Bob Democrat needs to sort out a thorny issue with Sue Republican, they now have a pre-existing relationship that helps them do so. In some cases they will then be able to influence upwards so the Senators they serve take advantage of the bridge building they have done.


At a higher level, individual members themselves will have to take more principled stands despite the pressures they experience from their own leadership to toe the party line (e.g. to block the other side from legislative victories they can tout in subsequent elections). A few brave souls take these stands. They form groups like the “center aisle caucus”, referring to the aisle that divides the Democrat and Republican sides of the House of Representatives. Those who are “too principled” pay a price as the leadership has many tools they can use to punish a failure to fall in line. More of our elected representatives will need to take courageous stands against this pressure if we are to change the quality of our legislative process.


Morris: That’s a good segue into our main discussion of The Courageous Follower. For those who have not as yet read it, you observe in the Preface to the Second Edition that it is the nature of courageous followership “that when it is most effective, we never hear of its actions.” Please explain.


Chaleff: I’m happy to report, of course, that there is now a third edition. But the model hasn’t changed – I have simply added another chapter based on crucial challenges my coaching clients experience in dealing with large hierarchies.


When courageous followership is most effective, the leader receives both terrific support and candid feedback that helps him or her be more effective. Courageous leaders will acknowledge the contributions staff make to their success, but it is bad form for a follower to himself claim this credit publicly, which can diminish the leader’s public stature. For example, it is a “No No” for congressional staff to take credit for whatever the Senator or Member wishes to receive credit. If a staff member quietly steers an executive away from an ill-advised course of action, many will be indebted to her but not know to whom their debt is owed.


Morris: The subtitle of the book correctly indicates that you provide to your reader guidance on how and when to “stand up” to and for leaders. Presumably you are referring to two rather tricky situations: “speaking truth to power” and defending the person who possesses such power. Aren’t these two situations mutually exclusive?


Chaleff: Not at all. In fact they go hand-in-glove. The more effective you are at helping a leader succeed, the stronger platform you have from which to be heard when speaking truth to power. Demonstrating loyalty when appropriately defending a leader allows you to then be perceived as a loyal critic when speaking your truth to power. Of course, what it means to “appropriately defend” a leader is a conversation in itself. Some acts simply cannot be defended.


Morris: In the first chapter, you suggest six ways in which followers can relate to the leader. In your opinion, which of them is most important? Why?


Chaleff: It’s not that one way is more important than the others, but that some ways are appropriate and some are inappropriate. Appropriate ways include selfless service to the mission, service to the mission and the leader, and service to the mission and the leader and yourself. Inappropriate ways include service to the leader at the expense of those the organization exists to serve, and service to yourself at the expense of the leader and the mission. Few of us are saints but neither do we have to be sinners. Striking the right balance between service to the mission, the leader and our own needs is a healthy objective.


Morris: In the same chapter, when discussing how followers can work effectively with other followers, you offer eight suggestions. In your opinion, which of them is most important? Why?


Chaleff: Your questions are driving me to re-read my own book! I know the big picture cold but need to refresh myself on specific subsets. When you write a book you are “in the zone” and offer insights you might not as easily access years later.


After rereading the passage to which your question refers, I will say the most important precept is “Remembering who we serve will help us find common ground when we seem to be splitting into factions.”  There is connective tissue between the concepts of courageous followership and the approach known as servant leadership. Service is the keystone to leader-follower and team relationships.


Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of a “cowardly follower”? Please identify specific behaviors of when they are most evident.


Chaleff: I do not like the word “cowardly.” I might use the word “immobilized.” Courage is not the opposite of fear. If we were not afraid we would not need courage – we would simply act. Courage is an active response in the face of fear. It is a primary virtue, but Aristotle observed that courage without prudence becomes recklessness.  A courageous follower will act in support of worthy leadership actions and question unworthy actions, despite the fear they may experience when doing so. An immobilized follower is either not paying attention to the situation, or not assuming personal responsibility and standing up for or to their leader.


One client of mine recently was being massively misunderstood by key board members at a meeting. He looked to his deputy to help him defuse the situation. His deputy found himself paralyzed by the exchange and did not come to the leader’s defense. This, on top of earlier incidents, caused an irreparable breach of trust. We need to train ourselves to find our voice when fear threatens to immobilize us.


Morris: According to the Gallup Management Journal’s Employee Engagement Index, 29% of employees are actively engaged in their jobs, 54% are not engaged, and 17% are actively disengaged. The statistics on workforce engagement are surprising. Here’s my question: For those who aspire to be a “courageous follower,” is it more difficult, less difficult, or about the same now than it was (let’s say) 3-5 years ago? Please explain.


Chaleff: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs tells us that people are motivated by safety before achievement and self esteem. In times when people feel financially insecure it requires more courage to take a principled stand toward those with the power to fire you. But it needn’t be this way. If followers are terrifically productive and supportive of their leaders they have more leeway to take principled positions.


Morris: You served as a co-editor of The Art of Followership: How Great Followers Make Great Leaders and Organizations with Ronald E. Riggio and Jean Lipman-Blumen. Here are a few brief statements from some of the articles. Please respond to each. First, Robert E. Kelley: “Instead of viewing followers as the ‘good soldiers’ who carry out commands dutifully, we need to view followers as the primary defenders against toxic leaders or dysfunctional organizations.”


Chaleff: I love Robert Kelley’s work and his seminal contributions to the field of followership that he helped to create. I do not disagree with the above statement. But taken out of context it suggests too narrow a picture of his view or my view of followership. Good followers do not   just defend against toxic leaders. They just as vigorously support positive leaders. Beyond that, human nature is not a polarity of “good leaders” and “toxic leaders.” All leaders are a blend of their strengths and flaws. Mature followers understand this and work to bring out the best in their leaders and to minimize the impact of their flaws. I have my own quote that is a variation on Kelley’s that sums up my view on this. I’m sure it’s déclassé to quote myself in an interview but here it goes, slightly edited for brevity:


“Followers are the guarantors of the beneficial use of power. Dynamic leaders may use power well, but they cannot be the guarantors. In their passion, their expansiveness, their drive, dynamic leaders are prone to excess. Followers provide the balance if we can stand up to our leaders.”


Morris: “Because self-concepts of leaders and followers are important determinants of follower role orientations, an important question for future research is how alignment between leaders’ and followers’ self-concepts can be facilitated.” Jon P. Howell and María J. Méndez


Chaleff: My bias is toward practice rather than academic research. In what I will call “lay” language, the more we can create constructive candor between different levels of hierarchy, the healthier will be the way individuals play their leader and follower roles.


Morris: “Without making a commitment to the organization, department, or work unit, employees cannot be accountable for what they do or don’t do. In short, what we do not own, we deflect and deny.” Linda Hopper


Chaleff: I have found that there is too much complaining about leaders in many organizations. People at every level are adults and professionals. When they see things that need correcting, they need to own that as fully as they want their leaders to own it.

They are not powerless. They can make choices to speak effectively, to act with initiative and to rally others to help. There are many types of power in addition to positional power.


Morris: “For our purposes, toxic leaders are those individuals who, by virtue of their destructive behaviors and dysfunctional personal characteristics/qualities, generate serious and enduring poisonous effects on the individuals, families, organizations, even entire societies if they lead.” Jean Lipman-Blumen


Chaleff: Jean and I come at this topic from a similar deep concern with the consequences of unchecked power. There is alarming research and overwhelming historical evidence demonstrating the propensity of people to comply with authority even when that authority asks them to do things that violate core human values. How do we change this?


Children need to be socialized into respect for authority but many learn that lesson too well. This is a fundamental question: How do we socialize children so they grow to become adults who have a proper respect for authority while retaining full accountability for their actions? The post WW II Nuremburg trials established the principle that there is no “good soldier” defense. We can never absolve ourselves from responsibility by claiming we were just following orders. How do we help children internalize the distinction between appropriate deference to authority and necessary questioning in the face of potentially harmful orders?


If we can do this and create models for other cultures to emulate we would change the world. It is my great hope that educators will take on this challenge and create laboratories of change in authority relationships in classrooms far and wide (I just made another plug – contact me if you have a burning passion to do this


Morris: Here’s the last statement, cited by C. Fred Alford in his article, Whistleblowing as Responsible Followership. “All social organization consists therefore in neutralizing the disruptive and deregulating impact of moral behavior.” Zygmund Bauman


Chaleff: Whew! Alford’s chapter is both brilliant and disturbing. Courageous followership encourages vigorous internal efforts to correct organizational ills. Alford maintains that the organization doesn’t differentiate between these internal efforts and external whistleblowing. It treats both as an existential threat. I have to hope his observations are more compelling than true. I believe it is possible to take moral stands without the organization mobilizing to neutralize your efforts if you are skilful at demonstrating to the leadership how it is in their self interest as well as the organization’s to reconsider their positions or actions.


There is evidence that some organizations have a willingness to do this in the data of who is purchasing and using my book. I am delighted to report that many law enforcement agencies are using The Courageous Follower to help their mid-level officers make these distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate orders and how to support or challenge those orders accordingly. The fact that the Air Force Academy recently purchased six hundred copies of the book for its incoming class gives me further hope that there is another vector at work which, at least at the margins, is countering the dynamics Alford observes. My work is to make this vector more central to organization culture.

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Chaleff: Why should leaders care about courageous followership? Many leaders are quite content to have people around them who are terrific implementers of their ideas and directions. People who think just like they do. Why should they want their circle to include people who will argue and push back? Isn’t that time draining and exhausting? Well, yes it is, if taken too far. But without a robust dialogue with team members from a number of levels of the organization, leaders are exposed to great risk from their own blind spots.

It is astounding how consciously leaders must work to create a climate where deference to their authority doesn’t cause the people around them to be less than candid. Leaders who read this will say, “Not my people! They argue with me all the time!” To a degree, yes. But when they see the leader is passionately committed to a direction and unlikely to be influenced to change that, they self-censor, even in the face of harboring serious reservations. The primary requirement of risk management is creating a culture of robust candor. Leaders, that is your challenge! Followers, that is your responsibility even when the leader falls short of inviting full candor!


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