Courageous Followers

A few months ago I heard a talk by Ira Chaleff, author of “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To and For Our Leaders.” In his book, Ira recommends that leaders create conditions in which “it is easier for followers to speak the truth as they see it and for leaders to give appropriate consideration to what they are being told.” The results of leaders not giving that consideration have led to bad decisions, big and small. In NASA, not listening to the opinions of the engineers led to the Challenger disaster. In one company, told by an employee who lost his job, not including the voice of doubters led to bankruptcy. The Bay of Pigs fiasco resulted from not creating an environment where people felt safe speaking up. So it’s great to have recommendations for leaders on how to create such an environment.

groupthinkThis resonates with the suggestions put forward in “Why Great Leaders Don’t Take YES for an Answer”. In this book, Michael Roberto explains how leaders can and should create the conditions for a diversity of opinions: to include experts with differing opinions, to include the naysayers, and to remove the influence of the leader in the process (by absenting himself from the discussion initially) – all of which raise the quality of decisions. Roberto and Chaleff separately agree that we need to teach leaders about the phenomenon of Groupthink, which played a critical role in the disasters listed above. But what do we do in the absence of enlightened leadership? How do we empower followers in the face of bad leaders?

Group members do not have to rely on leaders alone. We can teach teams, church and community groups about Groupthink. This should be standard training for high-performing teams, including strategies to avoid Groupthink. In addition, we need to empower group members to share leadership of the group. For example, group members can insist on setting norms of participation and on creating the conditions for effective decision-making, even if the leader does not attend to that. Using our group process skills, we can train group members and bolster their confidence in raising this issue, in a non-blaming way – in the context of improving the group’s effectiveness in making constructive decisions. As facilitators and participants, we should ask “how do we want to keep each other accountable to the norms?”

Next post: characteristics of dissenter/followers.

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