Follower-focused leadership

Try these tips for mentor-focused leadership that nurtures new talent.


Aerial view of Ghost Creek golf course

How does someone become a leader? How does a leader continue to develop? There is no shortage of literature on the topic of leadership, leaving us with no excuse not to succeed, if books are indeed the answer to these questions.

Chances are likely that, if you’re reading this article, you have arrived at a leadership position in your organization. You have been educated, are experienced and have been promoted through the ranks of your field. As all the work pays off, you arrive at this important role in an organization. Perhaps it was drive or vision that brought you to this point. You have new levels of authority, new responsibilities, influence and followers.

Who influenced you on your upward journey to leadership? No doubt, there were many great examples, negative examples and everything in between.

I’ve heard people say, “Leaders are born to lead,” or that leaders “either have the abilities or they don’t.” However, as you reflect on the people who have influenced you, these generalities and cliches do not hold up. You are living proof that leadership is learned. You’ve acquired your leadership skills, either intentionally or passively, through the examples, teaching and mentorship from others throughout your career.

I’ve had a tremendous opportunity to learn from great leaders and decision-makers from many walks of life and have learned something from them all. These people have collectively inspired me to grow and improve as a leader at all stages of my career. The inspiration I received from so many mentors sparked an interest in me to read, research and teach others about management and leadership.

One of the most influential people in my career was Sean O’Connor, who has worked on golf courses in addition to working on the faculty at Michigan State University. With an MSU colleague, he authored a white paper called “Deploying Disruptive Technologies with a Disruptive Approach to Leadership.” Central to O’Connor’s approach to leadership is the shift in focus from the traditional concepts of leadership to a focus on the follower. This shift hinges on three key insights.

First, effective leaders seek to identify what they and those they lead are truly passionate about. The “disruptive” action here is to break through the superficial roles we play at work and in life. Everyone has something they love and believe deeply. When you tap into that true passion, the relationship between leader and follower begins to be more authentic.

Second, effective leaders connect themselves and those they lead with specific skills and talents. Everyone has gifts that, when activated and optimized, can exceed expectations. The disruptive action here is that the gifts might not be associated with a position or task. For example, encourage a person who likes problem-solving to use that skill in the workplace, whether the task is clerical, manual or supervisory.

Third, effective leaders align themselves and those they lead with a cause bigger than themself. Everyone wants to make progress toward the thing they love and believe. Anything that detracts or distracts from that purpose or vision causes friction, discomfort or burnout. The challenge of all great leaders is to identify the follower’s vision and help the follower apply their purpose or vision for the greater good. The disruptive action here is to value the follower’s vision and not assume the follower will automatically adopt an abstract organizational vision for work and life.

The glue that holds these three key insights together is trust. Follower-focused leadership is highly interactive, not transactional. Follower-focused leadership values the follower’s beliefs and gifts over organizational structure. If this approach to leadership comes across in any way as disingenuous, the wheels will fall off. Probably the most disruptive aspect here is the often-overlooked importance of personal authenticity for both leader and follower.

My challenge to you is to begin reframing your leadership style around the follower-focused philosophy. Begin by getting to know yourself and your staff; make no assumptions, be vulnerable, protect confidentiality and start building trust. Identify the things you and your staff do well, then celebrate and encourage more of that. Build on personal vision, that thing bigger than self, and find alignment in your and your staff’s personal and work life.

This might seem uncomfortable at first, but just start by trying something fresh and new.

Michael Morris, CGCS Retired, is the director of building and grounds at Crystal Downs Country Club in Frankfort, Mich. He is also a consultant on leadership and management design. For more information, go to www.michael