We know that all situations are the same and therefore not all leader-follower relationships are the same. What we seem to lack are simple rules of thumbs for working out what (and what not) to do when. I have a fondness for the Cynefin framework.
The Cynefin framework maps out the world into four different spaces:
What do you do depends on the kind of domain that you are in. Back in 2007, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making by Dave Snowden & Mary Boone mapped out the different roles that leaders can play effectively in each domain. I’d like to reflect what the relevant followership behaviours might be in each situation.
Simple: In the simple domain, one thing invariably leads to the next. The leader ensures that the correct processes are in place and the follower, well, follows them. Too easy. However the simple domain lies next to chaos for a reason: routine can lead to complacency. Things may not be as simple as we think. Therefore the role of the follower is to pay attention and to keep things fresh. If you are in a routine role, what have you noticed recently?
Complicated: In the complicated domain, there is a cause and effect but they may be tangled up and require expert investigation. Sometimes this works well. One role for a follower is be able to identify and engage the relevant expert (which may be the follower herself). However experts tend to fixate on their area of expertise and may not be open to innovative ideas. It may require a willingness on the part of followers to provide insights in an appropriate manner.
Complex: In the complex domain, there are many interacting factors rather than clear causes and effects. Here the relationship between leaders and followers becomes more fluid and both need to be prepared to shift between and even share roles as the situation emerges.
Chaos: In chaos, all you can do is act and then see whether your actions work or not. If the leader is strong and effective then the follower is best off following. If the leader is weak then the follower must decide whether to strengthen them or remove their support. The latter course of action requires someone to fill that power vacuum as quickly as possible. It is dangerous (the whole system might collapse) but may be necessary if the alternative is disaster.
The challenge for followers is to understand the domain that we are in and to be both willing and able to modify our behaviour accordingly. This is actually a lot of work. We must pay attention to our surroundings and our fellow followers. The further we move in complexity, the more we need to collaborate with others to make sense of what is going on. We must also know ourselves and our leaders. How do we cope with routine and uncertainty? And what happens when we mistake the one for the other?
None of this easy, but as this blog continually notes, being a follower is not an easy role.
How have you coped with these different contexts?