Leader-Leader vs. Leader-Follower Cultures: How Great Leaders Share Leadership

January 5, 2016 by Marcel Schwantes

We are on the home stretch for this series and will now focus on the sixth and last principle of what great leaders do differently: They share leadership.

Executive Summary

In the final installment of a six-part series of articles, Executive Coach Marcel Schwantes discusses one of the most counterintuitive best practices of servant leaders—allowing others to share leadership. Here, he describes the four basics for creating leader-leader rather than leader-follower cultures.

This article series focuses on six foundational behaviors of great leaders, using the servant leadership framework developed by Dr. Jim Laub, dean of MacArthur School of Leadership at Palm Beach University and president of the OLAgroup.

I hear a lot of language about how leaders “drive performance.” Driving, as you know, is a popular word in business. It’s a hard management skill. Yet over the years I have learned that leadership culture has changed. Driving no longer holds a favorable place in servant-led cultures. If you think about it, we drive cattle, cars and trucks; they have no say because “we’re in charge.” We push them through, steer them where we want them to go, but that’s the opposite of what a great leader does or is.

A leader inspires and encourages excellent performance, and followers attribute authority to those they trust. People want to be inspired into action, not driven like cattle.

Now I’m going to tell you to consider doing something powerful and counterintuitive as an engagement tactic. Some of you may have to hold on to your seats. Let your people take turns leading.

Here’s an illustration. To this day, Bruce is my favorite executive boss. That relationship goes back 15 years, before I started my leadership development practice. I was a director reporting to Bruce at a large hospital in California. Bruce taught me so many leadership lessons. He didn’t get caught up in his personal power; he inspired me by making me feel like an equal. Since humility was a natural strength of his, he never took advantage of his title or positional power. He was the most approachable boss I ever had. And while we had different roles we played in business, we shared in the decision-making.

There were so many instances where he could have pulled rank, like the time when I was tasked for the first time ever to write a portion of a federal grant and needed the support of key community stakeholders. Instead of leveraging his name to sell the project and get buy-in from potential partners, he put me in the distinct role of community organizer. Bruce made sure I had a seat at the table in all the important coalitions and provided me with all the resources I needed to get signed LOAs and MOUs. When I was stuck, instead of spoon-feeding me answers, he offered coaching questions like, “What do you think would be the best option in this situation?”

He would often mentor me in areas where he wanted me to take ownership and then put me in places I least expected—like the time he made me chair of an executive council, which is usually a spot reserved for him or another peer executive. While I was still accountable to him, and he was still “the boss,” it stretched me to learn new skills and rise up to meet my own leadership challenges. And I remember how much more satisfied and engaged I was than at any other role in my corporate life to that point—because he shared leadership.

If that resonates with you, you may want to ask yourselves at some point: How can I help my workers succeed by sharing and delegating my power? How can I help them get it?leader top of stairs resize

In what ways do great leaders share leadership? For the rest of this article, we will focus on three areas that have been proven over time to develop a culture of trust and loyalty in workers.

1. Great leaders facilitate a shared vision.

Barry Posner and Jim Kouzes, authors of the bestselling book “The Leadership Challenge,” have surveyed tens of thousands of employees about what they look for and admire in a leader. Seventy-two percent want leaders who are forward-looking. Among respondents in more senior roles, the percentage shot up to 88 percent. (Source: “To Lead, Create a Shared Vision,” by Posner and Kouzes, Harvard Business Review, January 2009 edition.)

But even more important than a visionary is a leader who reflects the visions and aspirations of his or her constituents. This leader learns to communicate an image of the future that draws the tribe in—that speaks to what people see and feel.

As most MBA programs will teach, great visions will answer these three questions:

When a vision addresses all three of these questions for your team members, a tremendous amount of energy is unleashed. There is going to be a higher level of commitment because they are able to see the relationship between the direction of the organization and what they personally believe in and care deeply about. After all, they signed up for this, and as their leader, you learn to communicate an image of the future that speaks to what they see and feel, why they are doing the work, and how their work contributes to the bigger picture.

But you don’t drive the vision forcefully. You encourage them to contribute their ideas, their insights and their realities.

2. Great leaders share power and release control.

The leaders in this relationship economy have a penchant to serve the needs of others first. What makes them stand out is an intrinsic motivation to share power and release control. As a servant leader, the power and the control comes from the whole. It’s the enthusiasm and commitment the whole team has to something—to specific projects and tasks that drive organizational objectives.

If you want to foster high trust, high risk-taking, high creativity and open communication, and you’re still riding on your autocratic high-horse, consider getting off for the higher road of sharing power and releasing control. Because when you do, you actually gain real power by pumping fear out of the room; your team will have your back, unleash discretionary effort and do amazing work.

3. Great leaders share status and promote others.

Great leaders enable their people by sharing status. Since humility is a natural strength of theirs, instead of leveraging their positional power for personal gain, self-promotion or demands for special privileges, they set measures for success on making the people around them succeed by making them better.

4. Great leaders push authority down.

Everybody is familiar with the leader-follower structure in a top-down culture, right? It’s still the prevalent way most companies operate. What’s appealing about this is that it takes responsibility away from followers to think on their own. So a leader at the top may be rewarded for being indispensable. When the leader leaves the company, and his or her department’s performance goes down the tubes, it’s taken as a sign that he or she was a good leader.

The reality is that, most often, the leader was not very effective in equipping, training and developing people properly.

The problem here is that employees are released from any responsibility of the hard work of thinking, making decisions and being accountable because they’re just cogs on a wheel (so they think). Their attitude may be, “Hey, I was only doing what I was told from my boss.”

People get comfortable with the idea of being a follower, doing what they’re told to do and nothing else.

While a leader-follower culture is still effective, there’s a cost to this model over time. People who are treated as followers, you will find, will treat others as followers when it’s their turn to lead. In turn, a vast untapped human potential is lost as a result of treating people as followers.

In highly effective organizations, there are leaders at every level, not just at the top. The solution is always to push authority down so you’re creating a leader-leader culture.

Retired U.S. Navy Captain David Marquet once commanded the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine. Marquet wrote a brilliant leadership book a few years ago called “Turn the Ship Around,” a true story and case study of how he transformed a ship in a culture of followers by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach and pushing for leadership at every level. As a result, the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the whole fleet because of his choice to give up control. The crew became fully engaged, contributing their intellectual capacity every day, and the Santa Fe started winning awards left and right and promoting a huge number of officers to submarine command.

The lessons from this case study transfer to any business or position, and the payoff is huge: a happy tribe where every member is taking responsibility for his or her actions and where every team member is a leader. Pay close attention to the dos and don’ts as you assess where you are with your team or work culture. Do you have a leader-follower or leader-leader tribe?


Great Leaders: Read the Series

Customer Or Employees Care Concept

This article series focuses on six foundational behaviors of great leaders, using the servant leadership framework developed by Dr. Jim Laub, dean of MacArthur School of Leadership at Palm Beach University and president of the OLAgroup.

Read Schwantes’s articles about each of the six behaviors of servant leaders in healthy organizations (according to Laub’s Organizational Leadership Assessment tool) online on Carrier Management’s website.

  1. How Great Leaders Display Authenticity
  2. How Great Leaders Value People
  3. Developing People: It Matters to Great Leaders
  4. How Great Leaders Build Community
  5. How Great Leaders Lead
  6. Leader-Leader vs. Leader-Follower Cultures: How Great Leaders Share Leadership