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What Followers Want From Leaders
Business Journal

What Followers Want From Leaders

A Q&A with Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, authors of Strengths Based Leadership

According to Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, coauthors of Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow, it's easy for leaders to misunderstand what followers need. The confusion is exacerbated because what leaders get paid to do often is not what their followers need them to do.

Strengths-Based Leadership

To run an organization effectively, leaders must be able to strategize, set visions and priorities, build relationships, influence others, and make things happen. But if you ask followers what they need from leaders, the clear answer is trust, compassion, stability, and hope. These four basic needs are the result of Rath, Conchie, and a Gallup research team asking more than 10,000 followers what the most influential leaders contribute to their lives.

In this interview, the first of two parts, Rath and Conchie discuss followers' four basic needs and why it is important for leaders to understand and meet those needs -- and the challenges leaders face in meeting them. They explain how leaders' emotional reactions can skew how they respond to challenges and why it's riskier to avoid forming personal relationships with subordinates than not to.

GMJ: Your book says that followers have four basic needs, one of which is trust. How do leaders build trust, and why is it so important?

Tom Rath: I think trust is primarily built through relationships, and it's important because it's the foundational currency that a leader has with his team or his followers.

Barry Conchie: A baseline level of trust exists at the transactional level when people see leaders doing what they say they will do. But real trust is actually much more complicated than that. Trust also speaks to behavioral predictability. It's hard to trust a volatile leader in times of change.

GMJ: Then how do leaders provide stability -- another of the four things followers need -- especially in volatile economic times like these?

Rath: If there was ever a time when stability was important, it's right now. At a very basic level, people need to know that there is constancy in their jobs and, more broadly, in where the organization is headed. They need to believe that they'll have a job several months down the road and that their company will be better off a year from now than it is right now. It's just hard to get your work done on a day-to-day basis if you have real insecurity about where your organization is headed.

Leaders need to be thinking constantly about what they're doing to create a basic sense of security and stability throughout an organization. The minute that starts to erode, the organization can go downhill pretty quickly, as you see in many cases right now.

GMJ: It seems that stability and hope are linked. What's the effect of hope on followers?

Rath: That's one of the things that poses a real challenge for leaders. They've got to find the right balance of providing stability in the moment while giving followers hope and inspiration for the future. Followers need to see how things will get better and what that future might look like. Leaders need to build that foundation of stability, and hope sits on top of that. I'm not sure if it's possible to create hope without starting with stability at the base.

Conchie: Hope creates an aspirational factor among all the things that you're trying to do in your organization, and it gives people a reason to commit. Hope suggests that the future will be better than the present, and that what we're doing as an organization now will contribute toward creating that future.

Now, you can't build hope without trust. You can't build hope without stability. But trust and stability aren't enough. You do need hope to draw people toward a better future and give them aspirations. And it's a critical aspect of leadership right now.

GMJ: Hope requires initiative, but you write in Strengths Based Leadership that leaders are far more likely to react than to initiate.

Conchie: This is a very interesting concept. It's important because if all you do is react, you're not in control of your organization. Reacting requires some force or challenge, and by definition, it's being caused by something else.

For example, just ten days ago I spoke at an organization, and their very best, most aspirant, most talented leaders were in the room. I gave them five scenarios that were drawn from their own business, each representing a significant challenge that the organization faced. Four of them were fires to put out, but one scenario was proactive; it was about an opportunity the company had identified that might or might not yield significant advantages.

I asked the group to prioritize the five items, then give me just the top three things they would focus on. Not a single person chose the proactive element. That was despite the fact that only five minutes earlier I'd asked them if they were proactive or reactive. Everybody had claimed to be proactive; not a single person claimed to be reactive. Some said they could do both, but they claimed they spent more time being proactive than reacting. Yet the reality is, when I put those scenarios to them, they couldn't wait to react. It's almost as though they had a visceral need to respond.

Now we're not making the point that problems are unimportant. And we're certainly not saying that leaders shouldn't respond to problems; we absolutely do want leaders to respond to problems. But our concern is that response becomes a primary mechanism within the organization. A lack of responsiveness isn't the problem in most organizations -- it's a failure to be proactive.

GMJ: You wrote that compassion is important to followers, but a lot of leaders are hesitant to become emotionally involved with their subordinates for fear that it will compromise the work relationship.

Rath: There's an amount of risk in building a personal relationship with a subordinate. If things go awry, that can certainly create challenges. But a lot of this gets back to the core research that we've conducted at Gallup by interviewing more than thirteen million people in the workplace. We've seen that if people don't have close friendships on the job and if they don't have a supervisor or leader who really cares about them individually, there's almost no chance that they'll be engaged in their work. So if leaders avoid building close relationships because they're concerned about a minimal downside risk, they're not considering the huge upside value of it.

GMJ: Can you give me an example?

Conchie: At the individual level, compassion can manifest itself in many different ways. You can show you care, for example, by having tough conversations with people about their performance and their positioning. The fact that you care so much is why you ask them whether the job is right for them. Now that's at the tougher end of the scale.

An example of care and compassion at the institutional level is when Toyota made a decision to cease production of trucks and SUVs at two of its manufacturing facilities. That was a difficult decision that could have caused tremendous feelings of instability among the workforce, but Toyota decided to keep everybody employed while providing retraining programs for them. Paying them even when they weren't producing was a massive risk to the organization. That's a phenomenal demonstration of compassion.

In this case, however, it made business sense to be compassionate. Toyota could see the benefit of keeping a stable workforce gainfully employed even when there was no car production taking place. By providing the retraining programs, Toyota trusted that when the employees went back to work, the company would get far more gain from its workforce not just because of the learning that they'd gained, but also because of the stability that it had provided for the workers and the compassion that it had shown.

GMJ: Did you learn something from followers about what it takes to be a leader that surprised you?

Rath: We asked followers in that study to give us the initials of the leader who's had the most influence in their life. Then later on in the study, we asked them how long they've known that person. The average duration of the relationship with the most influential leader in their life is ten years. The kind of leadership that makes a real difference in someone's life takes time, patience, and a powerful relationship.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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