Leader-Follower: The Pervasive and Problematic Leadership Model admin July 23, 2019

Leader-Follower: The Pervasive and Problematic Leadership Model

When I took command of the USS Santa Fe, I knew things had to change.  The methods used before me had led to low re-enlistment rates, poor scores on evaluations, low morale, and a reputation as a “bad ship.”

When I took a hard look at what was causing such poor performance, I expected to uncover a list of tasks or steps that could be taken to right the wrongs and get the ship back on track.  Instead, I unveiled a far deeper problem that would prove to be much more difficult to tackle, but far more effective and rewarding than the completion of any checklist.

What I realized was that the leadership model we were operating under was ineffective and painfully outdated.  My Naval Academy leadership book told me the following about being a leader:

Leadership is the art, science, or gift by which a person is enabled and privileged to direct the thoughts, plans, and actions of others in such a manner as to obtain and command their obedience, their confidence, their respect, and their loyal cooperation.[1]

In other words, leadership in the navy, and in most organizations across all types of industries, is about controlling people.  This emphasis on control divides the world into two groups of people:  leaders and followers.  Most of what we study, learn, and practice in terms of leadership today follows this leader-follower structure.

This model is pervasive. It has been with us for a very long time. We can see this structure depicted in Western epics such as The Illiad and Beowulf and in popular novels and movies, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander

Why is this model so prevalent? People can accomplish a tremendous amount through the leader-follower model, that’s why! We only have to look to history to see the effectiveness of this structure.  The development of farming, the building of the pyramids in Egypt, and the factories built during the Industrial Revolution were all possible because of this model.  It generated tremendous wealth for the leaders and the followers were better off, too.  It is exactly because the leader-follower way of doing business is so successful that is both so appealing and so hard to give up.

So, what’s the problem you ask?  Why should we stray from something that has been proven over time to be highly successful? This model developed during a time when mankind’s primary work was physical and therefore, it is optimized for extracting physical work from humans. Our modern world doesn’t operate this way, though. The most important work we do today is cognitive. A structure developed for physical work isn’t optimal for intellectual work.

People who are treated as followers have limited decision-making authority and little incentive to give the utmost of their intellect, energy, and passion. Those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative. While this doesn’t matter much for rowing a trireme, it’s everything for operating a nuclear-powered submarine.

This is a recognized limitation of the leader-follower model.  What I instituted on the USS Santa Fe was a leader-leader model and it changed everything.  It can work in your organization, too. Stay tuned for more on the leader-leader model and how it can work for you.

[1] Department of Leadership and Law, U.S. Naval Academy, Fundamentals of Naval Leadership, ed. Karel Montor and Major Anthony J. Ciotti, USMC (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984) p.1.