Courageously Following Where No Man Has Gone Before

Like most of the known universe, I recently saw The Force Awakens ...

This film is mostly just plain fun, with fascinating special effects and well-paced action.  This imaginary, yet sort of familiar, universe gives us a large and wonderfully diverse group of beings who exist, live, interact, struggle, and die.  It's just techie enough and just emotional enough to satisfy most anyone.

The overall story for all seven Star Wars films is loosely based on Joseph Campbell's concept of the Hero's Journey, which endows each film and the series with a stronger and deeper framework than most sci-fi and adventure flicks.

However, this is not a post about the film itself, but about one particular aspect:  The Followers.

Briefly, two large groups of followers exist in the current Star Wars universe - one group in the film and another intently watching:

The First Order:  A nefarious and fairly large group of people devoted without question to several shadowy and very evil leaders, who attempt to "restore order" to the universe by stomping out freedom, democracy, and the right to dress as you please. These are actors in costumes.

The Fan Base:  A sometimes fractious and also large group of people devoted to keeping the faith of the Star Wars universe. These folks are most diverse, ranging from lone individuals posting arcane theories about what will happen next to organized groups who replicate the images and activities of the films as homage. These are real people, who sometimes wear costumes.

Other groups exist, but these two are examples of following blindly, rather than courageously. In both cases, the followers are responding to someone else's concepts and direction. The First Order is doing so in a fascist and malevolent way, while the Fan Base is more egalitarian, unstructured, and social, but in both cases, they are just working with what they get, without stopping to question or clarify, beyond quibbling over trivialities and technicalities.

Most of the followers in each group are accepting their basic motivations and goals without real questions.

These two distinct groups come to mind as I read The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff. After completing a more recent book by the same author entitled Intelligent Disobedience, my interest in his ideas about how leaders and followers might ideally interact led me to this interesting title.

The ideas in the book are clear, simple, and powerful, as in this statement:  "If we practice being courageous in our mundane interactions with leaders, we will be prepared if one day we are called upon to display extraordinary courage in our relationship with a leader."

In other words, a good follower is courageous, not just compliant.

Chaleff looks at interactions between leaders and followers with clarity, candor, and a mutual respect for each role. It is not about how to get rid of bad leadership, although poor leadership will lessen and even vanish, when followers act courageously.

This book starts with some painful reminders of how followers fail to confront leaders when they should, with negative outcomes. I found myself remembering specific instances and events where lack of courage among followers led to disaster for both leaders and followers. In one case, I failed to say anything repeatedly during formal meetings, even while learning that others saw the situation as I did and were supportive of the change I would propose.

While other leadership books call for us to take bold action and speak out strongly when necessary in our workplaces, most do not address the realities that exist within our workplaces and the dynamics that determine our actions.

Chaleff even directly talks about possibly the most important reason why followers do not always speak up or speak out:  They are afraid of the consequences.

I would imagine we all could contribute our own evidence that lack of courage by followers is a bad thing in our organizations and institutions.

Chaleff aims to create awareness in us of how to become powerful followers working in concert with our powerful leaders for the most mutually productive ends. I'll have more to say about the Courageous Follower model another time, but I have some questions for us now:

As a follower, how do you rise above your instincts for self-preservation and the tendency to avoid conflict with those above you in the hierarchy?

As a leader, how do you foster a culture that encourages your followers to approach you bravely and with candor about critical issues?

As human beings, how do we increase our ability to build positive relationships between leaders and followers?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!