During the 25-plus years I’ve known Ira Chaleff, I’ve become increasingly impressed with the pioneering nature of his work. When I met him, he was an executive coach working with members of Congress and international clients. He has served as a business consultant for world leaders and foreign governments. In 1995, he published “The Courageous Follower: Standing Up to and for Our Leaders,” now in its third edition (Berrett-Koehler, 2009). I interviewed Chaleff about aspects of this groundbreaking book that can benefit financial advisors and their organizations.
Mellan: How did your interest in “courageous followership” evolve?
Chaleff: I’ve always been interested in the beneficial use of power. How can we help leaders who acquire power to use it well? How can we minimize the misuse or abuse of power?
There’s a cultural misconception that following is a passive act. It’s not. It’s a partnership that recognizes different responsibilities while working toward a common goal. The way you play the follower role with strength is first to be committed to serving the organization and its leaders. That gives you a platform for questioning those leaders if you feel that what they’re doing is not serving the common goal well, or violating the values that you believe the firm should be living by.
Implicit in the follower role is that you may not always agree with a choice that the leaders have made. Nevertheless, as long as that choice has a reasonable chance of achieving the company’s goal and doesn’t violate its core values, your responsibility is to subordinate your own preferences and support the firm’s leaders. That’s mature professionalism.
On the other hand, if you feel that what the leaders are doing is counterproductive to the common goal, or violates its core values, it’s your responsibility to candidly address those issues with the leaders.
OM: Your work has been applied to large corporations and governments. Can it also benefit smaller companies of two to 10 people, like most financial planning firms?
IC: My work is about relationships and these dynamics play out in smaller businesses as well as in large firms.
“Leader” and “follower” aren’t personality types; they are roles we all play in different situations. In large and small groups, even in a marriage, sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow.
OM: How does courageous followership relate to conflict resolution?
IC: Both involve relationships. The distinction is that in courageous followership, we’re dealing with a perceived power differential in the hierarchy. It’s not true that the leader has all the power and the follower has none, but there are differences.
OM: Let’s say you are a lower-echelon employee who doesn’t like what’s happening on the top level of your organization. How do you decide whether to speak to the boss or prepare to quit your job?
IC: Unless there is serious illegal activity, you should never think of leaving the organization without first helping the leaders become aware of the adverse impact of their actions. Only after you have made several attempts to communicate, with no sign that the leaders are serious about correcting the situation, should you contemplate other career options.
If the objectionable behavior borders on unethical action, you need to take a very firm and early stance. Otherwise, once you begin colluding with these ethically questionable activities, you start down a slippery slope from which it’s hard to extricate yourself.
OM: What makes it so difficult to speak candidly to higher-ups?
IC: There are different styles of followership. Depending on your style, you may feel more inclined to be candid despite the risks.
There’s the resource style, where you do an honest day’s work, but don’t go out of your way to either support or challenge the leader. In the individualist style, you are willing to question the leader, but don’t offer any support, so you marginalize yourself. Implementer-style followers provide excellent support, but are reluctant to ask questions, leaving the leader vulnerable to his or her own blind spots. If you are a partner-style follower, you are strong in both supporting the leader and, when necessary, questioning or challenging his or her behavior. When you take this last approach, a good leader will come to value your input and your counsel.