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Chris Robshaw – and why being a good follower is every bit as important as being a good leader

It’s a convenient refuge for coaches and bosses across sport and business, but “they’re all leaders” is analogous with adding “executive” to everyone’s job title.

Chris Robshaw, sacked as the England rugby captain but retained as a player, has helped England to win the Six Nations. Against Wales last week, Robshaw’s sustained supportiveness allowed others to take the limelight. Unflashy but quietly influential, it was Robshaw’s career in miniature. It was also a superb example of an underrated quality (especially impressive coming from a recently deposed captain): followership.

Robshaw’s World Cup experience was especially bruising, with his decisions questioned and the team’s strategy eviscerated. Instead of sulking, his response, back in the ranks, has been to keep quiet and get stuck in – quite literally. By mopping up his own side’s messy play and closing down the opposition’s opportunities, he enhances his team-mates and diminishes those they are up against. Number 6s are usually brave, but Robshaw’s bravery has been psychological as well as physical.

There is a surfeit of leadership and a lack of followership; too many people who want to lead, too few who seek influence as followers. This is partly a problem of mathematics: there is only one captain and 14 others. What about the vogueish idea of “leaders throughout the team?” This a classic dodge, defining an uncomfortable word so broadly that it ceases to mean anything. If everyone is a leader, all that’s been achieved is the need to coin a new word for the real leader. It’s a convenient refuge for coaches and bosses across sport and business, but “they’re all leaders” is analogous with adding “executive” to everyone’s job title.

Printing more leadership is a lot easier than the tough alternative challenge: resuscitating followership. Language shows the fate of the two words. “Follower” is layered with negative assumptions – a spineless flip-flopper who lacks direction. A “follower”, as the word is usually used, is never following somewhere admirable; he is always being led astray.

The word “leader”, in contrast, benefits from the triumph of vagueness. Few people try to define leadership, but we are all in favour of it. If only there were more leaders and better leadership, then the world’s problems would be fixed. Joseph Rost, a professor of leadership studies at the University of San Diego, examined the development of the term since 1900. “Leadership”, he concluded regretfully but accurately, is a “word that has come to mean all things to all people”.

The paradox is obvious: as everyone climbs on board the leadership bandwagon, it becomes ever harder to lead, because there are too few followers to give leadership the push it relies on. Management gurus, business books, Ted talks, social scientists, media commentators, off-site meetings, team-building exercises: the focus is always on growing and expanding leadership. What about the role of those being led?

The only definition of leadership, surely, is someone who has a positive influence on the led. So receptivity is intrinsic to the process. The signals are wasted if there is no one capable of receiving them (just ask a teacher about the impossible class). Without followership, leadership is doomed to become a one-way conversation: everyone is talking, no one is listening.

Leadership, usually wrongly defined as a skill, is actually an effect. In focusing on inputs rather than outputs, we miss the real story. We ask what the leader did or said, then look for the “consequences”. That isn’t how it works. The leadership effect is more like a compound, with two elements – the leader and the led – interacting to create something quite new. Leadership cannot be applied to an inert substance. We over-analyse the sprinkling of one element and ignore entirely the element that it touches and transforms.

I remember a brilliant cricket coach – whose leadership rested on honing followership – making this point in an unguarded conversation with several of his players, who were cataloguing the dressing-room unhappiness at rival clubs. “The coach there has got no man-management skills. Same problem up the road.” That was the gist, applied to every club. Our coach listened patiently and nodded for a good while before saying, “And what is the quality of the players’ followership? How good are they at being led? Are they open to the idea, eager to respond to leadership?” He said it lightly, but we felt the sting.

None of this is meant to devalue the role played by the leader. When Eddie Jones was appointed, this column drew attention to the signal strength of England’s new coach: he is quick-witted and surprising.

Wit – and I don’t mean just jokes – is often the catalyst for the leadership effect. It is amazing what people will put up with (hard work, pain, the subjugation of personal glory, minor humiliations) if we are given a good story to tell and something to laugh about. The trusty cliché “constructive criticism” is often translated as criticism suffocated with cuddly good intentions. Quite the reverse. Constructive criticism is something you can act on. I’ve seen great coaches offer unblinking criticisms (succinct, witty, brisk) that are lapped up by players.

But the centrality of followership still holds. Jones was lucky that he took over from someone who was neither witty nor surprising. So circumstance was Jones’s ally: just by being himself, he was likely to find a receptive audience – followers.

Before the Six Nations, the media circus focused on Jones’s controversial choice of captain – Dylan Hartley, who possesses a troubled disciplinary record. The furore obscured another central decision: retaining and re-energising Robshaw. Jones describes Robshaw as the team’s “glue”; the bassist in the rock band who allows the lead guitarist and vocalist to dazzle in the spotlight. It’s time to restore the status of the follower. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.