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21 March 2016

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.

By Ed Smith

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”.

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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. 

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This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue