Modern culture has often drawn a direct definition of leadership from the idea of vision, positing that leadership at its heart is the formulation and communication of a compelling vision. And I have often explored this common association between leadership and vision (see these various posts), seeking to establish the sphere of vision as the purview of both leaders and followers. Having, promoting, and fulfilling a vision is not exclusively a leadership function, but belongs to the realm of followership as well.
If vision isn’t one of the distinctives of leadership, then what element separates out the leadership role from followership?
Leaders tend to have a different sphere of relationships and responsibility, often more broad than the normal follower. They are likely to bear the weight of representing the organization and to have management for a broad swath of resources.
Much of this can be summed up under the heading of ‘access.’ Leaders have access. They have access to people, to information, and to material/financial resources.
Leaders will usually have participation in a broader diversity of relationships and networks. They know people, they have opportunity to engage with, dialogue with, and make decisions with people operating in various spheres inside and outside of the organization.
This access to people leads to access to information. Leaders will tend to have an inside line into what’s happening (or about to happen), they’ll have the opportunity to receive privileged background details, and they’ll tend to be given early warning of announcements and developments on the horizon.
Along with their broad sphere of responsibility, leaders are usually granted access to physical resources to fulfill their duties. Whether money, databases, vehicles, technology, and sometimes even human resources, leaders are regularly able to draw upon a deeper and broader well of tools that are intended to facilitate the accomplishment of their objectives.
So, leaders have access. How does that impact the leader-follower dynamic?
I see the heart of the leadership function as using this access to ensure that one’s followers have the connections, information, and resources they need in order to do their work in order to accomplish the organization’s aims and vision. Leaders should serve as a conduit, extending their own reach of access to the benefit of their subordinates so that they can fulfill their roles with efficiency and excellence.
Leaders should broker relationships, impart information, and deploy resources to ensure that bottlenecks don’t develop and that whatever is needed is supplied just in time (or before!). Leaders should anticipate the needs of followers and work to get their own access in line so that they can supply those necessities directly to the ones that need it.
Leaders shouldn’t try to take back a follower responsibility for themselves so that they can use the resources (and take the credit) personally, but rather find ways of pushing the resources farther down and/or inviting the followers higher up so that those skilled hands can have direct use of the tools (relationships, information, and materials) that will enable them to accomplish their work.
Vision is hardly the sole responsibility of leaders, and neither is it the heart of the leadership function. Rather, leadership is at its best when the leader’s position, title, responsibility, and authority are leveraged to direct and spread access.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence and helping others to do the same, see the four-part series on Leadership Lessons, developed from Part 6 of:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
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