Does Distance Leadership Beget Virtual Followership?

I’ve seen a few article headlines recently that some employers are recalling their distance (or stay-at-home) employees and bringing them back into the office space.  Are we finding that separation isn’t so convenient and effective after all? What about when it’s unavoidable?

Certainly, technological availability has made many varieties of distributed team an accessible reality for us. Along with the ongoing multiplication of international enterprises, the phenomenon of distance leadership should be at the heart of nearly any discussion of what it looks like to lead well in the 21st century. Fewer and fewer leaders are face-to-face, or at least on site, with 100% of their subordinates.

However, as I’ve often noted that just as leadership is based on relationship, so too is followership based on relationship. So, if we’re willing to acknowledge the challenges, and special requirements, of distance leadership, then we must also consider that question from the other side of the relational dynamic: what about distance followership? What does it take to follow with excellence when contributing and collaborating remotely?

Readers of Embracing Followership will know that, just as relationship is one of the dominant threads of consideration in excellent followership, skill in communicating well is essential for the leader-follower dynamic to be as productive as possible. While communicating clearly using technology is not something to take for granted, we do at least have avenues–email, text, social media, video calls, collaborative online workspaces–available to us so that we can communicate with our leader, and our fellow followers.

What other elements should we consider in the realm of distance followership? Of the several obligations of followership discussed in Chapter 5 of Embracing Followership, consider the ideas of our need to participate, to steward our resources, and to honor & submit to our leaders if we are going to truly follow with excellence.

Each of these core facets of excellent followership has an array of challenges stacked up against us being able to do these well. What about when we attempt to fulfill them at a distance?

Participation often feels the weight of “out of sight, out of mind.” How easy is it for a conference call to fall off the radar? How tempting to let an email linger in the inbox long enough for it to become irrelevant? How simple to fain ignorance about a text message that actually caught your eye? It tends to be much more difficult to ignore a conversation taking place right out in the hallway, or a meeting occurring just a few doors away. Harder still to look your boss or colleague in the eye and repeatedly say, “No, I guess I never got that email [or text message].”

If our followership is going to count for anything, we must participate. And when following at a distance, rigorous and faithful participation is very easy for us to let go of.

That leads to a challenge about our stewardship. Are we faithfully using the various resources that are available to us while out of sight of the boss’ accountability and our colleagues’ judgment? How’s my internet browsing while I’m on the clock working from home? How about my energy: is work getting the worst hours of my day or week? Am I fudging expense reports to accommodate desired personal benefits, with no one around to serve as the little accountability angel of conscience on my shoulder?

And then, honor and submission to our boss…from a distance. It’s always a challenge to remain people of integrity: to ensure that outward obedience isn’t founded upon a shallow internal state of subdued rebellion. It becomes all the easier to ignore, circumvent, or even controvert a directive when laboring at a distance.

Knowing that our boss can’t check up on everything we’re doing, and that there is much of the detail of our lives that he or she will never see, how much more often might we find our antagonistic attitude spilling over into anarchist actions?

And then of course there is the simplicity of sending private messages to colleagues in order to gripe about one’s leader; no fear of being overheard around the water cooler–you can grumble and complain to your heart’s content through the secure silence of cyberspace.

When our distance followership and the fulfillment of our obligations deteriorates along these lines, we have descended into “virtual following”: we’re following, but not really. Certainly not with excellence.

Does distance leadership guarantee, or automatically give way, to virtual following? I state in Chapter 24, that a boss that is unavailable and unreachable soon becomes unnecessary. But if a leader is able to lead well at a distance (perhaps the subject of a future blog post), can followers rise to the challenge and continue to contribute with excellence even while being offsite? Can the challenges of remote participation, stewardship, honor, and submission be overcome?

I think they can.


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:

EmbracingFollowership_CoverTextureEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)

Links to other posts on this site: Blog Post Index

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