How Can We Lead So People Will Follow?

Leadership coach and popular Forbes blogger, Erika Andersen, talks exclusively to us about some of the necessary elements to becoming a good leader. This includes six key attributes that offer anyone, within an organisation, the tools to think and behave as leaders.

What do you believe to be the two most significant points of distinction between a manager and a leader?

Erika : I get asked this question often. It’s a valid one, as people tend to use the two terms to mean all kinds of things, without really defining them. Here, simply, is how I’ve come to think of the distinctions between these two critical elements.

Leading is primarily about who you are, about being able to envision a possible outcome or destination, then guiding, inspiring and influencing others to reach it with you. There are skills involved, certainly, but it is really more about your qualities as a person and how they show up on a day-to-day basis in working with those around you.

Management is the craft of gathering, allocating and directing resources – people, money, stuff – in the most productive and sustainable way to achieve agreed-upon goals. People management, then, is the skill-and-knowledge-based craft of gathering (finding and hiring), allocating (structuring and organising) and then directing (creating clear agreements, giving feedback, coaching, and delegating) those you manage to achieve the best results in a way that feels fair, doable and engaging to them.

Stories are the library of a preliterate society.

You’ve written two books, Growing Great Employees and Being Strategic. Both are a fit with your practice areas at Proteus, the business you founded more than two decades ago. Your third and latest book, Leading So People Will Follow, focuses on leadership. Why leadership when there are so many books on this topic?

Erika : For one thing, Leading So People Will Follow fits with our third practice area (Strengthening Leaders), so that felt like a really nice completion: we now have books that contain core models and skills for each of our three practice areas.

Leading So People Will FollowBut more importantly, we felt we had a unique and valuable perspective to offer leaders and aspiring leaders: the book focuses on a leader’s “followability,” that is, on what followers look for in leaders before they’ll completely sign up to be led by that person.

We found that the six attributes in the book are those that, when demonstrated consistently, allow leaders to build committed, enthusiastic, trusting teams that work closely with their leaders to achieve great results. In using this model with leaders over the past 15 years, we saw that this model provided people with practical, doable ways to build these core attributes. We wanted to share that with a wider audience.

Clearly, this is a subject that has its place both in corporate circles and in terms of personal development. For every leader created, it makes sense for us to have as many followers, if not more. If we assume that, why do you believe there is a such a concentration on developing leadership skills at both the corporate and individual levels?

Erika : I think people recognise that leadership is much more than just being smart about your business, or even simply being a good manager. Leaders have been important to us throughout all of human history – and we recognise the power of good leaders, and bad ones.


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We all observe that some leaders build loyalty and commitment, and we see how powerful that is in terms of both culture and results. And yet becoming that kind of leader seems complex and elusive to us. I like to think we’ve cracked at least part of this ‘leadership code’ in Leading So People Will Follow: made it simpler and more achievable to become the kind of leader who is a positive influence on others, on his or her organisation, even on society.

You’ve put together a list of six key attributes that offer anyone, within an organisation, the tools to think and behave as fully accepted leaders. What, in your research and experience, has led you to come up with this finite list?

Erika : My exploration of this whole arena started almost 20 years ago, as I started to work more closely with senior leaders in large organisations as a coach and consultant. I noticed what I came to call ‘appointed leaders’ and ‘accepted leaders’. You may have noticed this in meetings. When an appointed-but-not-accepted leader speaks, there is often someone else – one of his or her peers, or even a more junior person – who people look to for a reaction. I started to realise that simply being ‘appointed’ as a leader didn’t automatically translate into being accepted – being followed – as a leader.

The more I reflected on this, the more it made sense that we would have some innate ability to choose good leaders. Until fairly recently in history, our choice of leader was a life-or-death decision. With a poor leader, you were much more likely to starve to death, or be overrun by enemies, or fall prey to lawlessness within your own tribe. Given that, I reasoned, it’s fair to assume that some ability to tell good leaders from bad is a group survival mechanism, wired into all of us.

And the key to that wiring lives in stories.

Stories are the library of a preliterate society. If you can’t read (and most people couldn’t until the past few hundred years), stories are a great way to pass on wisdom about how to survive and prosper; they’re memorable and easily replicated.

Every society in the world has ‘leader tales’ – stories in which a young hero has to demonstrate a handful of attributes in order to slay the monster, win the princess, become the king – and live happily ever after. And all around the world these tales are amazingly similar in terms of the attributes they describe. Think of these stories as our looking-for-leaders wiring made explicit: they are saying, in effect, “Only allow those people to lead who demonstrate these qualities.”

The qualities that show up, again and again in these stories are: far-sighted, passionate, courageous, wise, generous and trustworthy.

  • Far-sighted leaders are those who share a compelling and inclusive view of a future they and their followers can achieve together, and who model and move toward the vision daily with their followers.
  • Passionate leaders remain committed to that vision, to us and the enterprise through adversity and challenge – and at the same time, they’re open to input and new ideas.
  • Courageous leaders make difficult decisions with limited information, even when that’s uncomfortable for them – and they take full responsibility for those decisions.
  • Wise leaders reflect on their experience, learn from it, and think deeply about how to incorporate their understanding going forward in making the right choices.
  • Generous leaders share what they have – knowledge, power, authority, and resources – and perhaps most importantly, belief in our capability and our good intentions.
  • Trustworthy leaders can be relied upon to keep their word and deliver on their promises – to do what they say they will do.

It is noteworthy that your intent is for your list to help people think and behave as fully accepted leaders. From this statement, are you therefore saying that a great part of what makes you a leader involves an acceptance by peers that you are one?

Erika : It’s not so much acceptance from your peers – it’s primarily acceptance from your followers. In fact, I’ve known some people who are great at coming across as leaders to their peers and even to their boss…but who aren’t accepted by their followers.

Without that acceptance, your followers’ allegiance will be tentative at best. They may not quit, or be overtly disengaged – but you won’t be able to build the loyalty and commitment, the trust and cohesiveness that allows teams and organisations to accomplish great things.

Many good leaders come across as self-motivated, self-directed, almost fearless, risk-takers and intrinsically guided, walking a lone path unaffected and unencumbered by the actions and behaviours of the masses. Would you comment on this?

Erika : I’d like to pull that sentence apart, if you don’t mind. I agree that good leaders are self-motivated and self-directed, and that they can seem fearless because they’re courageous. But none of the truly good leaders I know ‘walk a lone path unaffected and unencumbered.’

I think this is a stereotype that has developed over the years, the ‘strong silent’ leader who makes decisions unilaterally, and who others then follow without question. Unfortunately, I think this stereotype has created a lot of bad behaviour by leaders – especially for young people in their first leadership position who can feel that they need to have all the answers, never show doubt or discomfort, respond to complex issues in quick and simplistic ways, not listen to others’ input, etc.

Curiosity is a powerful catalyst for learning: once you’re in that open mental state of ‘I wonder what people are seeing?’ and ‘I wonder how I could improve?’, you’re headed in the right direction.

The really excellent leaders I know aren’t lone rangers – they are fully engaged with their followers; they trust and respect them and include them in visioning, decision-making and execution. It’s how they build such tremendous loyalty. When I work with great leaders, their people often say to me things like, “I love my job, but I’m here because of my boss more than for any other reason.

What do you believe are some of the necessary elements that need to be in place as young people develop and grow to become good leaders?

Erika : The foundational requirements for developing these attributes are an honest self-awareness, a real openness to feedback, and the ability to listen. Getting a realistic sense about where you are now as a leader is the first step. You can do that through good solid multi-rater assessment tools, like the Accepted Leader Assessment that’s available as a companion to Leading So People Will Follow.

You can also get feedback from people you trust who you believe have a balanced view of you and are willing to share honest feedback. Then, of course, you have to be open to what you hear from others, and to the results you get from any assessments you complete. Rather than feeling embarrassed or becoming defensive when you get feedback about where you could improve – you need to get really curious.

Curiosity is a powerful catalyst for learning: once you’re in that open mental state of ‘I wonder what people are seeing?’ and ‘I wonder how I could improve?’, you’re headed in the right direction. Then, you can find leaders who demonstrate the attributes that you lack, and invite them to help you develop them. Most good leaders are honoured by requests to share their wisdom.

In your research, were you able to distinguish any differences in how leaders behave or are perceived over the years? In other words, what makes the leader of today different from past leaders?

Erika : Remarkably, these core qualities seem not to have changed much over time. I read literally hundreds of stories to discover these core attributes – stories from a wide variety of countries and from different eras. And even reading historical accounts of great leaders, you find these same qualities referenced: one of my favourite historical leaders, Llewelyn Fawr, a 13th century Welsh prince, was considered a visionary who was passionately committed to a united Wales, brave in battle, wise in council, generous to his people, and a man of his word.

Though 21st century leaders certainly need some modern skills that have never before been required – the ability to think globally and a deep understanding of technology, to name just two – the core leader attributes for today are the same ones our ancestors looked for hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.

Courage is one of the core attributes in your list. Why do you believe that courage is a fundamental attribute and how are you defining courage here?

Erika : For each of the six attributes, we’ve developed five simple behavioural indicators – simple sentences that say, ‘here’s what it looks like.’ We want readers of the book and participants in our learning programmes to be able to see clearly whether or not they’re demonstrating a particular trait – and how to develop it.

The five indicators for Courage are:

1. Make necessary, tough choices;
2. Put themselves at risk for the good of the enterprise;
3. Do things that are personally difficult;
4. Take full responsibility for their actions; and
5. Admit and apologise for their mistakes.
If someone consistently behaves in these ways, we experience him or her as deeply courageous.

You can see from these five indicators that courage in a leader is a blend of toughness, decisiveness, willingness to move past one’s own limitations for the benefit of the enterprise, humility and resilience. It involves making difficult business and personal decisions; overcoming fear and risk to act on those decisions; and responding to the outcomes of those decisions in a responsible way. People need courageous leaders in order to know that someone will make the tough calls and take responsibility for them.

When people observe their leader behaving courageously over time, they are much more willing to follow that person into new territory. And having a courageous leader most often inspires and invites the followers to be courageous as well.

What else would you like to share with our readers?

Erika : The one thing I’d really like to share is: You can do this.

One of the things we’ve discovered over the years is that most people who genuinely want to be good leaders — and who are willing to be honestly self-reflective and open to learning, as I’ve said above — can do so. I’ve written this book to provide both a practical and conceptual framework to support you in becoming the leader you want to become.

If you have even a moderate amount of natural ability, and you focus consistently on developing these attributes, you can become the kind of leader who builds great teams and companies that catalyse innovation and growth – the leader people look to and say, We’re with you – let’s go.



Erika AndersenErika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a consulting and training firm that focuses on leader readiness.Erika’s book, Leading So People Will Follow was selected by Amazon as one of the 10 Best Business Books for October 2012. You can keep up with Erika on her blog and at Forbes or on Twitter .

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