Followers & Dissenters

Posted by jlubans on August 15, 2017

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Caption: Like-minded dissent.

In my July essay on Andris Vilks leadership – he is director of the National Library of Latvia, an organization of over 400 - I linked to an article about sports teams’ captains and their considerable influence on team success.
In 2016, when I asked Andris to characterize his leadership, he responded readily, “as a team captain”.
A long time basketball player, he was invariably the team captain and he preferred that type of leadership to any other. Not “a king and his court”, nor “a general and his army” or “the father of a large family” but a captain of a team.
Sam Walker, the author of the captains’ study, argues that it is not the super stars but the captains – often not the best players - who create and sustain the greatest teams.
In “The Seven Leadership Secrets of Great Team Captains”, he states,
“(the teams) all had just one shared characteristic: Their long streaks of dominance either began or ended—and in many cases overlapped precisely—with the tenure of one player. And in every case, this player was … the captain.”
It may be that the captain – not the coach or the CEO - is the one who sets the team’s “chemistry, that ineffable dynamic that can make or break a team.
Boiled down, Walker’s captains exhibit these qualities:
Work hard,
Break rules when necessary,
Are pragmatic in speech,
Lead by doing,
Think for themselves,
Are relentless in pursuit of goals, and
Exercise emotional self-control.
For me, good captains are like effective or “star” followers in any type of organization.
A “star” follower displays these characteristics: manages oneself – she is a leader in her own right.
The effective follower requires little supervision, even less direction.
And, he is committed to the organization and to a purpose or person outside himself – he is not a narcissist.
The best follower is independent in mind and thinks critically.
She prefers action to being passive or engaging in endless discussion.
However, all is not sweetness and light for the effective follower. Really good followers (not the yes men or those in the sheep or survivor categories) find themselves often at risk.
How can that be? Surely, does not an organization always look for the competitive edge with critical assessment by everyone (not just the MBAs in the C-suite) of any and all ideas?
Let’s return to Walker’s essay, especially how his captains were independent thinkers, unafraid to dissent.
“The captains on (his) list didn’t hesitate to let coaches and executives know when they disagreed with them. But their dissent wasn’t personal. They understood that conflict, when focused on supporting a team’s goals, is not destructive. It‘s essential.”
He gives an example:
In 1980 the Soviet (Russian) hockey team lost to a young USA team. “The Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, had told his players not to point fingers. The story they would tell in Moscow is that they had lost as a team. On the plane returning to Moscow, however, Tikhonov huddled privately with his assistants - and probably a few “political minders” - and began ripping individual players for their failures. Valeri Vasiliev, a veteran defenseman, overheard this critique. He flew into a rage. He rushed over, grabbed Tikhonov by the neck and threatened to throw him off the plane if he didn’t take it back.”
Normally, dissent of any kind in “Soviet times” was punished by exile or worse. Somehow, Vasiliev survived and his teammates, several months later, elected him captain.
Surprisingly, the coach and the Kremlin let the decision stand.
“With Vasiliev as captain, the Soviet team became unstoppable for the next four seasons,” posting a record of 94 wins, 4 ties and 9 losses.
Robert Kelley, who articulated in 1988 a theory on followers, believes that about half the time effective followers are punished for speaking up, for articulating their own viewpoints, for threatening an organization’s complacency.
Consider last week’s outcome for James Damore, the young engineer at Google wanting to discuss - internally - Google’s diversity mandate.
He was fired for speaking his mind, for asking difficult questions. No, he was not proselytizing; he was poking around in Silicon Valley’s Pasture of the Sacred Cows. His doing so was intolerable to many in Google’s like-minded ruling elite.
Supposedly, he was a very good engineer, recruited by Google, which, of course, claims only to attract the best and the brightest.
We will see how Mr. Damore’s “manifesto” plays out.
Perhaps Google will learn that critical thinking is uncomfortable but of great value and may adopt genuine contrarian thought as a practiced and protected corporate value.
Or, it may smugly reassure itself in its “group think” that “We Never Make Mistakes” about much of anything and therefore questions are cause for excommunication.
Is this an extreme example limited only to race and gender?
Hardly.
Go up against the prevailing values and mores of any organization and you will experience first hand why effective followers are an endangered group. And you will begin to realize their value – like Vasiliev and other great captains - to the organization.
Who then, but the leader, can protect dissenters?

N.B. My next book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in September 2017, ($26.99) and will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.
ISBN: 978-0-692-90955-3
LCCN: 2017908783
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Cover: "Fables for Leaders" PRE-PRINT, 203pp. 2017.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017


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