Leadership : Is Getting Rid of Followers Good Leadership?



Alan Yu had a distinguished business career with American Express and Johnson & Johnson, and is now Vice President & COO of CK Life Sciences Int'l Inc.in Hong Kong.  He can be reached at alan_a_yu@yahoo.com.



Leaders need followers.  In fact, a leader’s performance is often defined by the performance of followers.  It is a fundamental skill and responsibility of an outstanding leader to pick, nurture and motivate followers to achieve what they themselves consider impossible in the first place.  There must be times when things are not going quite the way they should.  What is a leader to do apart from coaching, mentoring, re-iterating standards and communicating the values?  Getting rid of the follower must be an option.  What are the circumstances under which leaders resort to the dismissal of followers?  When are these circumstances justified, and is the need for this tactic a hallmark of leadership failure?


Many influential thinkers on leadership have pointed out that managers maintain structures and procedures, and very often the status quo.  Leaders, on the other hand, institute change.  Through the authority vested in them by formal structures, managers have the power to recruit and dismiss members of the organisation.  Leaders implement change irrespective of formal authority.  They achieve goals not because of position, but because of compelling vision, effective communication, mentoring skills, passion for a set of value, etc.  While managers can hire and fire at will, those who aspire to be true leaders should be much more judicious in exercising this enormous power over the lives, and livelihood, of followers.


The scale of the dismissal of followers varies.  On the grandest scale, anyone meeting certain pre-determined criteria is given marching orders.  This is a mass layoff.  The leader taking the final decision to implement the layoff is rarely in direct contact with those affected.  An intermediary, such as the Human Resources Department, acts as a buffer.  On the smallest scale, an individual is asked to leave for a specific reason by his supervisor.  Here, there is usually direct contact, even confrontation, between the leader and the follower.

Dismissal of Followers on a Large Scale


Downsizing has become a way of life in most major corporations.  Dismissal of employees on a large scale is often undertaken in the name of meeting short-term goals, usually to maintain profitability in the face of declining revenue and shrinking market share.  Any decent senior manager nowadays is expected to have the ability to take tough decisions about cutting fat out of the organisation.  Yet downsizing implies a vision of decline; it often suggests futility, and a sense of loss.  Thus it is incongruous with good leadership, which is supposed to inspire hope with vision, and striving for worthwhile goals in the face of adversity.  Irrespective of its justification, mass dismissal of followers always leaves nagging doubts about the effectiveness of leadership.

Why do leaders dismiss specific followers?


The history of leadership is also littered with examples of specific followers being dismissed for a wide range of reasons, the most common of which include:


-         Specific mistakes

-         General incompetence

-         Maintaining authority

-         Not fitting the mould

-         Lack of trust

-         Value differences

Specific Mistakes


The most common reason for a leader to dismiss a follower is on grounds of a specific mistake.  When the mistake is one of moral turpitude, then the dismissal could be fully justified.  For example, the dismissal of Russian Atomic Energy Minister Evgeny Adamov by President Putin in 2001 following allegations of corruption and large-scale illegal business activities, helped shore up standards of propriety within the Russian leadership.  A leader who can win the trust of his followers must have integrity, and one who tolerates impropriety calls into questions his or her trustworthiness.


Good leaders, however, tolerate mistakes and encourage followers to learn from them.  The introduction of New Coke in 1985 must be one of the most high-profile failures in business.  After massive negative reactions from consumers, Coca-Cola Classic was reintroduced after only seventy-seven days.  Despite the enormity of this failure, apparently no one at Coke was reprimanded, much less fired.  Although Sergio Zyman, the marketing chief who headed up the New Coke project, subsequently left the company, he was rehired seven years later to head Global Marketing.  Coca Cola CEO Roberto Goizueta explains:[1]


We became uncompetitive by not being tolerant of mistakes. The moment you let avoiding failure become your motivator, you're down the path of inactivity. You can stumble only if you're moving.


It is a tribute to Roberta Goizueta’s outstanding leadership that he embraced Sergio Zyman’s apparent mistake and ensured the company learned from it.  After the New Coke debacle, Coca-Cola overhauled its marketing and the brand has gained share against Pepsi every year since. 


Yet there are also examples of other leaders sacking followers for an apparent specific mistake in disguise of a deeper undercurrent of other issues.  On January 30th, 2002, the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Kozuimi sacked the Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, apparently stemming from an allegation that she lied to the Diet, the Japanese parliament.  She claimed that her administrative vice-minister Yoshiji Nogami had told her that Muneo Suzuki of an LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) faction had put pressure on foreign ministry officials to ban an aid worker from attending an international conference on Afghanistan in Tokyo.  Yet it was also clear that Koizumi and Tanaka had many differences of opinion.  Tanaka promoted reform of the banking sector; Koizumi hesitated.  The two differed on alignment with American foreign policy interests.  Could it have been that Koizumi gave Tanaka the push to resolve a thorny conflict?


If the mark of good leadership is the ability to tolerate, and learn from, mistakes, what are we to make of leaders who hastily dismiss followers on the pretext of a specific mistake to achieve a potentially darker objective?

General Incompetence


Dismissing of followers for general incompetence is common.  It happens in corporations as much as in politics.  In forming her new government in 1983, Margaret Thatcher had to make some tough decisions:[2]


I also asked David Howell and Janet Young to leave the Cabinet.  David Howell’s shortcomings as an administrator had been exposed when he was at Energy and nothing I saw of his performance at Transport suggested to me that my judgement of him was wrong.  He had the detached critical faculty which is excellent in Opposition or in the Chairman of the Select Committee, but he lacked the mixture of creative political imagination and practical drive to be a first-class Cabinet minister.


Surely, even if a follower is incompetent, it behoves an outstanding leader to provide coaching and mentoring to facilitate personal change.  Only when these activities do not deliver the necessary impact does the leader have no choice but to effect dismissal.  Even then, the leader must share some responsibility for the failure.  This seems to be the view of Attila the Hun:[3]


If an incompetent chieftain is removed, seldom do we appoint his highest-ranking subordinate to his place.  For when a chieftain has failed, so likewise have his subordinate leaders.

Challenge to Authority


During the career of all leaders, there must be times when their followers challenge their authority.  Should the leader gloss over these challenges to demonstrate emotional maturity, or deal with them by tackling those mounting the challenge?  Tracy Edwards, Skipper of Maiden and the first woman to complete the Whitbread Round the World race in 1990, had to make some tough decisions:[4]


Very early on, Edwards sacked the second most important member of the crew, her first mate.  If the leader believes that anybody on the team has become a disruptive influence, action must be taken.  In his case, Edwards also sensed a direct challenge to her authority as leader.  That made the decision inevitable, but no less difficult.  Taking such decisions reinforces the leader’s credibility: shirking them is even more destructive than the difficult personality who caused the problem in the first place.


It is the responsibility of a leader to set priorities and the tone for how things should be done.  Good leaders also communicate these effectively to followers.  Most challenges to a leader arise from a lack of commitment to the stated vision or the agreed priorities.  Insofar as they upset the work of the team, these challenges need to be confronted and resolved.  When the leader is forced into a choice between a renegade member of the team and the cohesiveness of the team, it should be clear what needs to be done.

Not Fitting the Mould


Jack Welch of General Electric is one of the most celebrated business leaders of the last two decades.  During his career, he identified a large pool of outstanding leaders, paid detailed attention to their personal development, gave them a variety of assignments to gain experience, presented them with challenging goals to meet, and left them plenty of room to do the right things.


He is also said to have maintained a system of talent renewal within GE in which the lowest rated 10% of employees were given the chance to exit.  Jack had a very clear vision of what a successful leader and business looked like, and was insistent on eliminating both that would not make it.  For this he earned the appellation “Neutron Jack”.  Nevertheless, although Jack could not promise employment for life, he did make people “employable for life".


Eliminating followers who do not fit into a certain mould is inherently a dangerous thing.  What if the mould was faulty?  What if the mould did not change fast enough to keep pace with changes in the environment?


Lack of Trust


According to management guru Peter F. Drucker:[5]


Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says.  It is a belief in something very old-fashioned, called “integrity”.  A leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible.  Effective leadership – and again this is very old wisdom – is not based on being clever; it is based primarily on being consistent.


Conversely, the same can be said of followers.  For a team to achieve optimal performance above and beyond their individual capabilities, followers must be trusted that they subscribe to the larger goals of the team, and will do nothing to undermine its effectiveness.  When it becomes clear that this is not the case with some followers, a leader has no choice but to review whether it remains wise to rely on their support.


Value Differences


For a leader-follower relationship to flourish, it is important that there is some congruence of values.  In the final analysis, the collective values of leaders and followers constitute what may loosely be called “culture” in an organisation – “the way we do things around here”.  The values of leaders and followers, when they are compatible, are the basis from which acceptable behaviour springs.  When there is a major discrepancy between the values a leader holds sacrosanct and those of the followers, organisational  schizophrenia sets in.


Margaret Thatcher is famous for shaping, and insisting on, a clear set of values which she pursues with single-minded focus. When forming the new government in 1983, she was careful to choose only those who held similar values to hers:[6]


I began by dropping one would-be pilot, whose sense of direction had on several occasions proved faulty.  In following Peter Carrington with Francis Pym as Foreign Secretary I had exchanged an amusing Whig for a gloomy one.  Even the prospect of a landslide during the election made him utter dire warnings.  Francis and I disagreed on the direction of policy, in our approach to government and indeed about life in general.


Values are not skills.  While you may adopt and abandon them at different stages in life, you can hardly learn them.  Thus unless a leader makes an error of judgement in the choice of followers, as appears to be the case with Francis Pym, differences in values are sufficient grounds for a leader to consider parting ways with a follower.


How do leaders feel about axing followers?


When it becomes necessary to bring down the axe, how did eminent leaders feel?  An extreme and bizarre example is that of Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, the epitome of management by intimidation, and author of Mean Business.  He wreaked havoc at both Sunbeam and Scott.  He apparently took pleasure in inflicting pain on his followers, and left a trail of destruction in the state of the business and the psyche of his followers after massive layoffs in the name of increasing shareholder value. 


Fortunately, not all leaders are as heartless as Al Dunlap.  Margaret Thatcher describes her reshuffle of the Cabinet in 1985:[7]


I hated sacking ministers and I could not prevent myself thinking what it meant to them and their families, suddenly losing salary, car and prestige.  I used to like to feel that they would have the long summer recess in office before coming in September to learn the bad news.  The trouble was that the press would then spend the whole of that period speculating on who was to stay and who would go.  So I eventually agreed to reshuffles at the end of July; but not yet.


Margaret Thatcher’s soul mate Ronald Reagan apparently found it even more difficult to give his followers the boot:[8]


Only Ronald Reagan knows whether he would really like Don Regan to leave the White House.  But even if the President would, he is, as a former assistant notes, “incapable of firing anyone.”  At least face to face.  Though Reagan had little trouble sacking 11,500 air-traffic controllers in 1981, he is known to have directly dismissed only a few top aides in his entire political career.  One was John Sears, his 1980 campaign manager.  Reagan summoned Sears and two other advisers to a hotel room in New Hampshire and said, “Fellas, this isn’t going to work.”


To Fire or Not To Fire


Positions of leadership are vested with power, and a great deal of responsibility.  Among the powers leaders wield is that of giving followers the sack.  With the exception of a heartless few who are probably not good leaders anyway, the act of firing followers is unpleasant and agonising.  Although firing a follower is often justifiable on grounds of common good of the team, it always leaves open the question of whether the leader should also share some responsibility of the follower’s failure.  If a leader is to succeed as a change agent, it is inevitable that some firing needs to be done; but necessity does not make it a trait of outstanding leadership.  A truly outstanding leader takes charge of an impossible situation and turns it around, with the same followers who created it in the first place.

[1] Patricia Sellers, Fortune magazine, May 1, 1995

[2] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Year, 307

[3] Wess Roberts PhD, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, 109

[4] Will Carling & Robert Heller, The Way to Win, 174-175

[5] Peter F. Drucker, The Essential Drucker, 271

[6] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, 306

[7] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, 418

[8] Time magazine, March 2, 1987

© 2003 Alan Yu. All rights reserved.

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